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Importation brouhaha and local trade fairs

To import or not? That was the question for weeks as Malacañang executives pinned the blame on each other for the controversial memo to import 300,000MT of sugar worth P9 billion, with authority from the Sugar Regulatory Administration. Many Filipinos were dumbfounded by the controversy’s twists: the press secretary threatened, “many heads will roll”; some SRA execs said the president had actually told them to import as much as 600,000MT of sugar.

Other sources denied there was a shortage - just big-time hoarding which only exposed the lack of government monitoring. Despite denials, it turned out there was, after all, a sugar crisis. President Marcos, Jr., concurrent agriculture secretary, finally allowed SRA to import 150,000MT as an emergency measure to address the sugar shortage.

This importation brouhaha may spell a crisis of confidence in the long run. Who will people believe now? But more than trust, at stake is the core issue of why importing or not importing is such a big fuss among the traders, farmers, and the public in general. We are now on the brink of extreme food insecurity. For a country surrounded by seawater, for instance, it is insane that salt is imported now by as much as 93% of the demand! Rice, wheat, corn, garlic, onions, and even meat, eggs, poultry and vegetable oils, natural honey, eggs, fruits and nuts, flour, and crustaceans that we used to produce in bulk, have now become scarce. Other significant imports are electronic products, mineral fuels, and transport equipment, with China, the US, Japan, and Taiwan as top suppliers. Who stands to gain?

Only a few big retailers are reaping big profits from importation. Anti-corruption advocates smell something fishy is happening at the high echelons of power since the issue of importation involves conflicting interests of elite groups. For example, sugar growers lobby against sugar importation, not for nationalistic motives. But their voice is drowned out by big traders who prefer buying cheap imports for more profits.

State policies on importation and exportation should be people-centered and well-balanced to benefit both the producers and the consumers. A toll order is to have reduced costs for quality, safe, and fair-priced products. But some big businessmen say, it’s cheaper to import than to produce locally. A rule of thumb says if a country’s exports are more than its imports, there is trade surplus. Conversely, if a country imports more than it exports, it has a trade deficit.

The country has vast tracts of rich lands in agriculture, fishery, and forestry (AFF) with an abundant supply of resources. The terrain and tropical climate conditions are conducive for farming and developing ocean resources like fisheries and marine minerals, both renewable and non-renewable. A Blue and Green Economy is the way forward for the country.

Ironically, agriculture has become a high-risk, stressful social enterprise in the country. It should not be! Local ocean and agri-based MSMEs are a boon to the economy and human development.

Local MSMEs at Gainza Trade Fair

At the Gainza Trade of Robinson’s Plaza in Naga City, local producers, mainly from micro- and small enterprises, display, market, and sell their colorful, carefully packaged wares - in varied shapes, sizes, and blends. Most sourced their raw materials locally, not imported. They show they can produce and engage in trade. Small-time but ready to go big time.

“Sarao ki Ina sa Pag-Negosyo, Pasiring sa Pag-asenso” is the theme of the annual BFGTF named after Bishop Francisco Escobas Gainza, Bishop of Diocese of Caceres (1862-1879), now the Archdiocese of Nueva Caceres. This year is the first Peñafrancia in the open, jointly held with the Bicol Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the PCCI-Camarines Sur.

On exhibit until Sept. 18 are the crispy pili nuts of Sorsogon, pure cacao beans made into tasty chocolates of Albay, Camarines Sur and Norte; handwoven fabrics from the indigenous people of Rinconada; resilient bamboo of Masarig in Bula skillfully crafted into furniture and works of art; sun-dried sinarapan and other daeng; healthy fruit wines bignay and tamarind of Don Ramon and Carmel Farms. There are also traditional coconut-based products, the sangkaka, from unprocessed and pure sugar cane extract, cassava, camote, and mushroom chips in ziplocked packages. I missed the natural abaca, from which the sturdy Manila rope is made and used to make climbing nets for seafarers on ships. There was no rice, but there were some displays of fruits, vegetables, and cultivated plants.

The pure citronella-scented candles from the women of Ilaw ng Kababaihan, packaged with hand-made jute and recycled pouches, are an all-time hit. The all-natural E-Sense essential oils for instant stress relief are a delicate concoction of kalamansi, pili, citronella, lemongrass, and herba buena. Locally made beauty products from elemi, avocado, ginger, and lemon oils like at Viani’s can smooth, relax, and heal. Visitors agreed, “They are all exportable.”

The Pandemic highlighted the strategic needs of indigenous agriculture and industry: increased budget, greater access to credit and agricultural insurance, state subsidy, farm mechanization, adequate post-harvest and irrigation system, science and technological support for research and development, and agrarian reform program more than what government has provided.

I once listened to a joke shared among agricultural experts from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia who went to the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB), the country’s premier institution of learning for agriculture and forestry. They were all grateful for their UPLB education that when they returned to their countries, some became heads of their agricultural departments or ministries. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo came from the working class and became a successful furniture entrepreneur and, since becoming president in 2014, stopped exporting his country’s raw materials thereby making economic waves in his country with his people-centered governance. It’s time we hand over critical government agencies to competent experts who are grounded in the lives of the tillers, workers and producers.


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