Let’s have ‘Boy Bawang’ back into action!

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - July 9, 2014 - 12:00am

Where is “Boy Bawang” to protect us from unwarranted spike in the price of this basic ingredient in our typical Filipino viands? This is not to cast aspersion to Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas II who earned this fond moniker when he was still a senator. 

Roxas delivered in June, 2009 a privilege speech on the floor of the Senate during the 14th Congress to denounce purported attempts of the previous Malacañang occupant to ram through Charter change via Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass). He came to the session hall wearing a necklace made of garlic, a spice locally called “bawang,” over his neatly pressed barong Tagalog.

Our local folklore associate garlic with its pungent odor that could ward off “aswang,” a creature who preys on the living. Roxas is fully aware of this folklore because he hails from Antique where such tales of “aswang” supposedly originate. “This is to drive away the aswang called Constituent Assembly or Con-Asswang,” Roxas fulminated while wearing the garlic necklace around his neck.

In that privilege speech, Roxas called the approval of Con-Ass being pushed by the allies of ex-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the House of Representatives as “kaas-wangan” (the height of being an aswang) because it would purportedly exclude the senators like him who were all opposed to it.

When he made that privilege speech using garlic for his populist stunt, Roxas was considered the shoo-in presidential standard-bearer of the Liberal Party (LP) in May, 2010. But as fate would have it the late President Corazon Aquino passed away on August 1 and it changed the course of Mar’s destiny. Roxas had to give way to his LP partymate, then Sen. Benigno “Noy” Aquino III while he slid to become his vice presidential running mate. The only son of Mrs. Aquino reaped public sympathy that catapulted him to the presidency. Alas, however, Roxas was beaten by now Vice President Jejomar Binay. Well, that’s history.

Memories of “Boy Bawang” flooded back to me as prices of garlic continue hitting way beyond reasonable levels. The last time I did my grocery over the weekend, half a kilo of garlic was priced P132 when supposedly the Department of Agriculture (DA) has been flooding the markets in Metro Manila with local garlic produce from the provinces of Mindoro and Ilocos.

When the Senate conducted last week a public hearing on this strange phenomenon, they found out traders have manipulated the prices of garlic in the market that resulted in the sudden increase of garlic to as much as P280 to P350 per kilo in the past few weeks.

The Senate committee on agriculture and food chaired by Sen. Cynthia Villar blamed the manipulation by unscrupulous traders for the soaring garlic prices. “There is really manipulation because the cost of garlic at production cost is P40 per kilo while imported garlic is pegged at P17 per kilo with duty. How can P17 and P40 per kilo go up to P280 per kilo?” Villar rhetorically asked.

After the Senate hearing later that day, I bumped into Villar at the reception of the American Independence Day anniversary at the US Embassy. The senator was still fuming over the seeming inutility of government officials to address this problem that deeply cuts into Filipino food budget, especially for low-income families.

Villar slammed the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) for failure to provide consumer protection for such basic agricultural produce like garlic. The concerned agencies, she bewailed, failed to fully implement the Price Control Act.

Much to her chagrin, Villar learned that the Philippines produce only eight percent of the garlic supply in the market and the rest are imported. A shrewd businesswoman, Villar cited garlic production cost is too low relative to price but it is profitable for farmers to go into garlic growing because it always has market demand.

Local garlic production is put at 10,390 metric tons while imports, mostly from Taiwan and China, are placed at 28,690 MT from 2013 to 2014. Monthly demand is placed at 11,919 MT. During the Senate hearing, it was established that traders earn as much as 900 percent on sales of imported garlic since the landed cost of garlic from China costs only P17 per kilo, including duties. Villar urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to look into the culpability of traders for such over-pricing of garlic, local or imported. 

Obviously not into cooking, Villar expressed surprise garlic is a basic staple in sautéed Filipino food, that there is this constant demand for it. She has household helpers use garlic for cooking food for them at their home, while she is busy with her life and duties as a senator, not to mention running their highly profitable real estate business with husband, former Senator Villar.

Despite this high-profile Senate investigation, there seems to be no immediate relief to high prices of garlic.

We could only wish “Boy Bawang” to jump into action and do something more dramatic than wearing garlic necklace for cheap stunts.

But lo and behold! Roxas has taken a new “masa” look when he resurfaced in media last Sunday carrying a sack of rice over his shoulder. Photographers gave him a new moniker as “Boy Kargador” (porter). The DILG Secretary got the new job title when he joined the raiding team of the Philippine National Police (PNP)-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) when they swooped down on a suspected rice hoarder in a warehouse in Malolos, Bulacan.

Obviously playing to the media photo opportunity, Roxas pulled out a sack of rice and carried it on his shoulder. “Hindi na siya Mr. Palengke, Mister Kargador na,” one of the photographers quipped in jest. He was called “Mr. Palengke” when he used to lead the inspection of goods and prices in the wet and dry markets as DTI Secretary during the Arroyo administration. 

 Now bruited to finally become the LP presidential standard bearer in the coming May 2016 elections, “Boy Bawang” tag could perhaps do the trick for Roxas to endear himself to the people if he puts an end to this garlic overpricing scourge wherever its odor leads him.


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