With rice prices soaring and the debate on rice importation policies ongoing at the Senate, members of the National Food Authority (NFA) Council, the country’s rice policymaking body, have been kept in the dark about the likely backlash resulting from the decision of Department of Agriculture (DA) and NFA to continue implementing quantitative restrictions (QR) on rice imports despite the June 2012 expiration of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs-World Trade Organization (GATT-WTO) Agreement’s special treatment
on rice for the Philippines.
In a legal opinion submitted to the DA and the Bureau of Customs (BOC), Justice Secretary Leila de Lima advised Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala that with the expiration of the QR or special treatment for rice, the government would have to comply with its GATT-WTO treaty obligations.
De Lima also urged Alcala to junk restrictive measures such as NFA-issued permits that restrict volumes of rice imports.
Copies of the Department of Justice (DOJ) opinion, however, were not circulated to members of the NFA Council in its February 17, 2014 meeting. Asked about the said opinion, NFA Farmer Sector Representative Edwin Paraluman said “wala akong nakita na DOJ opinion.” (I did not see any DOJ opinion.) Pressed as to whether copies of the said opinion were distributed to members of the council, NFA Board Secretary Ofelia Cortez-Reyes said in Filipino that she did not “remember matters like that [‘Di ko naaalala ang mga bagay na ‘yan].”
De Lima stressed that the government had no authority to extend the special treatment on rice that had expired in 2012 pending action on the request of the Philippines to extend the restriction to 2017.
Negotiations for the extension of the QR will be resumed in March this year. Talks are ongoing with four countries (Australia, Canada, Thailand and the United States) that have withheld support for the extension of the QR until tariff concessions are given on agricultural goods such as beef, chicken, swine, and turkey.
The DOJ also emphasized that although the NFA had the power to establish rules on rice importation under Presidential Decree 4 or the National Grains Authority Act, it was obliged to do so only in accordance with applicable laws. An implementing agency like the NFA, De Lima warned, could not violate an international agreement that had been approved by the President and the Philippine Senate such as the GATT.
In support of this, the DOJ stressed that the WTO treaty was not an ordinary law as its provisions, by the acts of both the President and the Senate, became part of our body of laws. De Lima emphasized these points at the Senate in January 22, when she told senators that the WTO “forms part of the law” consistent with the legal maxim of “maxim pacta sunt servanda [international agreements must be kept in good faith].”
Government Corporate Counsel Raoul Creencia, has warned NFA officials that the Philippines risks sanctions from the WTO if the government continues to impose the QR. Creencia advised the NFA in a February 3, 2014 letter distributed to Council members during its February 17, 2014 meeting that “other WTO member countries, which may be prejudiced by NFA and the country’s action on rice imports, may file a dispute.”
The BOC discovered almost 200, 000 tons of rice were smuggled into the country in 2013, Customs chief John Sevilla said on Thursday in a press conference at the DOJ.
Sevilla, citing reports from the NFA said that only 50,000 tons of the country’s rice importations in 2013 had import permits.
Sevilla said that 75 percent of the total rice importations without permits came through the Port of Manila, Manila International Container Port and the ports of Cebu, Davao, Cagayan de Oro and Misamis Oriental.
Customs investigators are looking into rice shipments consigned to five importers, namely Bold Bidder, Starcraft, Intercontinental Grains, Medaglia de Oro and Silent Royalty.