Probe on ‘illegal’ SRA order underway

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Packs of sugar are arranged on a shelf in a store in Quiapo, Manila, Aug. 11. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ EDD GUMBAN

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and  Revin Mikhael D. Ochave, Reporters

AN INVESTIGATION is underway over the “illegal” sugar importation order that was aimed at addressing the tight local supply and high prices, according to Malacañang.

“An investigation is ongoing to determine whether any acts that would cause the President to lose trust and confidence in his officials can be found or if there is malice or negligence involved. In such a case, if such findings are made, then the only determination left will be how many heads will roll,” Press Secretary Rose Beatrix Cruz-Angeles told a news briefing on Thursday.

The Palace on Wednesday denied President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. approved Sugar Order (SO)No. 4, which would have allowed the importation of 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar by the third quarter.

The Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) on Wednesday morning uploaded on its website a copy of the order which was signed by the SRA board members, including Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian “on behalf” of Mr. Marcos. The order was taken down by Wednesday afternoon.

“(Mr. Sebastian) was not authorized to sign such a resolution because the President did not authorize the importation,” Ms. Cruz-Angeles said, noting that the order was “illegal.”

She said the meeting of the SRA board was not approved by Mr. Marcos, who is the designated chairman as secretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

“You don’t convene the Sugar Regulatory Board in the absence of the President and in the absence of any such approval on his part. You can only convene the board with the assent, explicit assent of the President. He did not make such an agreement,” Ms. Cruz-Angeles said.

Mr. Sebastian and other SRA board members are now under investigation, but there is no preventive suspension as of now, the Palace official said.

The board includes vice chair and SRA Administrator Hermenegildo R. Serafica, Roland B. Beltran as the miller’s representative and Aurelio Gerardo J. Valderrama, Jr. as the planters’ representative.

‘SENSITIVE MATTER’Ms. Cruz-Angeles defended the President’s decision to reject the proposed sugar importation amid soaring prices of refined and raw sugar.

“The importation has to be carefully studied to protect both the consumer against the rising prices of basic commodities while ensuring at the same time that we do not destroy the local industry,” she said.

She said Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez has ordered the creation of a sugar importation plan.

“We just imported last May. Now, we have to determine if an importation, supposedly to address the critical levels that are approaching at the end of the month, will affect the harvest season which opens in September,” Ms. Cruz-Angeles said.

Leonardo A. Lanzona, who teaches economics at the Ateneo de Manila University, said the fiasco involving Agriculture department officials is the last thing that the country needs in a time of crisis.

“While the authorities may see the SRA (issue) as usurpation of authority, the business sector will see it as an insensitive assertion of authority,” he said in a Messenger chat.

The economist said additional sugar imports would have been a “welcome relief” for consumers.

As of early August, the average price of refined sugar in wet markets climbed to P95 per kilogram or up 79.5% from P52.93 in the similar period a year ago. The average price of raw sugar in wet markets surged by 57.7% to P71.43 from P45.29 in 2021.

The conflict “creates unwarranted and unhealthy speculations among stakeholders,” Arjan P. Aguirre, a political science professor at Ateneo, said in a Messenger chat.

“This makes the government look that it’s not in control of the situation, that it is giving in to pressures and that it is not that ready to be transparent with its decisions and plan.”

George T. Barcelon, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, asked the government to come up with immediate solution to the soaring sugar prices, which is hurting local businesses and exporters.

In a phone interview, Mr. Barcelon said the country’s sugar supply may not stabilize even after the harvest season, adding that climate change also affects producers’ output. “It is not enough, that is why importation is necessary.”

The DA, which is headed by the President, should work closely with the Trade department and other agencies to come up with a sound decision, he said.

‘POSITIVE SIGN’Meanwhile, United Sugar Producers Federation President Manuel R. Lamata welcomed Mr. Marcos’ decision to reject sugar imports, saying the President is protecting the local industry.

“We were shocked and disgusted with the zarzuela made by the (SRA) board that acted illegally in issuing SO 4. They made us believe that this went through proper consultation and had the imprimatur of the President,” he said in a statement sent via Viber.

Federation of Free Farmers National Manager Raul Q. Montemayor said in a Viber message that it is a positive sign that Mr. Marcos is “taking a more balanced and nuanced view towards imports.”

“I hope a similar approach is adopted with respect to imports of rice, meat and other major food commodities,” Mr. Montemayor said.

Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) Jayson H. Cainglet Executive Director said agencies like the DA and SRA should support local producers.

“(They should) only import what is needed and upon the explicit approval of the local industry… The SRA and DA should realize that the marching order of the President is to support local production. The board should immediately heed the call of the President and the local industry to stop this madness for imports,” Mr. Cainglet said in a statement.

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