MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte said he took away a Cabinet member's powers because he was "too short-sighted" on the issue of rice supply and was engaged in a "turf war" with other officials.
In his speech on Wednesday, June 13, Duterte did not name the official involved. But he was likely referring to Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr who was stripped of his role as National Food Authority (NFA) Council chairman last April.
Evasco had a protracted disagreement with NFA Administrator Jason Aquino on greenlighting the importation of rice from another government.
"We had a bit of a trouble here. I had to cut some powers of Cabinet members for just being too short-sighted or jumping into each other's territory, turf war," said Duterte.
A few months ago, consumers panicked due to the NFA's announcement of rice shortage in the country, causing rice prices to spike. Senators and the NFA Council led by Evasco blamed Aquino's press statements, saying they unduly caused panic since there was only shortage of NFA or government-bought rice. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno had even recently blamed NFA "incompetence" for the high rice prices.
Aquino, however, said the NFA rice shortage contributed to the commercial rice price increases.
Duterte on Wednesday said it was better "visually" if government warehouses were stuffed with rice.
"Ang sabi ko sa kanila, bakit hindi 'yan ipuno up to the ceiling? Ang ating kasing buffer stock was only good for 3 or 4 days. You must be crazy. It's always visual. 'Pag nakita ng tao 'yung bigas niya umaabot do'n sa ceiling, that's a very consoling sight for him," said Duterte.
(I told them, why not fill it up to the ceiling? Our buffer stock was only good for 3 or 4 days. You must be crazy. It's always visual. When a person sees rice up to the ceiling, that's a very consoling sight for him.)
Duterte said he would rather be forced to sell excess rice for lower prices than they were purchased than face a shortage.
'PH can't be rice self-sufficient'
The President appears poised to greenlight even more rice importation as he said on Wednesday that he does not think the Philippines can ever be rice self-sufficient, a goal of the Department of Agriculture ever since the previous administration.
"If you'd ask me in the next how many years, we will just have to import rice. I do not believe we can be rice-sufficient," he said.
This is contrary to his remarks in April 2017 when he fired Evasco's undersecretary Halmen Valdez for asking for the extension of rice importation permits.
Back then, he had thumbed down importation to protect local farmers.
"Sabi ko, 'Ano'ng mukha iharap ko sa farmers?' (I said, 'How can I face the farmers?') Why would we allow importation to compete with local products?" he had said.
As NFA Council chairman, Evasco championed private-led rice importation, arguing that this method was less prone to corruption and more cost-efficient for government. Private-led importation was also championed by Duterte's economic advisers, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia.
Aquino, meanwhile, wanted government-to-government importation, in which, through a loan, the Philippines would buy rice from other governments like those of Vietnam or Thailand. He argued that this is faster.
Senators have called on Duterte to fire Aquino over corruption allegations. When it was Evasco stripped of powers, senators said the move was a loss for Filipino consumers.
With Evasco out as NFA Council chairman, Duterte approved Aquino's plan to import 250,000 metric tons of rice from Vietnam and Thailand.
The Philippines has no choice but to import rice as local rice production is not enough to supply the demands of Filipino consumers. – 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.