Duterte won't fire Piñol, NFA's Aquino over rice crisis

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte said he will not fire Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, National Food Authority Administrator Jason Aquino, and other NFA officials over the rice crisis that has led to a surge in prices of the staple.

Instead of firing his people, Duterte said there should be strict implementation of laws to address the rice problem.

"You know, all officials, including me, are bound by laws on the matter – rice, whatever it is. There are laws to be followed. Maybe the laws are weak or are unenforceable. All we have to do is to improve on those laws, not necessarily fire people," Duterte said on Sunday, September 2, ahead of his flight to Israel for an official visit.

Duterte also said he sees no "serious offense" committed amid the issues involving the country's staple food. Aside from high prices, some rice imports were found to be infested with weevils or bukbok. (READ: EXPLAINER: What is bukbok?)

However, while the question was about Piñol, Duterte mistakenly referred to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III in his answer.

"Hintayin na lang ninyo (Just wait), because October I think, Bello is going to run for senator, there's no need to fire him. Let's just wait [for] September, October. And I don't see any serious offense there. We have not really lost anything except that there's an aberration in the market," the President said.

Lawmakers, however, see it differently, as they have called on Piñol and Aquino to resign. The Senate and the House of Representatives are also set to conduct separate probes into the rice crisis. (READ: Challenge accepted: Piñol eats bukbok rice, galunggong)

No to legalization of smuggled rice

Duterte, however, opposes Piñol's proposal to legalize the entry of smuggled rice to solve the high rice prices in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

"No, the smuggling itself, of course not. That will be destructive to the economy. You'll put down the market in turmoil. Smuggled rice...that would promote disorder in this country," the President said.

Instead, Duterte said the government can import rice and sell it at a price that would not yield profit.

"Maybe we can import and lose. Import natin, ipagbili natin at a price na malulugi tayo (Let's import and sell it at a price that won't let us earn).... We'll peg at a price that the Filipino can afford.... At least meron tayong benchmark kung magkano, kung maubos ang pera natin (At least we'll have a benchmark of how much, if we lose our money)," he said.

Zamboanga City and Basilan earlier declared a state of calamity due to rice woes. Rice prices in these two areas reached as high as P70 per kilo. Piñol also said a kilo of rice in some areas in Tawi-Tawi reached as high as P100 after Eid'l Fitr. (READ: Taming rice prices: What lawmakers, experts say– Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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