Farmers fed up with government

September 24, 2010

Ernesto Ordoñez
Philippine Daily Inquirer
September 24, 2010

FARMERS ARE tired of government’s failure to live up to its promises. Thankfully, the new government is initiating a welcome change.

Recently, the Bureau of Customs followed through on its promise to stop the release of eight containers from China with smuggled onions. Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez, who favors transparent governance, also allowed government and private sector leaders to witness the opening of the containers.

These leaders included Sen. Francis Pangilinan, chair of the Senate committee on agriculture, and farmer leaders from Alyansa Agrikultura and the KASAMNE Onion Growers.

Private-public partnership

Last Sept. 3, acting on information from a private sector source, the Alyansa Agrikultura verified that the containers claiming to have microphones were instead filled with smuggled onions. This was reported to the Bureau of Customs, which then seized these containers.

Senator Pangilinan said: “This is an excellent example of the public-private partnership advocated by President Noynoy Aquino in his SONA.”

However, what happened before the seizure left much to be desired.

Lower-level BOC officials had tried to prevent the opening of containers in the presence of government and private sector leaders. One said that the goods had to be auctioned immediately and could not wait for a public viewing. The Alyansa disagreed.

The Alyansa argued that the immediate auction would mean losing the opportunity to put powerful media pressure on the onion smugglers to stop their smuggling. In addition, the proposed auction would have given the smugglers the opportunity to get back their onions through rigged bidding, as was often done in the past.

The Alyansa said there was a standing agreement that for agricultural goods, the options should be limited to either giving the goods to the DSWD to benefit the poor or destroying them. Otherwise, the smugglers could get their goods again through the use of dummies.

Not over

The opening of smuggled containers was previously considered the end of a successful anti-smuggling action. Many BOC officials would happily go along with this. However, it should be understood that in most cases, smuggling can occur only with BOC connivance.

Smuggling is presently estimated to cost more than P100 billion annually in lost government revenue at a time of an unprecedented government deficit. Smuggling also causes massive job losses from unfair competition at a time of unparalleled poverty.

This makes the recent onion smuggling case very important as an indicator of things to come. Previously, because of the lack of follow through after the opening of the smuggled containers, and lack of private sector monitoring and media watching, the smugglers got back the containers by giving more bribes to BOC.

Most of the time, they are not even charged. In the rare instances when charges were filed, the smugglers successfully beat the charges and laughed all the way to the bank.

Customs fact sheet

Though the farmer leaders are grateful for the public viewing of the smuggled onions, they decried the “non-facts” distributed in a supposed Customs Fact Sheet that same day.

The Alyansa told Senator Pangilinan that only one of the two importers was identified in the alleged BOC Fact Sheet given to him. This is either a BOC oversight (which is too serious an error in an anti-smuggling drive), or a conscious desire to save at least one of the two guilty parties.

In addition, the Fact Sheet claimed that the BOC people initiated the seizing of this cargo when they allegedly smelled the onions. However, Commissioner Alvarez, who has consistently supported the farmers, publicly told the media that it was the farmers who identified the smuggled cargo, with the BOC subsequently taking the required action.

In fact, a BOC official initially gave the farmers a hard time by not wanting to confiscate this cargo. The farmers subsequently talked to another BOC official, who acted speedily on their request.

Follow through

For the farmers, the BOC must now do the necessary follow through. With Senator Pangilinan’s support as Senate agriculture committee chair, the two identified alleged smugglers (not just the one identified in the BOC Fact Sheet) must be charged. A just verdict should then be given without delay (not left to languish until forgotten, as is often the case).

The BOC should also allow the farmers to witness the disposal of these smuggled onions. In the past, the Alyansa leaders accompanied a Senate staff member to show how more than 20 smuggled containers had disappeared from the Customs area. Nothing was done about it. Again, no follow through.

We expect that the new government, with the help of the many good BOC personnel who have previously been ignored, will now do the follow through that the farmers have long been asking for.

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