MANILA – Sen. Cynthia Villar on Thursday came down hard on an agriculture official for granting rice importation permits during harvest season, further reducing the income of struggling smallholder farmers.
Visibly furious, the lawmaker, in a Senate agriculture committee hearing, warned Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) director George Culaste to shape up because the way things were going, he doesn’t deserve his job.
“Mali ang strategy mo. Dapat magpaturo ka kay [Agriculture] Secretary [William] Dar. Tamain mo ‘yang strategy mo. ‘Wag kang ganiyan,” she said.
(Your strategy is wrong. You should let Secretary Dar teach you. You should correct your strategy. Don’t be like that.)
BPI, an attached agency of the Department of Agriculture (DA), is tasked to oversee the rice importation in the country under the liberalized rice trade regime.
The agency issues the sanitary and phytosanitary import clearance (SPSIC), which is required among rice traders before they can proceed with importation.
Villar was miffed when Culaste said he couldn’t control the issuance of permits.
“During harvest season [in] March and September, we manage the issuance of SPSIC for rice imports. We control it because we can’t really stop the issuance,” he told senators.
This only led Villar to further take Culaste to task and at one point questioned the latter's credentials. The BPI chief was a former barangay chairman before appointed as assistant director of DA-Davao Region.
“No, you can stop the issuance if you want to. Who will question you if you stop your issuance? You know, negosyante ako. Walang negosyante na nagkukuwestiyon sa gobyerno ‘pag hindi sila nagi-issue. ‘Wag mo sabihin sa’kin ‘yan,” she said.
(You know, I’m a businesswoman. No one questions the government if they are not given [a permit]. Don’t tell me that.)
Villar added, “You can always invoke during certain times of the year you will not issue [an] import permit. That's your power. And if you can't exercise that power, you don't deserve to head BPI.”
As a village chief before, Culaste must know the plight of rice farmers who are now asking for help amid dropping palay prices, the senator said.
“Ba’t mo ngayon pinahihirapan sila? Hindi ba tayo ‘pag tayo naging public officials tayo sa lugar natin, alam natin ‘yung kahirapan ng ating mga kababayan, especially the farmers,” she said.
(Why are you making them suffer? When we become public officials in our places, we know the suffering of our constituents, especially the farmers.)
Villar added, “The worst you can ever do to them is to approve the importation of rice during their harvest season.”
The senator, who chairs the Senate committee on agriculture, food and agrarian reform, was conducting a hearing amid allegations that unscrupulous traders were using farmer cooperatives and irrigators associations to import rice and take advantage of tax exemption privileges.
In her presentation, Villar said the farmer cooperatives imported 1 million metric tons of rice in 2019.
In 2020, farmer cooperatives have so far imported 632,000 metric tons of rice, raising questions on such a large amount of importation when they are only allowed to ship in for their members.
During the hearing, Agriculture Undersecretary Rodolfo Vicerra said they were drafting an order to ban farmer cooperatives and irrigators from importing rice to avoid becoming dummy organizations.
“We are now preparing an administrative order to remove from illegible rice importers ‘yung cooperatives and irrigators association,” he said.
This will also include banning rice importation during harvest season in February, March, April, July, August, September and October, in an effort to support local farmers.
According to BPI data as of October 2020, there are 507 importers and 156 cooperatives registered in the country.