MANILA, Philippines—Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala on Monday warned rice smugglers they would face charges for mobilizing people to line up at government rice outlets to make it appear that there was a rice shortage.
Alcala told reporters at the Senate that the Department of Agriculture (DA) would file charges of economic sabotage against the “misguided souls” once sufficient evidence had been gathered against them.
Alcala said there was a “concerted effort,” possibly by rice smugglers hurt by the government’s tight control over the importation of rice, to create an artificial rice shortage.
Proof of this was the circulation of text messages about a free distribution of rice at National Food Authority (NFA) outlets in Quezon City and Manila that drew hordes of people to these outlets, Alcala said.
Paid to line up
In another instance, Caloocan City residents were paid money to line up at NFA outlets, he said.
Alcala said he was not certain if such acts constituted economic sabotage but the DA would run after rice smugglers as the agency’s legal team was gathering evidence to indict the culprits.
The NFA, quoting “reliable sources,” earlier said that reports of a rice shortage and hoarding “are part of a campaign designed to undermine the present administration and compel us to relent in our campaign against unscrupulous rice traders.”
The agency said it had sent teams to look into warehouses holding commercial rice stocks and to build up cases of hoarding against those responsible.
The militant farmers group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, for its part, last week asked Congress to investigate “rice cartels” and bogus farmer-cooperatives hoarding palay to create a false shortage, resulting in overpriced rice importation.
Alcala did not rule out that rice smugglers were involved in the scheme, saying that they were the ones hurt by the NFA’s tighter screening of the importation of rice. He maintained that there was no rice shortage.
“In all our 28 warehouses operated by the NFA in Metro Manila, we assure you there is no rice shortage,” he said.
At the Senate hearing on the DA’s P80-billion 2014 budget, NFA Administrator Orlan Calayag said the government had a buffer stock of 638,000 metric tons of rice, equivalent to 42 days of buffer stock, for the entire country.
If the private sector’s inventory is included, the buffer stock stands at 1.7 million metric tons, or 51 days, Calayag said.
“We don’t see any shortage in terms of production,” he told the Senate finance committee in response to questions by committee chair Sen. Francis Escudero.
On the sudden increase of rice prices, Calayag explained that some rice traders saw a “small window” to hike the prices ahead of the harvest of palay.
“After harvest, prices will be lower so they sell their inventory of rice at a higher price,” he said. NFA has deployed a team of watchers to public markets “to see to it there’s no switching of NFA rice.”
He said over 200 cases had been filed against rice traders for resorting to such practices.