Saving the sugar industry

By: Modesto P. Sa-onoy

Last week I cited the statement of Senator Cynthia Villar blaming SRA for the present state of the Philippine sugar industry. The fault is not only of the present SRA leadership but also of previous administrations. The deterioration of the industry from one of the most robust of all agricultural sectors to the state of uncertainty for its future is a result of accumulated failures to look forward to the time when the situation shall have changed.

Since the1980s international agreements on free trade were being embraced by all countries including the anti-capitalist communist economies. The warning signs were there but the industry was lulled by its past successes – that when the industry was down it will not stay there but had to go up. Complacency both within the industry and the government created its present state.

Former Rep. Alfredo Benitez did his work and lobbied for the passage of the Sugar Industry Development Act. It has its limitations, but it was the best approach, given the situation it tried to salvage.

One of the difficulties in improving the competitiveness of the industry was lack of funds. Two billion pesos a year was insufficient, but it was a good start. I don’t know whether the SRA was caught with its pants down and revealed its lack of planning and foresight or the managers were simply incompetent for the task. What happened is that only P500 million was used.

Congress saw this incompetence that it reduced the annual budget to what SRA can handle – P500 million only. If SRA cannot handle P2 billion, inadequate as it was for the dire needs of the industry, why give it more?

The other day, the Sugar Alliance of the Philippines came out with a statement proposing a seven-point action plan addressed to the country’s economic managers. These managers are the main proponents of sugar importation as a solution to our sugar consumption needs. The statement is thus a direct challenge to them to think more positively than the easy way out of the sugar shortages – importation.

The seven-point proposals are not new. They had been said time and again and in fact, the SIDA, directly and indirectly, addressed the problems that the proposals intend to solve. They had been discussed in this column many times.

Let’s sum them up: (1) Consolidation of small farms to establish at least 50 hectares plantation size farms; (2) Availability of reasonable crop loans; (3) Subsidy for farm inputs and machineries; (4) Irrigation facilities to sugar farms; (5) Reinstatement of the P2B SIDA funds; (6) Incentives for modernization of sugar mills; and (7) Intensification of research.

To repeat, nothing is new here that were not conceptualized in the SIDA and the SRA law, however, the present proposals are more specific. If we look at the history of the sugar industry and the records of all proposals during the annual assemblies of sugar technologists, these subjects had been discussed at length.

One proposal involves the parceling of sugar lands into small farms due to the Agrarian Reform Program of the Corazon Aquino regime. The SRA under Administrator Gina Martin tried its best to consolidate the small farms into Block Farms but after her term, we have not heard of what happened. What did SRA learn in this project? It would be valuable in attaining the first proposal.

I believe all the proposals are doable. They are being done in other countries with success. Thus, there are models for our leaders.

A major concern is whether the present SRA is competent to handle them. From its records, I think it is incapable because if it was, SRA could have done these things even in a small but steady pace and the industry would not be in this rut.

These ideas had been there even before SRA was created in 1986 but SRA became an expert mainly in sugar allocations. It is easy and profitable without any capital expenditure. Things came easy until it is no longer tenable.

Unfortunately, the producers did not tackle the matter of “who’s going to do which?” Proposals are easy to make; getting them implemented (granting the government is amenable) to attain their objectives is the hardest part. The SRA as it stands proved incapable.

One thing I learned about proposals is the imperative of the answer to the question: who does what?