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Senate sets probe on agricultural smuggling

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Senate sets probe on agricultural smuggling
The convening of the committee, where all senators are members, was prompted by Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s privilege speech on Monday slamming the apparent inaction of government agencies, particularly the Bureau of Customs (BOC), in addressing the scourge.
STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate will convene the committee of the whole on Tuesday to start an inquiry into the large-scale smuggling of agricultural products into the country that senators warn has been inflicting severe damage to farmers’ and fishermen’s incomes and the economy.?

The convening of the committee, where all senators are members, was prompted by Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s privilege speech on Monday slamming the apparent inaction of government agencies, particularly the Bureau of Customs (BOC), in addressing the scourge.

Sotto told reporters that aside from BOC officials, also invited are executives from the Department of Justice as well as representatives from farmers’ groups and the trucking industry.

He said there is again a need for the chamber to exercise its oversight powers as large-scale agriculture smuggling continues with impunity despite the enactment of Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016 that categorized the crime as economic sabotage.

“As legislators, we strive to pass laws to modernize the agricultural sector in the hopes of uplifting the lives of our farmers… But all these efforts are futile if smuggling and corruption continue to reign, killing and destroying our local agriculture industry and robbing our farmers of a decent living,” Sotto said.

“This is a call for this august body to exercise its oversight function and look into these matters. It’s not only the pandemic that is the biggest problem, but also corruption. Some have said that ‘the biggest disease is corruption.’ This is the one that continues to bring hardship to us all,” he said in mixed Filipino and English.

He said BOC personnel proven to be conniving with smugglers should be held accountable under the law and sentenced to a lifetime in jail and ordered to pay a fine twice the fair value of their smuggled agricultural product and the aggregate taxes, duties and other charges avoided by the smuggler.

He said his office has been monitoring press releases issued by the BOC regarding its anti-smuggling operations from May to Nov. 18, 2021.

His office documented 25 operations amounting to approximately P1 billion where smuggled frozen meats, high value agricultural food, garlic, onions, sugar, frozen mackerel and tuna, carrots, ginger and other fruit and vegetable products were declared as pastry ingredients, glucose syrup, mantou buns or were misdeclared in terms of their true weight or quantity.

“If we are to base the efficacy of our fight against smuggling on the press releases of the BOC, it seems like we are on top of the issue. But the big problem is, it appears that this is just all PR,” Sotto said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan welcomed the move to investigate in aid of legislation the rampant smuggling of agricultural products in the country.

In his manifestation, the former food security secretary expressed his support to the call to probe large-scale smuggling of agricultural products and its intended “economic sabotage” to the country.

In September, Pangilinan filed Senate Resolution 922 which directed the Senate committee on agriculture and food to conduct an inquiry on the proliferation of smuggled Chinese vegetables in the country’s markets.

Pangilinan also challenged all government agencies to prevent increases in food prices and ensure that food supplies are stable, especially this Christmas season.

“I’m calling on government agencies to step up monitoring of prices of commodities and maintain their stable levels,” he said.

Pangilinan was able to bring down rice prices during his stint as food security secretary by a combination of proper law enforcement and an open, transparent and kickback-free importation.

Sen. Cynthia Villar, chair of the committee on agriculture and food, also backed the convening of the all-member panel.

Villar lamented that despite the passage of the law, no one has been charged with economic sabotage when it was common knowledge that billions of pesos of meats, vegetables and fruits are smuggled into the country every year.

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