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Risa votes no, Imee abstains in Senate RCEP vote

The plight of Filipino farmers and the common folk figured in Senator Risa Hontiveros' explanation of her "no" vote and Senator Imee Marcos' reason for her abstention when the Senate voted to concur with the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

At least 20 senators voted for Resolution No. 485 concurring with the ratification of the trade agreement.

Hontiveros expressed concern over what she called an onslaught of tobacco and formula milk advertisements, and the Philippines' goods trade balance worsening by US$ 264 million a year. She also mentioned losing tariff revenues to the tune of US$58 million a year.

"Panghuli po at pinakamahalaga, at sana ito po ang pinakapakinggan pa rin ng ating mga kasama. I have with me a letter of 131 organizations from various groups around the country. Mga grupo ng magsasaka, mga grupo ng mangingisda, mga trade union, mga health advocates, mga fair trade advocates," Hontiveros said.

"These represent millions of Filipinos who say that our country is not ready for this deal, that we already obtain the benefits from our other agreements, and that we even stand to lose," she added.

"The calculations for me are simple, Mr. President. Dapa na po ang ating agrikultura. Hindi pa tayo nakakaahon sa pandemya. This is not the time for RCEP," Hontiveros said.

Imee raised her concerns over the RCEP, citing the need to prioritize the need of the farmers and ordinary citizens.

“Nais ko lang diiinin na ang aking pangangamba ay dulot ng aking paninindigan hindi bilang kapatid sa kapangyarihan kundi bilang anak ng ng legasiya ng aking ama na laging unahin ang maliliit, ang nagsasaka,” Marcos said.

“Ang lupa at ang lahat ng mga nangangailangan. Pahintulutan niyo akong hindi lumahok sa botohang ito, hindi dahil umiiwas sa katungkulan kundi sa panahong ito bigo pa rin ang nakakarami sa bukid at sa parang,” she added.

Imee didn't sign the committee report on the RCEP, saying that it would harm the agriculture sector.

"[I] am quantifying gains in electronics and garments versus agri damage from RCEP. Really a lot to gain economically, but it will ravage the countryside and kill our farmers," Marcos said earlier in February when asked why she did not sign the committee report on RCEP.

Several poultry and agriculture producers earlier asked the government to give a “clear path for development” for their sectors before the ratification of the RCEP.

'New champions'

In a statement, the Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG) lauded the two senators for opposing the RCEP, describing them as the "new champions of the agriculture sector."

"Senators Risa Hontiveros and Imee Marcos were the 'last men' standing up for the local producers," said SINAG executive director Jayson Cainglet on Wednesday.

"We salute the valiant efforts of Senator Hontiveros and Senator Marcos. It was a gallant fight til the end. No amount of sugar coating can hide the disastrous impact of RCEP to the country, especially to the agriculture sector."

Cainglet said placing a thousand guidelines on an oversight committee without an enabling law is meaningless.

"We have enough laws that should have protected the sectors, but they were never implemented," he said. "And now they want to assure us with guidelines and oversight work?" 

Several groups expressed worry that the Philippines may become “losers” in the mega free trade deal.

“May benefit kung tayo ay handa  para tayo ay manalo dito sa competition game na ito. You just look at the economic figures. We are losers in free trade game,” said Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands (CCPI) president Jose Luis Yulo in Sandra Aguinaldo’s report on “24 Oras" on Wednesday. 

(We will benefit if we are ready to win. But look at the economic figures. We are losers in a free trade game.)

He also said China, which is known for its cheap products, is among the countries pushing for the RCEP.

“If you look at it who is most prepared? China, Japan, South Korea. Because their economies were developing. So we will just end up buying from them. What will we in turn sell to them?” he added.

Yulo’s remarks were echoed by the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), which warned the agriculture sector may suffer from the easing of regulations on imported products.

“Inaamin naman po ng lahat na hindi po handa ang ating agricultural sector at all. Hindi tayo competitive. Kaya nga po nananawagan kami sa mga senador at sa cabinet na siguraduhin pong matutupad na tulungan ang ating mga magsasaka competitive and efficient producers,” said FFF chairperson Leonardo Montemayor.

(We admit our agriculture industry is not prepared at all. We’re not competitive. That’s why we call on lawmakers to ensure programs for farmers will be implemented. We need to make them competitive and efficient producers.)

Meanwhile, some economists and business groups, including the Makati Business Club and the Management Association of the Philippines, welcomed the Senate's decision.

“‘Pag nag invest sila dito sa ating bansa, magtatayo sila ng production facility...lilikha sila ng maraming trabaho. Puwede din nila ibenta ang produkto nila dito sa ating bansa dahil malaki market natin,” Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation chief economist Michael Ricafort said.

(When investments pour in, they will establish production facilities and create jobs. They may now sell their products here because our market is growing.) —Richa Noriega and Sundy Locus/NB/KBK/VBL, GMA Integrated News