QUEZON CITY -- As he emphasized that the Department of Agriculture (DA) is always neutral as far as issues like the proposed sugar import liberalization are concerned, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said he is not in the position to convince the economic managers who are pushing for such deregulation measure.
Piñol, who spoke at the second day of Sugarcane Industry Stakeholders' Summit at the Bureau of Soils and Water Management Convention Hall on Tuesday, February 12, said his position is just to relay to the economic managers the sentiments of the sugar industry.
At the conclusion of the two-day summit, the stakeholders passed five resolutions supporting their bid to protect the local sugar industry and its stakeholders, especially the small farmers and agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs), amid the pressing challenges hounding it.
One of which is their opposition to the proposed liberalization of the sugar industry. The stakeholders feel that beyond just the interest of the food processors, the government must realize that 80 percent of the sugar farmers are ARBs.
Piñol, also the chairman of the Sugar Board, echoed that according to the stakeholders, once the deregulation of sugar importation pushes through, it would be the agrarian farmers who will be greatly affected.
For them, it would have a huge social impact as they recalled the worst problems of insurgency in Negros and other areas during the previous collapse of the sugar industry.
"You have to understand that the DA will always be neutral when as far as these issues are concerned. We cannot take a specific issue because we are part of the administration," he said, adding that "our role is to listen to the stakeholders and relay whatever it is to the economic managers and the President."
During the plenary session, the Confederation of Sugar Producers (Confed), the largest group of sugar industry stakeholders from 20 provinces in the country, passed a position paper manifesting its strong objection to the "proposal of the Economic Development Cluster, and strongly espoused by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Economic and Development Secretary Ernesto Pernia to liberalize sugar importation."
Confed, in its position paper, said unrestricted importation will be disastrous for an industry that directly employs over 700,000 workers in 28 provinces. These are on top of the five million Filipinos dependent on it for livelihood according to the DA's Board of Investments.
"It is ironic that the government, after providing the opportunity for these former sugar workers to become producers through the agrarian reform law, will, through the economic managers, consign them once more to poverty by concocting this liberalization plan from the comforts of their air-conditioned offices," it added.
The federation also said there is evident lobbying from the food and beverage industries to liberalize sugar imports, and scored the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for its "inaction" on suggested retail price (SRP) for retail sugar.
It also stressed the sugar industry's support to the National Government, and the possible removal of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) and its mandate to ensure balance in the domestic supply, as well as empowering foreign farmers than Filipinos under the liberalization scheme, among others.
Presenting the output of farmers and ARBs, Negros Occidental Federation of Farmers Associations Chairman Enrique Tayo said they are opposing the measure as it is seen to impact them and their families negatively.
For the federation alone, Tayo said there are about 3,000 members who may suffer if sugar importation will be deregulated.
"Though the government is saying that there are support services but we cannot even feel it now thus, the farmer associations remain apprehensive," he said, adding there has to be proper consultation with the stakeholders.
Groups of millers and planters, in their plenary session output, on the other hand, pointed out that all other proposals of the stakeholders will be useless if the liberalization of sugar importation succeeds.
When pressed if the resolution passed by the stakeholders has weight in urging the support of the President, Piñol said Duterte is a listening President.
"He will always listen. In fact, I would not be surprised if just like the rice stakeholders he will also invite those of the sugar industry to a caucus," he said, stressing that "the President will be the last one to decide, it's always a presidential decision."
Moreover, the two-day summit was attended by about 200 stakeholders including block farms, ARBs and workers, planters federation and associations, sugar millers, refiners, bioethanol producers and bagasse-based power generators in the country, including those from Negros Occidental.
Spearheaded by the DA and SRA, this was called by Piñol mainly to discuss critical issues confronting the sugar industry.
The other resolutions passed by the stakeholders as a "collective stand" included the request to review and possible amendment of the Sugar Industry Development Act (Sida), asking the President to revive the Philippine Sugar Corp. for easy loan access, and hosting of the summit on annual basis to serve as regular venue to air their sentiments.
Also, they agreed to boost competitiveness and productivity so they asked the government to assist them in improving their yield by ensuring irrigation support and access to high-yielding varieties.
In fact, the stakeholders already a variety in mind called "pidotz" which has 80 metric tons average production and nine ratoons.