Gut issues
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 12, 2018 - 12:00am

A supermarket near my home is popular for its fresh seafood selection; the owner also operates a commercial fishing business.

Last Saturday the supermarket was selling galunggong (round scad), the so-called poor man’s fish, at P250 per kilo, close to the price of milkfish or bangus. Just over a week ago a small-scale fisherman had told me that “GG” was being retailed at P140 a kilo – but that was in the wet markets of Quezon.

From the supermarket checkout counter, I proceeded as usual to the kiosk selling Chinese-style vegetable lumpia. The price had jumped from P85 for the special to P105. Dismayed by the sudden price surge, I decided against buying. I asked the saleslady why the increase was so hefty. She said vegetable prices were steep.

And yes, the price of bird’s eye chili or siling labuyo was a dizzying P1,000 per kilo, whether at the supermarket or the sidewalk stall of my suki vegetable hawker.

To put this in context, a kilo of siling labuyo is one large mass of chili – many piles or tumpok sold in the wet markets. Still, P1,000 is too much for something that grows as easily as a weed in gardens. Has there been an infestation of birds? They love eating chili (and culinary herbs such as basil).

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At least the prices of some seasonal fruits have gone down considerably. Rambutan is down to P60 per kilo in the wet markets, about half the peak-season prices last year. Either there’s a glut, or else the logistics cost has gone down. Fruit vendors told me their rambutan now comes from nearby Batangas and Laguna instead of Mindanao and the Visayas. The Luzon rambutan is just as sweet.

Luzon has also started producing mangosteen, which could account for this year’s much lower prices compared to previous years. At off-season prices of up to P420 a kilo in previous years, mangosteen has long been considered a luxury food item. But today even the large supermarket chains are selling mangosteen at P140 to P160 a kilo; in the wet markets, the fruit retails for about P100 to P120 a kilo depending on the size and freshness.

Six to eight pieces of mangosteen for P120, however, is still a luxury for millions of Filipinos. Their concerns center on the prices of the food items that make them feel full and energized for the day’s toils, at affordable prices: rice, vegetables, galunggong.

Many can’t eat without fish sauce or vinegar, and many like their patis and suka laced with siling labuyo. Without ulam or viand to go with the rice, spicy-hot patis will do. This is why P1,000 per kilo of bird’s eye chili is felt keenly by the very poor.

Ordinary folks may be fascinated by the Duterte administration’s obsession with opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, and may wonder whether the days of destabilization and coup attempts are really back. But they can’t be diverted too far from the gut issues that are their principal concerns: soaring prices of basic goods and shrinking purchasing power.

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This is the suspicion of certain quarters – that the effort to create a destabilization scenario, with Trillanes at the center, is meant to divert public attention from the nine-year-high inflation rate, long rice lines, the worst-performing currency in Southeast Asia and the decelerating economy.

Is the administration capable of this sort of scheming? Maybe the explanation is simpler: the administration just doesn’t like Trillanes. The guy is unbowed; after going after President Duterte’s son Paolo and son-in-law Manases Carpio, Trillanes has launched a probe of Jose Calida and the solicitor general’s family, with the President’s confidante and anak-anakan Christopher “Bong” Go up next.

Go has come out swinging, daring the “coward” Trillanes to leave the safety of the Senate and go home.

People are monitoring this unfolding drama, and wondering if there is basis for the other speculation, that all the talk about destabilization and an oust-Duterte plot is meant to lay the groundwork for the declaration of martial law nationwide.

Duterte’s modified address to the nation yesterday – incidentally the birth anniversary of dictator Ferdinand Marcos – dispelled the martial law fears.

Trillanes has his following and is becoming a rallying point for anti-Duterte forces. But circumstances have not approached the tipping point against the administration. And the buzz in legal circles is that Duterte will likely get what he wants from the courts: Trillanes will lose his amnesty and return to jail.

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Yesterday, in the nationally televised interview described by Malacañang as a “tete-a-tete” with Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, President Duterte challenged any military supporters of Trillanes to stage a mutiny. Duterte knows it won’t happen.

In the same interview of sorts, Duterte also announced he was letting go of the administrator of the National Food Authority, and urging Congress to abolish the NFA Council.

Whether this will improve rice supply and pricing remains to be seen. I don’t think the price of my usual variety of commercial rice at my suki dealer is reverting anytime soon to its level last month, which was P500 cheaper for 50 kilos.

People who are unimpressed with Trillanes are nevertheless concerned about the impact of the political turbulence on economic matters such as the peso and stock market, and consequently on consumer prices.

Will his detention and voiding of his amnesty bring down the prices of rice, GG and my vegetable lumpia? Chances are that the political instability will drive consumer prices even higher.

Everything returns to the gut issues.

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