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Farmers group urges Senate to reject RCEP

Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) is calling on the Senate to reject the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade deal involving countries that comprise nearly a third of the global economy, claiming it will hurt the local agriculture sector.

SINAG argued in a position paper submitted to the upper chamber on Friday that the "promised" benefits of the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) 27 years ago did not materialize and instead produced dismal results.

It said the Philippines' agricultural balance of trade has consistently produced deficits since 1995.

Likewise, the share of agriculture in the country’s gross domestic product also declined from 20.89% in 1997 to 10.18% in 2020.

SINAG noted that the proportion of employed persons in agriculture declined from 43.3% in 1996 to 24% in 2020.

The group said the proponents of the country’s accession to the WTO had projected an increase in annual agricultural export earnings by at least P3.4 billion, an increase in the annual gross value added of agriculture by P60 billion, the creation of an additional 500,000 jobs annually, and an improvement in the balance of trade in agricultural products.

“Twenty-seven years into the WTO, there is no promised remarkable growth under a liberalized trading regime. The purported gains in trade, production output and employment never happened,” SINAG said.

“The WTO has made our country into a net food importing country, destroying our decades-old capacity to produce our own food. The WTO has undermined our food security, much more our food sovereignty where we decide our own agriculture and food policy,” it said.

The group urged the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to provide a thoroughgoing assessment for the past 27 years of the country’s accession to the WTO.
“Unless the answers to these questions are positive; then why would we want to further cripple the local agriculture sector by joining the RCEP?” SINAG said.

Instead of pushing for RCEP, the group proposed the following:

* A permanent shift in the agriculture strategy for a sustainable and much localized food production to meet staple food demands, thus ensuring that more food is grown where it is needed
* Make food self-sufficiency and significant rural livelihood opportunities as the explicit starting point of the country’s food and agriculture program
* Work on the viability and vibrancy of the agriculture industry as the true engine of national development and real economic growth.

The Senate is deliberating on whether it will concur with the Palace’s ratification of the RCEP.

Treaties or international agreements entered into by the government require Senate concurrence.

At present, six Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states—Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam—and ASEAN free trade partners Australia, China, Japan, and New Zealand have already deposited their respective Instruments of Ratification.

The RCEP will enter into force 60 days after the date at which the minimum number of Instruments of Ratification/Acceptance (IOR/A) are received. This means that the mega trade deal shall enter into force on January 1, 2022.

The RCEP was ratified by the Palace in September and brought to the Senate for concurrence.

In a statement, the DTI said despite the opposition by a group of farmers, "the RCEP agreement provides vast opportunities for the agricultural sector, ranging from enhanced market access, trade facilitation measures, time-bound consultation in addressing trade issues, to more investments in research and development in agricultural sciences and even manufacturing."

The department also clarified that highly sensitive agricultural products for the Philippines are excluded from the country’s Schedule of Commitments.  

“This means that these products are still protected by tariffs,” it said.

Some of these agricultural products include swine meat, poultry meat, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbages, sugar, carrots, and rice, it said.

In November last year, DTI Secretary Ramon Lopez signed the RCEP trade pact on behalf of the Philippines at the conclusion of the 37th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits.

The DTI had expected the Senate to ratify it in November.

RCEP is a trade accord that involves the 10-member ASEAN along with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

India was initially included in the negotiations for the trade deal, but eventually pulled out in 2019 reportedly over various concerns, including possible influx of cheap Chinese products.

The RCEP will facilitate free or liberalized and simplified trade among the participating nations in the Trans-Pacific Region.

Some experts, however, have objected to the trade deal, warning of risks to local industries.  — VBL, GMA News