Batanes out of rice; government to distribute smuggled rice

Jack Castaño - The Philippine Star
Batanes out of rice; government to distribute smuggled rice
The National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse here had less than 200 bags of rice left for distribution. At 100 bags consumption a day, the stocks may not last until weekend.
Edd Gumban

BASCO – The Ivatans, residents of the northernmost region in the country, are running out of rice and food supplies following the spate of bad weather in the area.

The National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse here had less than 200 bags of rice left for distribution. At 100 bags consumption a day, the stocks may not last until weekend.

The supply of commercial rice is dwindling faster than expected. Yesterday, commercial establishments engaged in grains distribution had only 500 bags in storage.

With the cheaper rice disappearing from government retail outlets, ordinary residents were forced to buy the more expensive commercial stocks.

While typhoons that passed near the islands may have contributed to the unusual grains situation, observers said the squabble among authorities in the national level might be the root cause of the shortage.  

“Had the National Food Council and NFA immediately authorized the importation of rice, we would not have suffered rice shortage,” a retailer said.

The  M/V Everwin Star II  that has been loaded with 3,000 bags of government rice three weeks ago cannot leave the Port of Manila because of big waves in the western seaboard of Luzon.

For the sixth time, it is scheduled to leave Manila later today, weather permitting.

NFA manager Philip Rumbaoa said the province was enjoying a surplus of rice stocks from February until June. The delay in deliveries caused by the spate of bad weather, however, forced them to limit the allocation of rice to retailers. 

While admitting there is still plenty of rice in the government warehouse, Rumbaoa said these are emergency stocks.

“We do not want to be caught flat-footed in case of any eventuality,” Rumbaoa said.  

Malacañang has given assurance the government is working to increase the supply of rice to address the rising price of the staple.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government would strictly monitor the distribution of NFA rice to ensure that they are sold in public markets to avoid a repeat of the supply issues, particularly in Mindanao.

Roque said the problem lies not in the quantity of rice being imported but the way the staple is distributed. 

The local government of Zamboanga City previously declared a state of calamity after rice prices went up to P50 to P70 per kilo because of lack of supply.

The agriculture department opened stores selling cheap rice to stabilize prices and to address the supply problem. 

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol has said the higher rice prices in Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were caused by rice smuggling.

The state of calamity declaration was lifted last week.

As concerns were raised about the availability of rice in some areas, reports about the infestation of weevils in more than 130,000 sacks of rice from Thailand surfaced, prompting some lawmakers to call for an investigation. 

The NFA has attributed the infestation to the delay in the unloading of the rice from ships in Subic Bay. 

Damage control measures

Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles said the NFA should act on rising rice prices and the shortage of NFA rice in the market.

He said he has just visited Cagayan de Oro City, where he found that there was a “large spike in the cost of rice because the NFA diverted part of the supply for Northern Mindanao to the Zamboanga area.”

Nograles quoted retailers as saying that the NFA has cut deliveries to them to 25 bags per week from 100 bags.

Nograles added that favored rice retailers are selling the allocation they receive from the rice agency at higher prices.

“The leadership of the NFA has to take responsibility and act on this soon. Either step up and take action – or step down,” he said.

During yesterday’s hearing of the House of Representatives’ committee on ways and means on rice smuggling, Quirino Rep. Dakila Cua, committee chairman, reiterated his proposal for smuggled rice to be distributed to typhoon and flood victims and poor families.

He asked Department of Finance (DOF) Undersecretary Karl Chua if Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III would allow it.

“The last time we met, I brought it up and he is OK with it. He has no objection. We have to look into how to do it,” he said.

Cua said the law allows the BOC to declare confiscated contraband as forfeited in favor of the government and then decide what to do with it.

In the case of smuggled rice, he said it could be given to the poor.

If it were auctioned – another option open to the BOC under the law – Cua said smuggled rice might find its way to the smuggler who could use dummies to offer winning bids.

Sen. Cynthia Villar said the government should consider imposing price controls for rice as a temporary measure to stabilize prices of the staple.

“I think that’s (price controls) the best way to make rice traders follow and discourage them from doing that (jacking up prices),” Villar said.

Piñol, for his part, is proposing to legalize rice smuggling operations to address the supply shortage in Zamboanga-Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (Zambasulta) area.

He said this is the most practical option right now to address the rice shortage.

“Instead of running after the smugglers, why don’t we establish a rice trading center in Tawi-Tawi where all rice coming from the outside would be brought to that center, be documented with minimal tariff to be imposed,” Piñol said.

While the proposal is subject to NFA Council approval, Piñol said this has been consulted with the local government units in Zambasulta.

“If we legalize it, it will no longer be smuggled, the moment you put it in the trading center and with the payment of the tariff,” Piñol said.  – With Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero, Louise Maureen Simeon

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