Attempt to pull out 55,000 bags of seized sugar from Bulacan warehouse bared

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Workers load harvested sugarcane onto a truck. AFP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—Unidentified persons had allegedly tried to withdraw 55,000 bags of sugar which were seized in 2010 and stored at a customs warehouse in Bulacan, a group representing industry stakeholders said Friday.

Customs authorities seized the sugar worth P110 million after being allegedly smuggled from Thailand and stored in the warehouse pending litigation, the Sugar Master Plan Foundation (SMPF) said.

Citing information from customs officers, SMPF executive director Felixberto T. Monasterio said the unidentified persons representing a “vested interest group” presented dubious court documents to the customs officers on Tuesday in trying to claim the bags of sugar “apparently with the intention to sell it to the market.”

“Fortunately, our customs officers were very alert and immediately called for backup,” and the group had to leave, Monasterio said in an interview by phone.

He said he had no idea who was behind the attempt to withdraw the “smuggled” sugar. Asked if a politician could be behind it, he said: “That’s what we’re afraid of. That’s why we are now going to media.”

Monasterio said the Bureau of Customs already ruled on Oct. 8 that the sugar volume was “clearly” illegally shipped, but his group was now asking the BOC and the Sugar Regulatory Administration to declare finally that the sugar was smuggled.

“This is so the sugar can finally be disposed of by the SRA,” he told the Inquirer.

In a statement, Monasterio raised concerns that the release of the sugar volume to the market would depress prices to the detriment of farmers, considering that sugar remained a “sensitive commodity.”

“Any slump in price affects farmers, as the industry gives jobs to 60,000 farmers planting sugarcane on 420,000 hectares. The industry contributes P70 billion to the country’s gross domestic product and P2 billion in value-added tax,” he said.

In 2010, the National Food Authority was allowed by the national government to import 150,000 metric tons of sugar in the first half to beef up local supply.

In the middle of the importation process, customs officials seized a shipment from Thailand of 54,907 bags of sugar that went beyond the volume allowed by the NFA. The importer was Unitrade International.

After a long legal tussle, the BOC’s Law Office declared the shipment illegal on Oct. 8, Monasterio said.

“However, another company, Yida Trading, filed on Oct. 25 a motion for reconsideration with BOC, saying it is the rightful claimant of the sugar. It claims as evidence the receipt issued to it by Unitrade upon purchase of the goods,” he said.

Monasterio said he did not believe Yida Trading was the same group that attempted to withdraw the stocks from the Bulacan warehouse.

Monasterio said the sugar industry was seeking government protection against illegal importation as the industry was struggling with volatile prices.

The industry, he said, is already beset with its own worries as Philippine sugar “will not be able to compete with Thailand sugar,” which is highly subsidized by its government, especially when the Asean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) takes effect in 2015.

“AFTA will further expose small farmers tilling 10 hectares and below to cut-throat competition. Small farmers running 10 hectares and below represent nearly 90 percent of the sugar industry,” he said.

SMPF is now implementing emergency measures to shield farmers from AFTA’s impact, Monasterio said. “We’re setting up safety nets to at least mitigate the expected entry of sugar from Thailand by 2015,” he said.

In 2000, the local sugar industry formulated a “Master Plan for the Sugar Industry” to address priority concerns and to increase productivity. Two years later, the SMPF was established to implement the various components of the master plan.

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