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Hontiveros urges Senate probe into 260-container sugar shipment

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday urged the Senate to investigate the February 9 arrival of 260 20-foot containers of sugar from Thailand.

Hontiveros said that the arrival of the shipment on February 9 was not covered by earlier sugar orders. She said that the earliest possible date for imported sugar to enter the Philippines was March 1, 2023.

"Could these shipments be from allocations in earlier Sugar Orders? No. Because the most recent SO with a Sugar Import Program – dated September 13, 2022, and replacing that ill-fated SO that was the subject of the Blue-Ribbon investigation – states that allocated volumes shall arrive in the Philippines not later than November 15, 2022. Samakatwid, hindi na sakop ng naunang SO ang pumasok ng February 9," she said.

"At dahil hindi din sila sakop ng SO 6, na simula February 24 pa ang awarding ng allocation, there is no other conclusion but to say that these sugar shipments are smuggled," she added.

"What other conclusion can be drawn other than that this is government-sponsored smuggling? Who is responsible for this? Should it be subjected to the same level of laser scrutiny that subjected the actions of Usec [Leocadio] Sebastian, et al.?" she asked.

Meanwhile, the senator said that the Bureau of Customs confirmed the shipment with the Department of Agriculture on February 14, 2023.

Hontiveros also said that Agriculture Undersecretary and Sugar Board chairperson Domingo Panganiban addressed an undated memorandum order that allowed the importation to Sugar Regulatory Administration Administrator David John Alba and two other board members, Pablo Azcona, and Mitzi Mangwag.

Furthermore, in a January 13 letter to one of the alleged sugar importers, Panganiban claimed the importation allocation was "per instruction of Executive Secretary [Lucas] Bersamin."

"Totoo ba ito? Can we check the bar code of this? Kasi umiikot na ito sa mga viber groups," said Hontiveros.

"Bakit gumawa ng ganitong liham si Usec Panganiban, samantalang alam nya na tanging SRA ang maaring maglabas ng sugar order?" she asked.

Moreover, the senator said that the 260 containers were also brought in via BOC's Super Green Lane system, through which a shipment gets VIP treatment, noting that agricultural products are not allowed in the system.

She also asked why the Department of Agriculture (DA) seems to have such broad discretion over sugar importation and how it can approve any allocation amount without restriction.

"There appears to be no criteria, no ceiling, no formula with which to determine how allocation is given to each importer. It is then technically possible to just give the allocations to three favored importers. Mukhang ganito na nga ang nangyari ngayon," she said.

Hontiveros also said that if it was not necessary to grant broad powers to agencies to determine how much import allocations shall be given to eligible importers, the government must rethink how we import sugar.

"Does it promote competition, or does it sponsor the emergence of new cartels? Kung di natin ito papalagan, hindi ba natin binabasbasan ang sistemang may favored traders at may patronage? Do we not enable a small group of powerful importers to game the system with ease and to withhold fresh supplies already in the market at a time of high prices and sugar shortage?" she said.

“Hindi ba ang talo dito ay ang mamamayang Pilipino? Dahil pag pinayagan natin ang asukal na pasukin ng mga cartel, pinapayagan natin na kontrolin nila ang presyo nito. At kung di natin ito papalagan, ano pa ang ibang agricultural commodities na pwedeng pasukan ng kartel?” the senator added.

GMA News Online had sought comment from the Palace, Agriculture Department, and SRA on Hontiveros' allegations, but they have yet to respond as of posting time. — DVM, GMA Integrated News