EXECUTIVE Secretary Lucas Bersamin said Tuesday, May 23, 2023, that he is taking full responsibility for “any kind of haste” in relation to the controversial importation of 440,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar pending the issuance of a sugar order.

In a hearing conducted by a joint Senate panel led by the blue ribbon committee, Bersamin said he was the one calling the shots as far as the importation of the 440,000 MT of sweetener in February is concerned.

“There was guidance from the President (Bongbong Marcos Jr.), but I confirm that I was the one who instructed [Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban] to proceed with the processing of the sugar order and to attend to this issue of this importation,” he said.

“So I take the responsibility for any kind of haste that might have attended this and if Undersecretary Panganiban made the choices, I could ratify those choices because I was acting in the interest of the President and this administration,” he added.

Panganiban, for his part, picked three importers for the importation of 440,000 MT of sugar -- the All Asian Countertrade, Sucden Philippines Inc. and Edison Lee Marketing Corporation.

The sweeteners arrived in the country ahead of the issuance of Sugar Order 6.

It was Senator Risa Hontiveros who floated the possibility that there was “state-sponsored” sugar smuggling, noting that based on law, a sugar order should come first before the actual importation.

She also questioned why the three importers were “favored.”

This was vehemently denied by Bersamin, noting that the importation was “legitimate and fully authorized by the government” amid efforts to arrest rising inflation and sugar prices.

He said regulating the prices of sugar can only be addressed if the country has enough supply and buffer stock.

“The importation was not an effort at cartelization, nor was it about government smuggling of sugar,” said Bersamin.

Both Bersamin and Panganiban said that a sugar order is not a prerequisite for an importation but it is essential as the basis for the issuance of clearances by the Sugar Regulatory Administration which is a requirement by the Bureau of Customs.

Bersamin said there are several ways of importing sugar such as through a sugar order, Minimum Access Volume, relevant provision in the Price Act, and “the residual is when the president exercises his powers as the chief executive when there is an urgent need for such exercise.”

Through a phone call, Panganiban said he was directed by Marcos to go ahead with the importation because its contribution to the inflation rate is at 8.7 percent.

He said this is after he told Marcos that there is a need for the country to import because the local producers can only provide 1.7 million MT while the country’s requirement is at 2.2 million MT.

Panganiban said Marcos told him to “let’s import through selected importers of sugar” without naming any.

Hontiveros maintained that this is against the law, citing Section 117 of Republic Act 10863 or the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, which states that "Goods which are subject to regulation shall be imported or exported only after securing the necessary goods declaration or export declaration, clearances, licenses and any other requirements prior to importation or exportation."

"With all due respect, nadi-disturb po 'yung kalooban ko sa sinabi po ng ES na a sugar order is not absolutely necessary dahil sa plain understanding ko bilang mambabatas lamang at hindi abogado... ayon sa batas, kailangan ng sugar order para payagan ang sugar importation,” Hontiveros said.

(With all due respect, I am disturbed by ES's statement that a sugar order is not absolutely necessary because of my plain understanding as a legislator and not a lawyer... according to the law, a sugar order is needed to allow sugar importation.)

"Otherwise, we blow the whole system thus far wide open," she added.

The lawmakers said the SRA was created to balance the competing interests and claims of the sugar industry stakeholders.

Bersamin said the SRA was created to regulate the market of sugar and "it had nothing to do with the regulation of importation," citing a memorandum order issued by the SRA in August 2002 that provides that no imported sugar shall be released to the importer-consignee without an SRA clearance; imported sugar not covered by SRA clearance shall be turned over to the SRA upon compliance by the importer-consignee with Customs rules and regulations, including the payment of taxes, duties and other charges; and that the SRA shall identify the market classification of said sugar and calls its disposition in accordance with such classification pursuant to its rules and regulations.

"So to us, in the Office of the President, we have committed no irregularity, no violation when we issued that Sugar Order, neither was there any violation committed by any parties who were involved in these questioned transactions," he said.

"Right now as we read it, the Department of Agriculture, the SRA, the Bureau of Customs all acted in accordance with law," Bersamin added. (SunStar Philippines)