Despite the available laws, smugglers of agricultural products still make a killing at the expense of local farmers. Farmers’ groups now seek tougher punishments against these “economic saboteurs.”
Lagunenses – and Filipinos in general – are sure to recall quite easily the “great white onion shortage” of last year, when supplies of white onion, widely used for cooking, suddenly disappeared from market shelves.
Restaurants and carinderias were forced to substitute red onions for products such as pizza and sisig, and prices of white onions – if available – zoomed up to P400 a kilo, far above the P70 to P80 per kilo reported by the Department of Agriculture in 2021. (In fact, the joke among netizens is that onions have become a far more valuable Christmas gift than jewels or household appliances.)
Actually, a leader of a major agriculturists’ group told OpinYon Laguna’s local editor Catherine Go, there was really no shortage of white onions at all.
“Ang nangyari po sa kakulangan natin ng white onions ay mayroon pong ‘perception’ na shortage. In short, wala po talagang shortage,” Jayson Cainglet, executive director of the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG), charged during a recent interview with Go and labor leader Padjo Valdenor in their radio program "Banat ng Pasahero" over DWBL last week.
The reason? Republic Act No. 10845, otherwise known as the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, has failed to foresee other methods and tactics used by “smuggling cartels” to corner the agricultural market at the expense of local farmers.
"[Sa current na batas ngayon], wala sa mga provisions ang hoarding, profiteering, saka yung [agricultural] cartels," Cainglet told Go and Valdenor.
During the radio interview, Cainglet said that one way agricultural cartels have been getting around is through so-called "vertical integration" of commodities.
This holds especially true with the onion industry, he said, where cartels have been reportedly taking over the whole trading system.
"For the past five to six years, unti-unti na pong nagiging 'vertical' ang trading sa sibuyas. Ibig sabihin po nito, kumokonti na lang yung stages na pinagdadaanan," Cainglet explained.
“Ang nangyayari po, yung trader, yung cold storage owner, yung nagbabagsak sa palengke, yung nagco-consign sa supermarket at yung importer, ilang tao na lang yan, kumbaga mabibilang mo nalang sa kamay mo yung nagpapatakbo o nakikinabang sa industriya ng sibuyas,” he added. “And may nadidiskubre na rin po kami na may mga warehouse owner, trader at importer na pare-pareho ang address at phone number.”
Another method agricultural smugglers have used to manipulate the market for produce is through hoarding of agricultural products to create an artificial shortage which in turn drives up the prices of produce, Cainglet added.
“Ang totoo po niyan ay hino-hoard po ang suplay ng sibuyas na puti sa palengke, tapos dahan-dahang pinapalusot, tapos sinasabay sa local production ng sibuyas,” he said.
Fortunately, the SINAG leader said there is now “overwhelming” support in Congress to declare hoarding and profiteering as acts of economic sabotage.
Senators Cynthia Villar (the current chairperson of the House Committee on Agriculture), Risa Hontiveros, Robinhood Padilla and Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III have all issued statements pushing for stiffer penalties against agricultural smuggling.
Aside from declaring hoarding and profiteering as “economic sabotage,” current bills now at the Senate also seek to penalize government officials who are actively involved in smuggling and even those who fail to act on complaints against cartels.
Proposed measures will now also enable ordinary citizens and concerned groups to file charges against suspected smugglers, in contrast to current legislation which stipulates that only the Bureau of Customs (BOC) can file cases related to smuggling.
This, as both lawmakers and advocates had lamented that almost all cases filed against suspected agricultural smugglers and cartel leaders end with the suspects walking off scot-free.
“Cartels thrive kasi wala pong nasasampolan, walang nakakasuhan, walang nakakulong,” Cainglet told Go and Valdenor, as he alleged that some government officials have deliberately sabotaged cases to favor smugglers.
“As early as 2016, may naka-file na pong kaso sa DOJ (Department of Justice), pero kalimitan nadi-dismiss kasi po either kulang-kulang o mali ang mga ebidensyang isinusumite,” the SINAG leader lamented.
“In fact, sa 200 cases na na-file po ng BOC sa DOJ in the past seven years, anim lang ngayon ang ongoing, at ang masama pa po nito ay wala pang conviction,” he added.
DOJ statistics also show that only nine of 159 large-scale anti-agricultural smuggling cases were filed in court between 2016 and February 2023.
Seventy-six, or about 48 percent of the total cases, have so far been dismissed due to “no probable cause.”
Big lesson for smugglers
For the average consumer (and the trader) who have suffered from high prices of basic commodities, the simple notion of calling hoarding and profiteering “economic sabotage” may sound like nothing more than lip service from government officials.
Cainglet, however, believes this step will be a huge step forward in finally stemming the rampant smuggling of agricultural products.
“Actually, malaking bagay po ito kasi under current anti-smuggling laws, kapag na-convict ka ng profiteering, you just pay a fine,” he explained. “Pero kung magawa nating economic sabotage ito, ibig sabihin makukulong na ang mga smugglers. And since ang economic sabotage ay isang non-bailable offence, makikita nila na aba, may nakukulong na pala talaga dahil sa smuggling.”
LGUs should also monitor
Meanwhile, another solution Cainglet sees to solve the "disconnect" between farmgate prices and actual market prices of agricultural produce is involving local government units not only in assisting local farmers but also in monitoring prices of produce in local markets.
“Dapat, under the national price monitoring, LGUs can do that,” he noted. “Siyempre, ang sasabihin naman po ng LGUs ay wala silang tao to do that, so ang immediate po na pwedeng gawin ay mag-usap po ang DA at ang DILG [Department of Interior and Local Government] para i-mobilize ang kanilang mga price monitoring councils.”