A JET-LAGGED President Rodrigo Duterte returns today from his Middle East state visits to find his food security managers still quarreling over the multimillion-peso importation of rice buffer stocks before the onset of the typhoon season and the lean months.
The President will have to referee a showdown between Administrator Jason Aquino of the National Food Authority and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio B. Evasco Jr., who chairs the NFA Council overseeing rice importation.
Aquino wants Government-to-Government (G2G) importation while Evasco wants it done through private traders, but their dispute has spread beyond this issue.
In a three-page memo to NFAC members last March 8, Evasco accused Aquino – whom he called a “crook” – of a number of unsavory things, including his not attending NFA Council meetings, not signing import documents, and his going over the chair’s head straight to the President.
Evasco asked the President in effect to choose between him and Aquino. If Aquino is not ousted, he said, “I shall resign as the Council’s chairman for I could not be more disgusted by this crook’s extremely reprehensible acts that made a mockery of the (NFAC’s) authority.”
• Importation delay threatens rice supply
DURING the Holy Week, we asked a Cabinet official to fill us in on the power play in Malacañang and its possible impact on the country’s food security. Here is a portion of the long transcript:
Q: What’s the latest on the power play….?
A: There’s no power play. What you’re hearing is just the usual discussion on issues. Siempre there are clashes of opinion, but these will be resolved.
Q: Any development after the March 8 letter of Evasco where he offered to quit if Aquino is sustained?
A: What I heard is that a memo was sent to the Palace, but that Chiara Valdez gave it to Bong Go for the President to read. It seems Aquino went directly to the President and gave his own version.
Q: Is Aquino still NFA administrator? You think he’ll be retained?
A: Yes. Under the charter, it is the President who appoints. The President may have been presented a different set of facts by Aquino.
Q: Between Evasco and Aquino, who is closer to the President? In a showdown, who do you think will prevail?
A: Baka si Evasco. Aquino is supposedly close to Bong Go, but once Evasco explains everything, I don’t know what the President will do. He already fired Valdez, he upheld Aquino. The economic managers are expected to weigh in for Evasco, because he has the facts straight.
Q: Which is better between Government-to-Government and private-sector rice importation?
A: Opening up the market to the private sector is in the long run a better option. Besides, with the end of quantitative restrictions by June 30 this year, we really have to allow private imports, and forcing through with NFA restrictions and monopoly privileges will invite trade sanctions or retaliations from trading partners and WTO. We can delay the process by saying we need to repeal or amend certain domestic laws to be in sync with treaty obligations, but we can only stretch it so far. G2G is supposed to be for buffer stocking only, to ensure we will not run out of rice for calamities and as a protective mechanism if the private sector manipulates prices. The big questions are: Is the DA telling the truth about a bumper crop this summer? How much rice do we still have in NFA warehouses? If NFA buys up rice from farmers at this point, they can no longer buy enough, the private sector has beaten them to the draw, buying at P18-P20 per kilo of palay. NFA buys at P17, and the Administrator cannot adjust that without Council approval. Bangko Sentral and NEDA might rein in, because of inflationary effects. If NFA ups its buying price, the commercial market will have an excuse to increase retail prices, triggering a spike in rice prices, to the detriment of consumers.
Q: Can the NFA Administrator by himself authorize rice importation?
A: NFA Council can authorize, and the Administrator should implement policies set by the Council. What Aquino did was to go over the Council and bring the case directly to the President. How can he and the Council now live with each other?
Q: Can the NFA Council authorize rice importation without approval of the NFA Administrator?
A: Yes. Or the President can. Under the rules, OP is the last word, and that is the reason why two offices under OP are in the council, the Executive Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary, who, as officer supervising NFA by virtue of PRRD’s EO 1, is the chair. That must have been the reason why Evasco and/or Valdez sent the matter to PRRD. But, if Valdez is right, the Council, or Evasco, was beaten to the draw by Aquino who must have given his “own” facts.
Q: Is it too late now to rush rice importation? How much rice do we still have to import?
A: It’s not too late. But with the stand-off between NFAC and Aquino, it will be recriminatory. Magi-ipitan. Still, the Palace has to make a decision soonest. If they delay needed imports further, deliveries could be caught up in the typhoon season, which is two months away. By June 30, NFA must have 30 days’ inventory, which is around 900,000 metric tons or 18 million bags. I don’t know how much they have now. As for prices, this gulo is making the world market both amused and happy. They can slowly increase their prices.