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Rice imports stir cabinet conflict

ANOTHER conflict in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet emerged on Saturday after a dismissed Malacañang executive claimed top agricultural officials are pretending there is a rice shortage to pave the way for a government-to-government importation that would be detrimental to Filipino farmers.

Dismissed undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary accused Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol and NFA Administrator Jason Aquino of simulating a rice shortage so they could push through with a government-to-government (G2G) importation deal.

“In their desperate attempt to convince the President to resort to G2G, the Agriculture Secretary, who has been meddling on the functions and affairs of the OCS, and the NFA administrator have made it appear as if there is a shortage of rice in the country, causing alarm and possible upward movement in the prices of commercial rice,” Valdez said in a statement. 

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol

Valdez, who was sacked by Duterte last Wednesday for overturning Aquino’s denial of rice importation through private channels, accused Piñol of meddling in the affairs of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, who chairs the National Food Authority Council. 

“The DA’s function is to ensure that there be sufficient agricultural produce from our local farmers, but he probably does not know the meaning of his position, and has been excessively busy tinkering in other offices,” she said, referring to Piñol. 

“It is not for them to evaluate the rice stock of the country. It is a function given by law to the NFAC and the National Food Security Committee,” added Valdez, who was first appointed by former President Benigno Aquino III. 

Valdez claimed she was just implementing a decision of the NFA Council when she overturned

Aquino’s decision not to allow the private importation of rice under the minimum access volume (MAV) scheme.

“Private-led importation, such as MAV, does not only spare the government from spending and incurring additional liabilities, but would even benefit therefrom since taxes and duties have already been deposited to the government coffers,” she said. 

The Manila Standard tried but failed to reach Piñol and verify whether there are ongoing talks on immediate G2G rice importation he earlier said in a Facebook post that private importations have been rejected in favor of G2G transactions for future rice importations. 

Piñol also suggested that there could be “monetary considerations” in connection with MAV importations. 

“This led to the circulation in the rice industry of rumors of monetary considerations as the reason behind the conflicting positions taken by Aquino and Valdez,” Piñol wrote. “The controversy did not sit well with the President who also told me that the rumors of the ‘P50 per bag’ consideration also reached him.” 

But Valdez insisted that Aquino was pushing for the G2G importation of one million metric tons of rice. 

“He who claims to be the ‘protector’ of our local farmers, has been insisting on a G2G undertaking to boost the NFA’s buffer-stock, instead of procuring palay from our local farmers, despite the fact that harvest season has already begun,” she said. 

“Why don’t you buy that palay from our farmers since the NFA has P4 billion for that?” she asked Aquino.

“The NFAC thinks that it is not yet the right time for a G2G. The issue on importation is all about timing,” she added.

In the same statement, Valdez also accused Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go of blocking their communications and appointments with Duterte. 

“All the decisions, resolutions, actions and memoranda of the NFAC and that of the OCS have been duly forwarded to the President. Yet, as a matter of protocol, all these documents and communications have to be coursed through the Office of the Special Assistant to the President [OSAP].”

“The NFAC members have also long been requesting for a dialogue with the President, again, through OSAP. This leads us wondering, how come Jason Aquino and Emmanuel Piñol, were able to get direct access to the President, when the CabSec [Evasco] has been trying to get through the President from the gatekeeper [OSAP], but to no avail?” she said.

She said that this request, “along with the documents submitted by the OCS, which were personally handed down by CabSec to the head of OSAP, have either failed to reach the President or have been tampered.”

During the Cabinet meeting last Monday, a source said Duterte questioned Evasco why agencies under his supervision—the NFA, NIA, PCA and the HUDCC—were all “problematic.” 

But Evasco denied the claim, saying: “There was no question made by the President regarding these agencies,” he told the Manila Standard.

Topics: Rice imports , Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez , Office of the Cabinet Secretary , Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol , NFA Administrator Jason Aquino , rice shortage , government-to-government , G2G
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