Sound of silence

By: Modesto P. Sa-onoy

IT LOOKS pathetic but here is Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri reported last week asking the Department of Agriculture and the Sugar Regulatory Administration to “come out strongly and break their ‘deafening silence’ on the issues plaguing the Philippine sugar industry.

There is an adage that you cannot wake up a person who is already awake. And that is exactly what the senator is asking but seems will not succeed. The issue of sugar import liberalization had been in the dock for over 30 years and except for the Sugar Industry Development Act, nothing else had been done to prepare the industry for the negative impact of uncontrolled importation of sugar.

Zubiri said there is a need for a strong voice to avert what happened to the rice industry where farmers on the ground are not getting something. Well, not quite. The importation of rice is allowed. With the commodity flooding the country, the price of local rice has gone down below production cost. This basic food of Filipinos has suddenly become cheaper in the retail market and made rice consumers very happy indeed. What the rice producers got is a backhanded slap from the economic advisers of this administration and the Department of Agriculture. On the other hand, the consumers are happy with the rice importation.

Zubiri is right in thinking aloud with the uncontrolled sugar import as it did to rice, “if we do this to sugar, what will happen to five million people dependent on the industry.”

Well, three things will probably happen: (1) prices of sugar in the retail market and for industrial use will plunge; (2) many small sugar producers will go bankrupt if they continued planting sugarcane; and (3) many sugar lands will shift to other crops or open to other uses. In short, there will be no sugar industry as we know of.

While Zubiri is pleading with the DA and the SRA to prevent this industry-wide collapse, these two agencies are parrying the question with the same answers: (1) we had been studying the problems with many meeting, (2) the SIDA needs to be amended or updated; (3) we have an international commitment.

Of course, Zubiri cited the contributions of the industry to the national economy. So what? Today, the contribution of the sugar industry pales in comparison with other industries and sugar is a volatile commodity with plenty in other countries where sugar is cheaper. On a propaganda side, the industry is and has been charged with inflicting (activists would love this) injustice to the workers. Unrecognized is the fact that since 1960s the sugar industry is the only one that sets aside millions annually for the amelioration of the workers.

Zubiri also cited the rippling effect of money generated by the industry, but that was years back and today that fund generation is overshadowed by other rising industries, including the BPO. And so, the past is forgotten and sacrificed in the altar of neo-gods of the Philippine economy.

The causes of the low farm and mill yield are well-known. I had written reams about them for years. It is futile to repeat them because the planters and millers and the government, particularly the SRA, know of them well.

In response, Agriculture Secretary William Dar said that in the last two months of being the new secretary, they already had a number of meetings focusing on addressing concerns hounding the sugar industry.

The SIDA was “not properly implemented and that they are trying to correct it now. That is already in the works today”, Dar said. That law was passed in 2015 and only now that they realized it was defective and needed to be corrected? Dar did not say what was wrong with the law – intrinsic defect or failure to enforce?

He also said he had asked the SRA to prepare an action plan on “how we can accelerate the utilization of what is allocated for SIDA,” and that SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica and his team are now finalizing the said action plan.

That was bureaucratic gobbledygook. Dar and Serafica should have just dusted old records and reduce their stress in coming up with the same answer. In sum, they have really nothing new and bereft of novel ideas they simply duck. That is deafening.

The malaise metastasizes; the industry recedes amidst excuses.