For the first time in the history of the sugarcane industry, planters, growers and sugarcane workers are united in denouncing the government-sponsored smuggling of sugar at the Port of Batangas last February 9, or a week before Sugar Order No. 6 authorizing the (legit) importation of 440,000 metric tons was issued by the Sugar Regulatory Authority, on instruction of Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban. The shipment and the volume to be imported under SO6 are way above what is required to force prices down and curb the surging food inflation.
Supposedly authorized by President Marcos, through Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, the importation was awarded to fair-haired traders—close to the administration— causing a loud hostile roar from the entire sugar industry and a demand for a Senate Blue Ribbon probe by Sen. Risa Hontiveros.
Big name industry leaders called the House of Representatives and the Senate to conduct “an open, transparent and full-blown investigation into this government-sponsored smuggling” exposed by Hontiveros last Tuesday as the industry has been opposing government’s import plan that would dampen local millgate prices, with milling having started last December.
Among those that signed the denunciation statement were Enrique Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters; Aurelio Gerardo Valderrama Jr., of the Confederation of Sugar Producers Association Inc.; Pablo Lobregat, president of the Philippine Sugar Millers Association, and Danilo Abelita, Panay Federation of Sugarcane Farmers.
“We condemn in the strongest terms any and all acts of sugar smuggling, which constitute economic sabotage that wreak havoc on the livelihood of thousands of sugarcane farmers, 90 percent of whom are agrarian reform beneficiaries and marginal farmers who rely solely on sugar for their sustenance,” they said.
Hontiveros said the shipment of Thai sugar arrived almost a week before the SRA approved the importation of 440,000 MT through SO No. 6.
She said the Bureau of Customs (BOC) flagged the entry of the imported sugar when the shipment arrived at the Port of Batangas on Feb. 9, or six days before SO 6.
“Since these are not covered by SO 6, there is no other conclusion but to say that these sugar shipments are smuggled. What other conclusion can be drawn other than that this is government-sponsored smuggling,” she stressed.
Hontiveros showed documents showing that All Asian Countertrade Inc. of Michael Escaler was the registered consignee of the shipment, contained in 260 units of 20-foot shipping containers aboard three vessels.
Hontiveros said the arrival of the imported sugar was apparently connected with a draft and undated memorandum supposedly issued by DA Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban directing the SRA to present a sugar importation plan allocating the sugar to three importers—All Asian (250,000 MT), Sucden Philippines Inc. (100,000 MT) and Edison Lee Marketing Corp. (100,000 MT)— “upon the instructions” of President Marcos “thru” Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin.
In an earlier letter dated Jan. 13, Panganiban informed Escaler, that his company was allowed to import 250,000 MT of sugar “per instructions from [Bersamin].”
Gov. Eugenio Jose Lacson of Negros Occidental, the country’s sugar bowl, supported calls for an investigation, saying sugar smuggling would hurt the domestic sugar industry already reeling from high fertilizer and fuel prices.
They argued that any import program must be carefully calibrated in volume and timing so as not to severely affect millgate prices but should also be open to all qualified traders and producers’ groups through a process that is transparent, fair and equitable.
The sugar leaders said the importers and officials involved in the entry and subsequent release of this shipment should also be investigated, and if determined to be liable, should be made to answer to the full extent of the law.
United Sugar Producers Federation president Manuel Lamata, in a separate statement, said that if there was smuggled sugar and those responsible are caught, the perpetrators should be brought to the court.
Escaler, president/CEO of All Asian Countertrade, was tagged in a sugar smuggling case during the Estrada administration but the congressional probe got stuck in limbo.
Panganiban added that Marcos
“was properly informed that the sugar had already arrived.”
Hontiveros questioned Bersamin’s authority to approve sugar importation, which is given by law to the sugar board.
Worse, Hontiveros said the sugar shipment was given VIP treatment as it was allowed to enter through the BOC’s “super green lane” system that exempted it from the rigorous inspection of customs personnel.
“If our apprehensions are proven true, this will spell doom for the sugar industry and the millions of Filipinos dependent on the sugar industry for their livelihood,” Rojas said.