Squeezing the sugar industry

By: Modesto P. Sa-onoy

SOMEHOW, somewhere in the labyrinth of the Philippine government are forces that simply don’t like the sugar industry. As I intuited last week, reports of successive slashing of the industry’s budget to cushion the negative impact of the international trade liberalization movements will deny the industry the assistance it needs. It is as if the aid mandated under the Sugar Industry Development Act is being gradually withdrawn and leaving the industry dry to fend for itself.

The reported justification for these serial reductions is “underutilization” which is logical from a reflex perspective: If the money is not used then take it away and give it to others.

This excuse raises the question of “why” because the industry unquestionably needs the money for the purpose for which the law was enacted – make the industry competitive against foreign sugar.

Thus if anyone wants to prevent the industry from becoming competitive, the quickest and most deceptive way is to prevent, reduce or make it difficult to secure funding. This Machiavellian method is not new or rarely utilized. It is so common that many people think it is normal as it is sinister.

It is similar to an embargo that has caused many wars, including the two world wars of the 20th century. In fact, we are seeing the same world-wide scenarios though we hope no war explodes within our lifetime.

Let us take the revelation of Raymond Montinola, the spokesman of the Confederation of Sugar Producers. He reportedly said, “Underutilization of the fund has been their constant excuse to slash the budget but the industry has very little to do with it” and that “national agencies to which the funds were downloaded for program implementations have been remiss in their obligation” ostensibly of the programs assigned to them by the SIDA.

He cited the socialized credit program mandated by the law. “The requirements and approval from Land Bank have been an uphill battle and yet, they took it as a failure of the industry to access such funds.”

Of the P2 billion mandated by the SIDA to be appropriated for the programs it listed, fifteen percent is for socialized credit under the Farm Support and Farm Mechanization Programs.

That is P300 million to be allocated by the government to raise the productivity of the land. The acreage devoted to sugarcane has been shrinking and the decline has not been prevented for many reasons. However, by raising the per capita output of the land, the country’s sugar production will at least be retained and give the producers better returns without causing higher shelf prices.

If a person or group of persons wants to strike at the jugular of the industry, the best way is to strangle its financing. The sugar producers know this excellently well in their history. The “uphill battle” that Montinola described is a restraining factor in the SIDA fund utilization.

It is clear then that the poor utilization of the P300 million (or whatever was downloaded or allocated to Land Bank) is not the fault of the producers but of the bank and its processes and requirements that make it difficult to be accessed.

But while the LBP is at fault, the intended borrowers are penalized and the industry’s chances of survival are considerably reduced.

The explanations of Montinola thus throw responsibilities into the laps of those agencies to whom the funds were released because they made it difficult for the intended beneficiaries and programs to avail. The poor utilization of the SIDA funds, therefore, should not be used as an excuse to further undermine the purpose for which the fund was legislated, unless somebody or some groups out there want precisely that help to be withdrawn.

It seems then that the agencies to which the money was released for projects specific to these agencies are answerable and yet the Department of Budget and Management took the knee-jerk action of simply cutting off the funds without concern for the impact of its decision on an industry struggling to survive. DBM should realize that the SIDA fund is not a dole out but a necessity to help the industry and consequently contribute to the national treasury so DBM has more money to allocate.

Can there be a devilish plan to make the industry anemic and open wide the doors to importation?