It’s not up to me

More or less, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol is telling the sugarcane planters that there is nothing he can do to positively respond to the lamentations of the planters and workers for the protection of the sugar industry from the devastating impact of the unlimited importation of sugar. The industry is under his department and therefore he is the official with overseeing authority over it. That power involves the industry’s protection from deleterious factors.

His statement in effect leaves the industry to fend for itself. He washes his hands and throws the burden of solving the issue right into other people’s lap and worse back into the industry. Simply said, he is not the man to look up to for help. In fact, other than listening and washing his hands, he has offered nothing concrete when in truth, if he wanted to there is much that can be done.

We cannot say that he lacks intelligence on this matter. However, he has plenty of experiences in radio journalism, politics and rice, thus lacks deeper insights into the intricacies of the industry. Of course, he can always bring in experts on sugar, particularly from the Sugar Regulatory Administration. Still, it would be worth the while of industry leaders to delve deeper into his professional and ideological bent to understand and excuse his attitude towards the industry.

The industry is in dire straits, a situation it has never experienced before. The industry had its downs but producers knew it would rise again. There is a belief, and rightly so, that the industry rides a roller coaster – sometimes up, sometimes down – but mostly down with a later sharp uplift. This time there seems to be, to use the metaphor, no light at the end of the tunnel. The situation is not helped any by the attitude and posture of Piñol.

As things stand therefore, it will do well for producers to solve their problem from within. Under the present administration, full liberalization is a matter of time. The country has committed to the free trade system where import control even of agricultural product is anathema. The US and China, in fact, are quarreling on this issue because while the US has an excess and wants to sell as much of its huge agricultural surplus, China is adamant against too much opening. Anyway, that is their problem.

Our case is different. We have a shortage of sugar and at its present state the industry does not look like it would be able to bring down prices in the shelves through low cost production and delivery. There is no immediate possibility it can produce enough to fill our needs at a price that would be justifiable in relation to the cheaper imported sugar.

Given this situation, is the DA, or more specifically, the Sugar Regulatory Administration, helpless? Have they nothing concrete to offer? Why has SRA, and now even the sugar industry leaders, clammed up? Note that workers and their organizations are now at the forefront in demanding protection from liberalization.

The position of Piñol, the silence of the SRA and of the industry leaders and the refusal of government to even listen are portents of sad things to come. The workers’ group declared before President Duterte came here last week that they would generate a million signatures to impress on the President that they have so much clout to demand the retreat of the government import plan. They were able to gather just around a thousand signatories. Such bravado does not help – it reveals a state of weakness.

I was with a group of young sugarcane planters and they confided that their elders seemed to have lost steam in this fight or to work out a scheme to shield the industry from possible collapse. Yet the leaders refuse to vacate to fresher outlooks. I am not privy to what they had in mind but that thinking exposes a divided industry; division is the last thing they needed at this time.

Senator Miguel Zubiri was reported to have urged the industry and Piñol to look for an “alternative” by “bridging the gap between the producers and the consumers.” This approach does not address the endemic defect in the industry although this scheme can partly reduce sugar shelf prices.

This proposal deserves a longer commentary next week.

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