Duque, banana men bring tiff to Arroyo

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc -

BIR chief Joel Tan-Torres wrote: “This refers to your columns on the delay in BIR processing to transfer the property of Eufemia P. Almeda, and the Sicpa case (Gotcha, 20 and 24 Nov. 2009). Rather than discussing the BIR position on both issues, I assure you and your readers that we are seriously looking into these. We do not tolerate irregularities of field personnel, like in transactions for transfer of real property. Also, there is a BIR committee headed by deputy commissioner Lilia Guillermo to evaluate and make recommendations on the Sicpa proposal.”

Tan-Torres is new, just a month, in the post, so may be unfamiliar with BIR goings-on. After reporting the squeeze play of Makati revenue officer Florante de Castro and register of deeds Dorylene Yara on 90-year-old widow Eufemia, I received more information on the racket. At least three other Makati taxpayer-readers went through Eufemia’s situation. They were given the runaround for months, told piecemeal of documentary requirements to transfer property. In the end they paid millions of pesos in bribe. Readers from Ilocos, Bicol and Metro Manila recounted similar collusion of the BIR and the register of deeds to force them to pay up.

If Tan-Torres casts a wider net, he’d find out that Yara’s husband is with the BIR too, a supervisor of the special investigation division. That can explain why it’s a tough case to crack. But there’s recourse: a lifestyle check on travels, cars, and condos.

As for Sicpa, Tan-Torres’s deputy Guillermo apparently has made up her mind to endorse the questionable deal. In 2007 the Swiss firm offered $266 million for a system to embed radio frequency identification (RFID) in cigarette cartons and curb tax evasion. Today that offer has risen 50 percent to $394 million. The reason, Guillermo told congressmen, is — don’t laugh — inflation. Yup, for not contracting Sicpa in 2007, slowpoke BIR will now have to absorb the steep 50-percent rise in cost of goods in two years. Not to forget, Sicpa boss Maurice Amon made a deal-making courtesy call on President Arroyo in London last Sept.

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Last month Health Sec. Francisco Duque urged President Arroyo to issue an executive order banning aerial spraying of fungicides. Four causes were cited in his memo:

• A 2003 study showed health ruin by spray drift in Sitio Camocaan, Davao del Sur. A later DOH-paid research there and in a banana plantation found 82 percent of respondents exposed to drift 10-12 times a year, with 52 percent having skin, blood and digestive ailments.

• The World Health Organization reviewed and affirmed the studies in a personal letter to him.

• Since some countries ban aerial discharge of pesticides, RP must do the same with fungicides. A precautionary ban can come first under the Rio Declaration that lets states pre-empt potential health hazards. Thence, the banana industry must prove itself clean.

• An inter-agency consultation with stakeholders has drawn up mitigation measures.

What is Duque talking about, banana growers asked in their own letter to Arroyo a month later? They proceeded to debunk the health chief’s claims.

Camocaan is a small village in one barangay in one of eight provinces that plant 600,000 hectares to the export fruit. Three-and-a-half years since the DOH study was made, residents reportedly are still asking who among them were found to be sick and of what. Not one of them has been referred to the municipal or provincial health officers under Duque.

There’s a clear gap, and it becomes wider in the purported WHO letter to Duque. The banana growers have long been asking him to release the international body’s report. But all the secretary has done is to say that the WHO, same with the UP College of Medicine, had affirmed the earlier researches. News leaks have been contrary, though. WHO and UP peer reviewers reportedly found the studies lacking, slapdash and inconclusive. Obviously, only full public disclosure will show the truth.

The banana men treated the Rio Declaration as just a pronouncement, not a treaty. Even if it were a pact, they said, singling out their industry for preventive ban is discriminatory. “It’s like banning motor vehicles or use of gasoline as precaution against carbon monoxide, or a thousand prescription medicines on grounds of possible side effects,” they cited parallel health issues. One plantation manager earlier made an example of unregulated spraying by grain farmers of chemical pesticides. The US National Research Council once warned that only one in ten pesticides in common use have been assessed for health hazards. Banning pesticide use would of course drive 13 million rice and corn farmers to the poorhouse.

Unlike anti-aerial spraying NGOs, the banana men complain that they were never consulted as stakeholders. Two Manila Catholic bishops were present in a Palace meeting last month, but not the one from Davao who cries that his signature was forged in an anti-spraying manifesto. The banana industry association has 36 members: three are big plantations and one is an exporters’ federation; the rest are unions of 30,000 agrarian reform beneficiaries. Owning one or two hectares each, they will go out of business when forced by health authorities to hire one manual sprayer per hectare of farm-cooperatives. Land reform succeeded in the Davao region because of the banana option. It will soon collapse, they warned Arroyo.

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“God’s gifts are so plenty that a thousand years of life will never suffice to wrap them. But we fall in love with the wrappers and forget to look at the gifts inside.” Shafts of Light, Fr. Guido Arguelles, SJ

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E-mail: jariusbondoc@workmail.com


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