MANILA, Philippines – Reiterating that those hurt by his efforts to stop rice smuggling were behind a smear campaign against him, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala admitted these people include fellow government workers, even within his department.
"You won't take me seriously if I say this only involves the private sector. How can they do this without connections in the government? We have speculations. We are checking if there are people in the government we are stepping on," he told Rappler in an interview.
At the Department of Agriculture (DA) alone, he said, around 200 administrative complaints have been filed against employees suspected of aiding rice smugglers.
The DA and National Food Authority (NFA) also aggressively coordinate with the Bureau of Customs (BOC) by monitoring the actual arrivals of imported rice and alerting them of the departure of suspected illegally imported rice from the source country, he said.
"That's why many rice smugglers have been unmasked. We are really pushing for cases to be filed against the arrested smugglers," said Alcala.
This is why Alcala isn't bothered by allegations that he has benefitted from rice smuggling operations. If he was helping rice smugglers, he said, why would he be gunning for lower volume of rice imports and for the Philippines to attain 100% self-sufficiency?
"Kung ako po’y smuggler o ako po’y ka-connive ng smuggler, do you think tama ba ang aksyon ko na pababain yung importation? From 2.4 million metric tons (MT), ginawa kong 1.5 million MT 'yung importation. Nung 2010 hanggang 2013, makikita po natin bumaba nang bumaba y'ung importation," he told Rappler during an exclusive interview.
(If I was a smuggler or conniving with smuggers, do you think it would be right for me to lower importation? From 2.4 million MT, I made it 1.5 million MT. From 2010 to 2013, we can see that importation decreased.)
In the 3 years that he has been secretary, the government paid only P22.06 billion to import rice, according to records from the Department of Agriculture (DA). This is an eighth of the P176.18 billion that the government paid from 2008 to 2010 to import rice from Vietnam and Thailand.
Far from relying on rice importations to stabilize the supply of rice in the country, Alcala said the DA has been channeling more funds to help local farmers fill the gap. For the past 3 years, the agency spent P86.9 billion to boost rice and corn production – almost 4 times more than it spent on imports.
This is a far cry from the trend in past DA administrations which spent P292.5 billion on imports but allocated only a third of this amount – P105.6 billion – to support local production, according to numbers from the DA.
"I just want to remind everyone, in 3 years in importation alone, we saved not less than P147 billion. Instead of buying rice from our Vietnamese or Thailand neighbors, we did not import as much because Filipinos can harvest this. This is how much money we gave to our own farmers," Alcala told Rappler.
Increased spending to improve local production is part of the DA's target to achieve 100% rice self-sufficiency for the country. The country was on its way to meeting the target by December 2013 until typhoons Santi and Yolanda came along, causing billions of pesos worth of damage to the agriculture sector.
Despite these disasters, the DA says the country recorded in 2013 its highest rice production in history, 18.44 million MT, which translates to 96% self-sufficiency.
The country needs 21 million MT of rice a year. The balance is supplied by rice imports from Vietnam.
'Legalized' rice smuggling
But Alcala's critics do not see as rosy a picture.
While rice imports may be decreasing, the government retains the privilege of importing the rice the country still lacks, leading to a monopolistic arrangement open to misuse by DA officials.
Lawyer Argee Guevarra of the party-list group Sanlakas claims Alcala and former NFA Administrator Orlan Calayag have personal interest in maintaining a virtual government monopoly on rice importation.
It is the government making the bulk of rice importations. In 2013, private rice traders imported only 3% of total imports for that year, while NFA imports almost doubled from 120,000 MT in the previous year to 205,700 MT.
The DA allows rice importation within a minimum access volume of 350,000 MT a year. Of this, the NFA issues permits to private rice traders for the importation of 163,000 MT from Thailand, India, China, and Australia.
Meanwhile, the NFA imported 205,700 MT of rice from Southern Food Corporation, a company controlled by the Vietnam government through a government-to-government (G2G) scheme.
Guevarra alleges that Alcala and Calayag have earned kickbacks through this "monopolistic" G2G scheme.
In a plunder complaint filed with the Ombudsman in December 2013, Guevarra said NFA and Vietnam officials met in Singapore from April to May 2013 ostensibly to seal a deal that put millions of pesos in officials' pockets.
"At about this time, there was a looming rice crisis threatening Mindanao and other parts of the country…. Yet, even with rice supplies hitting critical levels, Alcala and Calayag made sure that they and only they could import rice with the usual public funds," said Guevarra.
Senator Ralph Recto has filed a bill proposing that rice importation be limited to the NFA. Bureau of Customs (BOC) officials say this would make their job easier. However, Recto admitted the NFA lacks resources for this arrangement and must still deal with corruption among its ranks.
The NFA also went above its own limit of importing only 187,000 MT by importing an additional 18,700 MT, thus totaling 205,700 MT without approval form the Department of Finance, said Guevarra.
But the NFA maintains that the additional amount was "authorized" under a More or Less at Supplier's Option (MOLSO) provision in their contract with Vietnam.
The kickback deal also allegedly involved the overpricing of the Vietnam rice by P2,200 ($50.75) per MT which, if multiplied by the 205,700 MT imports, would mean an overpricing of P457.2 million ($10.4 million).
Guevarra called this "a virtual 'pork,' the use of which is under the respondents' absolute power and discretion."
And how about alleged rice smuggling by private rice traders outside the G2G scheme?
Anakpawis representative Fernando Hicap believes Alcala and Calayag knew about these cases of rice smuggling all along but turned a blind eye.
"Heads must roll at the DA and NFA over rice smuggling. By the looks of it, rice smuggling happened with government consent," he said during a House inquiry by the committee on agriculture.
Rice smugglers behind smear campaign
Alcala accused Guevarra of being paid by rice smugglers and private rice traders to ruin his reputation because rice traders and rice smugglers stand to lose the most from the DA's reduction in rice importation and strengthening of local rice production.
He has also said that these smugglers are the ones spreading word that he was involved in the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam when he was congressman, although state auditors have indeed tagged him in a special report. President Benigno Aquino III has staunchly defended Alcala against this charge.
"Who am I hurting the most? Is it not the rice smugglers? These are moneyed people. They are losing billions from reductions in rice transactions," he told Rappler in Filipino.
A Senate hearing revealed how businessman Davidson Bangayan used farmers cooperatives as dummies to secure rice importation permits. During the hearing, arguments were made showing how Bangayan could be no other than the notorious rice smuggler David Tan.
Rice importer Starcraft International Trading Corporation was also caught by BOC for shipping rice to Davao City without an import permit.
Last February, Customs filed charges against San Carlos Multi-Purpose Cooperative for illegally importing P34 million worth of rice. In 2013, the agency filed 22 rice-related smuggling cases. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.