In the deliberations on the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Senate must be sensitive to the social justice call of our neglected and suffering farmers and fisherfolk.
Investopedia states: "Social justice refers to the fair division of resources, opportunities and privileges in society." Though many say that RCEP is beneficial to the industry and services sectors, a press statement signed by 125 organizations released last Feb. 1 argue that RCEP is very damaging to the agriculture sector. Action supporting social justice must therefore be taken.
Our agriculture imports exceeded our exports by $8.9 billion in 2021, higher by 39 percent compared to 2020. According to the Jan. 4 report of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the deficit for the third quarter of 2022 was $3.3 billion, a 40-percent further increase from 2021. Dr. Rashmi Banga predicts that with RCEP, "the Philippines will see an increase in imports and a decrease in exports."
We asked the Department of Agriculture (DA): "With RCEP, what increase will we get in exports and what decrease in imports?" We got no answer.
John Rawls, when discussing social justice, identifies the critical concept of "a veil of ignorance." It is "a pretense of ignorance about where we will end up in any given society that ought to be used to arrange society." This veil must be avoided in the RCEP deliberations. Here are three major problems we should stop being blind to.
First, our agriculture imports often blatantly violate our laws and regulations. We have very defective first border controls: (1) in terms of outright and technical smuggling that destroys our livelihood and deprives us of government revenues we need for agriculture; (2) poor quarantine controls that endanger our agriculture sustainability; and (3) gross negligence of health and safety regulations, whereby, ironically, requirements demanded of our domestic products are not implemented for imports.
Smuggling is now much more rampant. According to United Nations Comtrade statistics, the difference between the amount reported by exporters to us and what we record that we receive (a reliable smuggling indicator) has risen from P500 billion to a staggering P1.2 trillion. The Senate should consider requiring a directive to restore the public-private antismuggling committee that reduced smuggling. It succeeded because it reported to the president, and more importantly, ensured transparency and accountability through its monthly meetings with the Bureau of Customs.
Second, we lose a scandalously large amount of our already meager DA funds to corruption and waste. This happened with the P22 billion in unliquidated and unexplained DA expenses in 2020, as officially reported by the Commission on Audit. The Senate should consider requiring the restoration of the public-private budget committee that successfully monitored budget use at the national and provincial levels. Without a budget to make us globally competitive, we will forever suffer from unfair trade agreements. Again, private sector participation (together with transparency and accountability) is the key to success.
Third, the DA supposedly has not identified specific potential agriculture threats arising from RCEP. Unlike Vietnam which undertook specific actions before joining the World Trade Organization—and succeeded—we did not prepare, resulting in severe damage to our agriculture.
This should not happen again. The Senate should consider requiring the DA to produce a list of specific threats to vulnerable sectors. Senators can then evaluate corresponding DA action plans and determine if enough has been done to justify RCEP ratification.
In the past, the Senate exercised its independence from the executive branch and won its position of moderating the recommended pork tariff rates. It should consider doing this again with RCEP.
A veil of ignorance must not happen. The Senate should consider requiring at least these three conditions if it wishes to ratify RCEP. Otherwise, agriculture will continue its precipitous decline.
The author is Agriwatch chair, former secretary of presidential flagship programs and projects and former undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and Industry. Contact is [email protected]
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