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ZAMBOANGA CITY – While the shortage in Zamboanga City is slowly being addressed by the government, the situation is far worst in Sulu province where people are lining up in long queues just to be able to buy 5 kilos of rice from the National Food Authority or NFA.

NFA rice sells at P27 a kilo in Sulu, one of five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region, which is suffering from lack of rice supply. Even rice imported by traders from Malaysia is gone due to a strict government campaign against rice smuggling which locals insist as “traditional” barter trade activities.

And neighboring province if Tawi-Tawi which is near Sabah in Malaysia is also faced with the lack of rice supply and residents are also queuing to buy government subsidized rice sold at NFA outlets.

With the rice crisis now in those areas, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol has proposed a special importation of 132,000 metric tons of rice by the private sector for Zamboanga Peninsula – composed of Zamboanga City, and the provinces Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte – and Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – all in the Muslim autonomous region also known as ZamBaSulTa – and also considering the establishment of a Rice Trading Center where all supplies coming from other countries nearby, such as Malaysia, would be unloaded, charged with minimal tariffs and distributed only in those areas.

“My proposal is that the volume of rice allowed to enter through the Rice Trading Center should not be more than half of the total requirements of the region so that rice farmers in the mainland would not be affected,” Piñol said.

Piñol said each of the local governments in ZamBaSulTa should be required to establish a rice production project with an initial 1,000 hectares as pilot area. He said the provincial government of Tawi-Tawi has committed 10,000 hectares while the three others have committed 1,000 hectares each.

“Local officials have all endorsed my proposals, but aside from (rice production project) which I could implement at my level, all the others will have to refer to other agencies for their approval. There is not much time, however, because Tawi-Tawi’s rice supply is only good for 15 days while Sulu only has about 10 days,” he said, adding, the only other option left to the local officials is to allow the resumption of rice smuggling operations in the area.

“But that has also become problematic because with the intensified campaign against smuggling by President Duterte, the “tara” of corrupt government officials in the area and other agencies has also increased to P500 per 25-kilo bag,” Piñol said.

He said with a tara of P500 per bag, the landed cost of the smuggled rice would come to about P44 per kilo, that is just slightly lower than the rice produced by the farmers from Mindanao. “This is a predicament that could only be addressed if we in government would get our acts together and act fast,” he said.

Tawi-Tawi, according to Piñol, which has long been reputed to be the drop-off area for rice smuggled in from Malaysia, the province never had any problem with its rice supply which was sold for as low as P34 per kilo – and when the smuggling route was closed a month ago, residents in Tawi-Tawi suddenly found themselves lining up for rice sold as high as P100 per kilo right after the Eid’l Fitr.

“The end of smuggling, which came after the visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to Malaysia last month where he had a private meeting with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, could be hailed as a success in the government’s campaign against illegal activities but it resulted in a crisis as Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga City.

Piñol was in Tawi-Tawi recently with Assistant Secretary Andrew Villacorta, who handles the National Rice Program, and Phil Rice Executive Director Dr. Sailila Abdulla to assess the rice situation in the province. “The situation is precarious. Even with the arrival of the first 10,000 bags of NFA rice and the expected additional shipment of another 20,000 bags, Tawi-Tawi officials are unsure of where to get additional rice supplies,” he said, adding, with a population of about 600,000 mainly dependent on smuggled rice, Tawi-Tawi alone needs about 60,000 metric tons of rice every year.

Piñol said all of this happened during the lean months when farmers in Mindanao were not harvesting their crops yet and the arrival of the NFA and private sector imported rice was delayed. He said working closely with NFA Administrator Jason Aquino, he was able to arrange an allocation of 30,000 bags for Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan while 100,000 bags of NFA rice were earmarked for Zamboanga City.

“Sulu’s problem is that it has virtually zero rice production which I believe was caused by the dependence of the area on smuggled rice. When I visited the NFA office and warehouse in Patikul town, I saw about 5,000 bags of newly unloaded NFA rice stocks. The NFA manager said it took them three days to unload the 5,000 bags and another three days to unload the remaining bags loaded in a vessel which was provided for by Governor Toto Tan,” he said.

Piñol said he also directed Undersecretary Eduardo Gongona, of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, to coordinate with Philippine Navy officials for the use of a naval vessel to bring the additional 20,000 bags from Zamboanga City to Sulu. The Department of Agriculture, he added, will also consolidate commercial rice stocks now available in Mindanao to be shipped to the province to beef up the NFA rice supply.

“The commercial rice would definitely be more expensive given the logistical requirements to ship the stocks from the mainland of Mindanao to Jolo (Sulu’s capital town). Unless the NFA Council acts immediately on the request for a special importation by the private sector of additional rice stocks specifically for the ZamBaSulTa, things could get worse. These are the times when government has to show to the people that it is not a lumbering bureaucratic elephant but a shifty gazelle who knows how to handle and avoid danger,” he said.

Piñol said his proposals were contained in a memorandum to Duterte which was coursed through Special Assistant to the President Bong Go; Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. (Mindanao Examiner)


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