Senate grills Rodriguez on approval procedures for sugar import order


EXECUTIVE Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez faced questioning in the Senate over whether a draft sugar import order went up the proper chain of administrative approvals before being issued.

Senator Ana Theresia N. Hontiveros-Baraquel noted in her line of questioning that Mr. Rodriguez appears to have been in possession of draft versions of what later became Sugar Order (SO) No. 4, which authorized the import of 300,000 metric tons of sugar to address a domestic shortage.

SO No. 4 was later recalled after the Palace said it was issued without the President’s approval.

“Secretary Rodriguez knows there is a draft order circulating. An order that received support from stakeholders of the sugar industry. Did he mention this at all to his principal? Shouldn’t the Executive Secretary protect the President? Shouldn’t the Executive Secretary be the gatekeeper?” she said at a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing.

On the matter of draft orders being e-mailed to him, Mr. Rodriguez said, “I purposely did not respond because these are the matters that are still on the table of the acting Secretary of the Department of Agriculture that we have yet to act upon and that he has yet to decide on.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s “principal,” President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. also serves as the Secretary of Agriculture, in which capacity he chairs the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), which manages the national sugar inventory and authorizes imports when needed.

Mr. Rodriguez affirmed that on Aug. 5, his office received a draft sugar order from the SRA, and, a few hours later, a recommendation to import 300,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar from the Department of Agriculture (DA).

On Aug. 7 and 8, Mr. Rodriguez received two separate messages from former Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio S. Sebastian seeking updates on approval of the draft.

On Aug. 10, the Palace was informed that the SRA had passed a resolution approving SO 4 and claimed it was issued without the President’s knowledge.

Ms. Hontiveros presented a memorandum order to the committee indicating that Mr. Sebastian was authorized to sign sugar orders on behalf of the Secretary of Agriculture.

“How can it be illegal when it was the Executive Secretary himself who issued a Memorandum dated 15th of July 2022 authorizing Undersecretary Sebastian to sit as ex-officio Chairman or member of all duly constituted committees, councils, boards or bodies where the DA Secretary is a member,” she said. “In the said memo, he has the authority to sign administrative issuances.”

She said the situation appeared to have been a “simple policy debate” but instead resulted in the Palace’s administrative arrangements being called into question.

“This only drives home the point that we really need proper leadership in the DA. I hope this is not a portent of things to come: the order will be issued, the order will be withdrawn, the order will be denied. Nobody is helped by disorganized leadership — not industry, not the traders, not the producers, and certainly not the consumers,” Ms. Hontiveros said.

“This was not only about one man misinterpreting intent and acting (without authority). Ultimately, this is the fallout of a messy, haphazard bureaucracy,” she added, referring to Mr. Sebastian’s testimony that he had misinterpreted the President’s intent in going forward with the sugar order.

Former SRA Head Hermenegildo R. Serafica, who resigned in the wake of the confusion over SO No. 4, said on Aug. 1, he was in a meeting with Mr. Marcos, who gave instructions to the SRA and the DA to “prepare an import plan.” This led Mr. Sebastian to later issue the order on the assumption that he was authorized to do so.

Senator Ronald M. dela Rosa said that there “must be a bigger reason why (Mr. Sebastian) signed it. This is not a delusion. I don’t buy that justification.”

Mr. Sebastian, speaking at the hearing, said that “the pressure to supplement local supply was really there,” which made him choose between not acting act on time and acting in itself, which was also a risk.

“Even if we approve Sugar Order 4 now, it will take us at least one month before the supply arrives, at the earliest,” he added.

Mr. Sebastian said that the “SRA indicated in their data that we only have supply of sugar up to the end of August, so the private sector was also pushing for more supply of sugar. We have a dialogue with them; we consulted the millers, planters, refiners and they were all unanimous in proposing that we (import) 300,000 MT.”

“These were all documented,” he added. “The sugar order was not decided in one day, it went through a process of consultation and discussion with many stakeholders; we based it on data.”

Senator Cynthia A. Villar called the SRA report warning of shortages “very difficult to understand, so I think it has been manipulated to allow imports.” She added that “the SRA should focus on the development of the sugar industry to make it competitive by producing more sugar at a lower cost rather than focusing on imports.”

Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said the SRA has repeatedly defaulted to imports as its “primary solution to our sugar problems,” to the detriment of around 100,000 small and marginalized sugar farmers, 800,000 laborers involved in sugar production, and their 4 million dependents.

“As I have always said, I am not totally against imports. I understand that sugar production has been hit hard by the one-two-three punch of the pandemic, of rising input costs, and of natural disasters like Typhoon Odette. I know that we will need to import some sugar to meet demand that local supply cannot cover,” he said.

“But we must not import more than we need; we must not favor imports over local production; and we must not import through such underhanded, unauthorized means as what almost happened with Sugar Order No. 4,” he added.

At the hearing, Ms. Villar said Republic Act 10659 or the Sugar Industry Development Act of 2015, promoting and supporting the competitiveness of the sugar industry, should have prevented the sugar crisis.

She noted that the SRA was allocated P2 billion a year to support, enhance and reform sugar farming. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan