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Palace investigating unauthorized plan to import 300,000 MT of sugar

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Palace investigating unauthorized plan to import 300,000 MT of sugar
A spoon of sugar.
Image by designfoto from Pixabay

MANILA, Philippines — The issuance of an "illegal" order allowing the importation of an additional 300,000 metric tons of sugar is now being investigated and heads may roll if it was done with malice or negligence, Malacañang said Thursday.

Sugar Order No. 4, which called for the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar, was uploaded on the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) website last Wednesday but Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles clarified on the same day that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had approved such a plan.

The document was signed for Marcos by Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian. The president is the chairman of the SRA board and the temporary head of the agriculture department.

"This resolution is illegal. The chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Board is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As such chairman, he sets the date of any meetings or convening of the Sugar Regulatory Board and its agenda. No such meeting was authorized by the president or such a resolution likewise, was not authorized," Cruz-Angeles said at a press briefing.

"An investigation is ongoing to determine whether any act that would cause the president to lose trust and confidence in his officials can be found, or if there is malice or negligence involved. In such a case, if such findings are made, then the only determination left will be how many heads are going to roll," she added.

Cruz-Angeles said importations, particularly those related to agriculture are a "sensitive matter" and require a careful study.

"Sugar is one such importation which we take great care with. It is a balancing act. The importation has to be carefully studied to protect both the consumer against the rising prices of basic commodities while ensuring at the same time, that we do not destroy the local industry," she added.  

Unauthorized

Cruz-Angeles said Sebastian was not authorized to sign the resolution because the president did not allow the sugar importation. All signatories of the document are under investigation, she added.  

"Hihintayin po natin today if a determination can be made na maisyuhan sila ng preventive suspension order habang tumutuloy iyong imbestigasyon (We will wait today if a determination can be made and if they can be issued a preventive suspension order while the investigation is ongoing)," the press secretary said.

"Pero kung mabilis lang iyong imbestigasyon, makakakita tayo ng mga replacements very soon (But if the investigation is swift, we would see replacements very soon)," she added.

Other signatories of the sugar order were SRA administrator and SRA board vice chairperson Hermenegildo Serafica, board member and millers' representative Roland Beltran, and acting board member and planters' representative Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr. No preventive suspension has been issued as of Thursday.

"The only response to the query on whether or not an importation was to be made, the President did not assent and it was the executive secretary who issued the order to create an importation plan. It was therefore clear that there is no authorization for the importation of these 300,000 metric tons," Cruz-Angeles said.

Cruz-Angeles said Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez's order to create an importation plan is different from Sugar Order No. 4. She said the order was verbally issued  "so that the President can make a determination later on, whether or not the importation is actually warranted."

Asked if it was a possible case of miscommunication, Cruz-Angeles replied: "No. You don’t convene the Sugar Regulatory Board in the absence of the President and in the absence of any such approval on his part."

"He (Marcos) did not approve the convening. You can only convene the board with the assent, explicit assent of the President; and he did not make such an agreement," she added.

Photos posted on the Office of the President's Facebook page showed that Sebastian was present during Marcos' meeting with trade officials last Wednesday. The meeting focused on measures that will ensure farmers' access to affordable fertilizers.

"Yes, in fact, there was an opportunity for him (Sebastian) to answer all, be it informally. So, with an investigation, he has to formally answer," Cruz-Angeles said.

Pressed if there was a possibility that the sugar order was tackled, she said: "Yes, but primarily it was with the executive secretary. So, like what we said, the president was unaware of it. In fact, it was uploaded without us knowing it."

Higher prices

In allowing the importation of additional sugar, the order stated that as of July 31, the actual production of raw sugar is 1,792,102 metric tons and actual production of refined sugar is 737,254, lower by 16.18% and 2.84% respectively from last year. Raw sugar production was projected at 1.800 metric tons for crop year 2021-2022, lower by 16% from production last season of 2,143,018 metric tons, the order added.

"Sugar retailers and businesses producing sugar containing products have complained to the Department of Agriculture, Sugar Regulatory Administration and even to media on the unavailability of sugar in the market," the order read.

According to the order, prevailing wholesale prices of sugar as of July 31 have gone up to P3,250 per LKg for raw and P4,400 per LKg for refined, with prevailing retail prices in public wet markets of P90 per kilogram for raw and P90 per kilogram for refined, both much higher than their respective suggested retail prices. The higher prices were caused in part by the tightening supply, it said.

The order was meant to "specifically address the current sugar supply situation and its increasing prices."

Cruz-Angeles said importation calls require a balancing act because of the approaching harvest season.

"Will such importation affect the harvest and the prices of our local growers? In the absence of such a determination, the resolution should not have been issued with such haste as it appears to have been made," the press secretary said.

"Now, we just imported last May. Now, we have to determine if an importation, supposedly to address the critical levels that are approaching at the end of the month, will affect the harvest season which opens in September. So again, a study is necessarily called for." 

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