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Palace says order directing sugar import illegal, probe ongoing

Malacañang on Thursday called Sugar Order No. 4, which supposedly directs the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar, an "illegal" resolution.

At a press conference, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said an investigation is ongoing over the "unauthorized" signing of the document directing the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar on top of what had already been imported in May of this year.

"This resolution is illegal. The chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Board is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As such chairman, he sets the date of any meetings and convening of the Sugar Regulatory Board and its agenda. No such meeting was authorized by the President nor such a resolution was likewise authorized," Cruz-Angeles said.

"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," she added.

She emphasized that Marcos did not approve the meeting of the Sugar Regulatory Board on the importation.

"He did not approve the convening. You can only convene the board with the assent, explicit assent of the President, and he didn't make such an agreement," she said.

Cruz-Angeles said the resolution appeared to have been signed by Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian.

"He was not authorized to sign such resolution because the President did not authorize the importation. Importations are a sensitive matter, particularly with regard to agricultural importations. Sugar is one such importation which we take great care with. It is a balancing act," she said.

She further said the importation process has to be studied carefully "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."

No preventive suspension yet

Asked about the status of the involved officials, Cruz-Angeles said: "They are under investigation. There is no preventive suspension issued as of right now."

"Naniniwala din ang Presidente sa due process. Tingnan natin ang dahilan kung bakit minadali nila ito, nag-convene sila nang walang kaalam-alam ang Presidente and bibigyan sila ng pagkakataon i-explain 'yung panig nila," she added.

(The President believes in due process. We will determine why this was rushed, why they convened without the President's knowledge, and they will be given the chance to explain their side.)

If explanations are not satisfactory, the appropriate penalties against these officials will be imposed, Cruz-Angeles said.

In a statement, United Sugar Producers Federation president Manuel Lamata said the group was “shocked” and “disgusted” with “the zarzuela made by the Sugar Board that acted illegally in issuing SO4 (Sugar Order No.4).”

“They made us believe that this went through proper consultation and had the imprimatur of the President. We are thankful that the order was revoked as we are against importation, especially of raw sugar now that milling operations have started,” Lamata said.

Officials from the Sugar Regulatory Board and the Department of Agriculture have yet to respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Importation plan

The press secretary also said that Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez has already issued an order to create an importation plan on sugar.

She explained that this plan would determine if an importation is actually warranted and if it would affect the "critical levels that are approaching at the end of the month will affect the harvest season, which opens in September."

"A study is necessarily called for and in fact it was the Executive Secretary who issued the instruction for them to create an importation plan. In such importation plan, a determination has to be made about how this is going to affect the incoming harvest," she said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Kristine Evangelista earlier said the Philippines needed to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar to stabilize the commodity’s price in the market. She said there was a shortage after Typhoon Odette damaged sugarcane crops.

But Marcos rejected the proposal to import sugar, Cruz-Angeles said Wednesday evening.

Enough supply but high prices

According to Bernadette Reyes’ “24 Oras” report on Thursday, the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) said some milling companies will grind sugarcane early to avoid shortage of sugar supply.

Meanwhile, the United Sugar Producers Federation (UNIFED) raised doubts on the SRA’s statement that the country’s sugar supply is “insufficient.”

“Nag-umpisa na kami ng harvesting, bakit ka pa mag-import ng raw sugar? May stock naman tayo dito, may bagong stock na darating. Ang dami na ng raw sugar natin. Ano na naman ito, sino na naman ang binigyan niya ng favors?” UNIFED president Manuel Lamata said.

(We have already started harvesting; why would they still need to import raw sugar? We have stock here, new stock is coming. We have a lot of raw sugar. So what is this again? Who are they giving favors to?)

This was echoed by the Asociacion de Agricultores de La Carlota y Pontevedra Inc., one of the largest groups of sugar planters in Negros Occidental.

“Limang sugar central ang nagsisimula na sa paggaling. Mag-iimport ka pa ng raw? ‘Yan siguro ang nakita ng presidente na sisira sa structure ng milling. Ang kulang natin ngayon ay refined,” AALCPI general manager Dave Alba said.

(Five sugar centers are starting to recover. Why will you still be importing raw sugar? That must have been what the president saw that would destroy the milling structure. What we lack today is refined sugar.)

The SRA earlier approved the importation of 200,000 metric tons (MT) of refined sugar to augment a projected supply shortfall for the year.

Meanwhile, sugar vendors and retailers said the supply is not the problem but the high prices of sugar.

“May mabibiling stock po pero kami konti na lang po yung inii-stock namin kasi mahal po yung presyo,” vendor Mark Arian Bellen said.

(There is stock available, but we only stock a little because the price is expensive.)

“Dati kumukuha kami ng marami, ngayon sa mahal pa-isa-isang sako lang,” sugar retailer Erisa Uy said.

(We used to stock a lot, but now it's more expensive so we only get one sack.)

Farmers group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) was surprised at the importation order.

“Tingin namin baka may corruption. Siyempre, inallow yung importation.. and volume  three times doon sa sinasabi nila na utang,” SINAG chairman Rosendo So said.

(We think there might be corruption. Because it allowed importation.. and the volume is almost three times from what they say is owed.)

The Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. (PCAFI) warned that oversupply from the importation can affect local farmers and producers.

“Mag-o-oversupply na ‘yan, baka patayin mo na ‘yung industriya. Kailangan talaga yung i-importin natin ‘yun lang talagang pangangailangan,” PCAFI president Danilo Fausto said.

(If there is an oversupply, it might kill the industry. We should import what is really needed.)

GMA News is trying to get the side of SRA administrator Hermenegildo Serafica and other officials of the Department of Agriculture. — with Richa Noriega/AOL/BM, GMA News