Onion farmers smell stench of smugglers
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - March 10, 2014 - 12:00am

Onion growers are crying for swift government intervention. The crop price has dropped by as much as 60 percent in only one week. It’s harvest season, but the growers can’t sell their produce. Warehouses are bursting in the seams, piled high with hundreds of thousand sacks of smuggled onions.

Price monitoring by the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) confirms the growers’ crisis. Farm gate rate of white onion has dropped from P25 a kilo to less than P10, and red onion from P40 to P18. Thousands of farmers in Nueva Ecija, Pangasinan, and the Ilocos region are worst hit.

Consumers are happy, but it can’t be for long. Prices will rise again after the smugglers buy up and hoard the cheap domestic onion, and the disheartened farmers switch to other crops.

“We’ve only started to harvest, yet the bodegas already are full,” notes Berting Dimalanta, an onion planter in Bayambang, Pangasinan, and one of Sinag’s founders. “With hardly any buyers, we are forced to sell at loss.”

Close to 400,000 bags, or 8.8 million kilos of white onion were sneaked into the country last September to December, Sinag says. Most reportedly came from New Zealand and The Netherlands.

This is not the first time that onion farmers have been hurt by smuggling right during harvest time. In the late 1990s the Philippines became China’s dumping ground. The newborn domestic onion industry nearly collapsed, as Nueva Ecija farmers quit the crop en masse. The industry is only now reviving, but smuggling will kick it back down.

The modus operandi is the same then and now, sources reveal. Smugglers get past bribed Customs men, with contraband unexamined by food safety inspectors. High in chemical fertilizer and pesticide, the smuggled stuff is risky for consumers, Sinag warns.

“What will farmers do with their surplus harvest of onion?” wonders Rosendo So, Sinag chairman and former sectoral congressman. “What happened to those court cases filed by the Customs before against onion smugglers?”

Best to have a Senate inquiry on the matter, like in rice smuggling, Dimalanta adds, for it’s the only thing that prods the authorities to act.

By Sinag’s calculations, the smuggled onion is a fifth of the annual domestic produce of 44,000 metric tons, or 44 million kilos.

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Ex-Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella says he’s being blamed for his bitter political rival L-Ray Villafuerte’s legal woes. That’s why the latter, a former governor of Camarines Sur, keeps raking up in public raps that he can’t prove in court.

So reacts Fuentebella to an item about them in last Friday’s Gotcha. Villafuerte had filed a supplemental complaint to an earlier plunder case against Fuentebella, and his politician-wife and sons.

It’s Villafuerte who should be preparing for court defense instead of looking for scapegoats, Fuentebella says. The Sandiganbayan ordered Villafuerte’s arrest last month for three counts of non-bailable plunder. Fuentebella says he had no hand in the order, as it stemmed from the Ombudsman’s indicting of Villafuerte on the strength of evidence.

Villafuerte had lost in the May 2013 congressional race in his district, while Fuentebella won in the adjacent “Partido district.”

The case against Villafuerte concerns, among others, P22 million in ghost purchase of fuel by the provincial capitol during his governorship,. Other materials worth tens of millions more allegedly were procured without public bidding. Camarines constituents had filed the raps.

The charge against the Fuentebellas was by Villafuerte no less. It concerns the diversion of P80 million in pork barrel and public works funds into a family resort in 2011. Fuentebella at the time was congressman, the wife and a son were mayors of adjoining towns, and another son the head of the state-owned Partido Development Authority.

Fuentebella’s creation as Speaker, the PDA is unique as a national government corporation that exists solely for one congressional district, the Fuentebellas’. Villafuerte says it is the source of corruption for the family that has been in political power for a century in the poor district.

Fuentebella says the PDA’s mission is to improve health, energy, water, education, agriculture, livelihood, and infrastructures. Its most significant work is the construction of a district-wide modern potable water system. Funded by an interest-free Danish government loan, the waterworks serve 16,800 households in the Partido area. Before that, Fuentebella says, only 3,300 homes had water connection.

Three Camarines local officials are seeking the PDA’s inclusion among a dozen government corporations to be abolished for complicity in the P10-billion pork barrel scam. Last year a House bill proposed to decommission the PDA and 34 more “non-performing” firms. Political horse-trading supposedly has since halved the number, and the PDA no longer is in the list.

A lawyer of Fuentebella counters: “The PDA is such a success that so many lawmakers have tried to replicate it for their locales. They have tried to enact a district planning and development agency, yet many find themselves still trying.”

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website http://www.philstar.com/author/Jarius%20Bondoc/GOTCHA

E-mail: jariusbondoc@gmail.com


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