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DOJ orders crackdown on rice hoarders in Mindanao
« on: June 05, 2008, 05:26:55 AM »
 Alarmed by reports that retail price of rice in Mindanao markets has skyrocketed to as much as P60 per kilo, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez yesterday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to resume its operations against suspected rice hoarders.

But the Department of Agriculture (DA), after a thorough investigation, has identified “speculative farmers” as the primary culprit of the surging rice prices in Mindanao.

“I have ordered the NBI to restart the campaign against hoarders. We sort of suspended this campaign before when the President said that we should concentrate on the diversion,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez admitted there were some unwanted repercussions when the Justice department initially started going after suspected rice hoarders.

He, however, was quick to argue that the country is having an excellent rice harvest and the apparent hoarding by unscrupulous traders brings about hiked prices of rice and shortage in the market.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) earlier said it would look into reports that some officials of the National Food Authority (NFA) have colluded with some rice traders to repackage NFA rice and pass them off as expensive commercial rice.

Speaker Prospero Nograles, who represent the 1st District of Davao City, had asked the NBI to inspect warehouses and run after rice hoarders.

“We are the food basket and it’s impossible that our rice prices are high unless there is hoarding. We ought to file charges against rice hoarders,” Nograles said.

Hoarding is prohibited under the law since it is “an act of illegal price manipulation.” It carries a penalty of five to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to P2 million.

The NBI has recently filed criminal charges before the DOJ against four provincial NFA officials in Region 10 and eight rice traders accused of diverting NFA rice to commercial rice trading in Mindanao.

NBI officials in Manila had alerted NBI authorities in Mindanao to “conduct raids” and “massive inspections” of all warehouses, especially in Davao Oriental, Davao del Norte, Tagum, Digos and the Socsargen areas, where rice hoarding and rice diversion of NFA is prevalent.

Two teams from Manila are scheduled to leave for Mindanao’s Region 10, 11 and 12 where these areas are located.

“We believe that NFA rice is being hoarded and diverted (in these areas) for commercial rice trading,” said Regional Director Ricardo Diaz, of the NBI’s Deputy Director for Intelligence Services (DDIS).

Price speculation

But Agriculture Undersecretary Jesus Paras is singing a different tune.

In a briefing held at the Palace, Paras said the NFA has investigated the millers and warehouses in Mindanao, particularly in Davao, and established there was no rice hoarding.

During the investigation, it was ascertained that a lot of farmers in the region were holding on to their harvest in anticipation of a price increase during the lean months.

Paras explained that the harvest season is about to end and the price of rice is expected to move up because of the reduction in domestic supply.

While acknowledging that what the farmers were doing was considered as hoarding, Paras said the government could not do anything to stop this since they own the rice they harvest.

With the onset of the dry season, Paras said the selling price of rice could go up from the current P17 per kilogram to as high as P24/kg.

Paras explained that the rule of thumb as far as rice is concerned is that the selling price would be multiplied by two to get the retail price.

So at P24/kg, the retail price of rice would be P48/kg in the market.

He said the price of rice in the domestic market is not that high when compared to the prevailing prices in major rice-exporting countries such as Thailand, which sells at P45/kg and Vietnam at P59/kg.

In order to bring down the prices, Paras said the NFA has started infusing larger quantities of P18.25 and P25/kg rice in the market.

A significant amount was released in Davao since it serves as the biggest market in Mindanao.

The national government would also be providing fertilizer subsidies to the rice farmers in order to help cut down their costs and consequently bring down prices.

He expressed optimism that prices would stabilize next week when the cheap NFA rice becomes available to the masses.

Lump sum

Meanwhile, Senate President Manuel Villar called on Malacañang yesterday to release Mindanao’s 30 percent share of the lump sum funds of the P1.227-trillion budget for 2008.

Villar said there is a special provision in this year’s spending measure for Mindanao.

“The big question is: has this money been released, has Malacañang complied with this clear intent of the law. If this has been made available to Mindanao, food scarcity, and the rise in food prices, could have been avoided,” Villar said.

He explained that the 30-percent lump sum fund share of Mindanao is on top of the P121 billion that is programmed for national agencies and local governments in the island.

Villar said the lump sum fund is a block allocation for specific purpose and is outside the budget allocated for the operations of agencies in the 2008 national budget. Among the lump sum funds are the school building fund and the E-commerce fund.

“There is no reason for Mindanao to go hungry because it is blessed with natural assets and manpower, which makes agriculture a robust occupation in the area,” he said.

Villar lamented that only one in every 35 hectares of agricultural land in Mindanao is serviced by irrigation despite its being one of the biggest islands in the country. “This means only one in every six hectares of the irrigated land in the country can be found in Mindanao,” he added.

However, Villar recalled that despite these handicaps, Mindanao was able to produce P280-billion worth of agricultural products in 2005.

He said rice and corn yield in 2005 is 6.6 million metric tons. Fisheries output is 2 million metric tons annually.

“When it comes to rice and fish, Mindanao is more self sufficient and could feed its 23 million population,” said Villar.

The key is to unlock the full farming potential of the island, he added.

The Senate president also said the 4.3 million agriculture workers in Mindanao who form the backbone of the labor force can make the island truly a fruit basket.

As this developed, Sen. Loren Legarda stressed yesterday the need for the government to ensure equitable distribution of rice in all of the country’s regions to stabilize the staple’s price nationwide and not only in Luzon.

“It’s possible that too big a portion of the rice produced in Mindanao is being shipped to Luzon and the Visayas, thus leaving almost nothing for Mindanaoans,” Legarda said in a statement. ( The Phil. Headline

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