Agri exec in questioned sugar imports named SRA OIC
Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban, the official at the center of an impending Senate investigation on the alleged illegal importation of sugar earlier this year, has been named officer in charge (OIC) of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).
In an interview on Wednesday, SRA board member Pablo Luis Azcona said Panganiban would hold the post until such time the President appoints the next head of the agency.
“As per the SRA charter, in the event that there is no administrator, the chairman of the board takes over as the OIC until an administrator is appointed or the board assigns another OIC, usually the most senior deputy administrator,” said Azcona.
Panganiban represents President Marcos in the SRA board, where the Chief Executive sits as chair in his capacity as concurrent agriculture secretary.
“The urgency of an OIC is very important because we still have importations coming in and we still are continuing to come out with the import clearances,” Azcona added.
Panganiban will temporarily oversee the SRA until a replacement is named for David John Thaddeus Alba, who left the top SRA post last month due to health reasons.
Alba, who took over the reins of the SRA in August last year, maintained that his decision to leave had nothing to do with the alleged government-sponsored importation of 440,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar.
In Senate Resolution No. 497 filed in February, Sen. Risa Hontiveros called on the blue ribbon committee to look into what she called a “government-sponsored sugar smuggling” when a shipment of 260 20-foot containers of sugar arrived in the country even before an order authorizing it was issued.
The SRA issued Sugar Order (SO) No. 6 six days after the entry of the sugar shipment in what Hontiveros believed was to justify the SRA’s decision to handpick only three importers—All Asian Countertrade Inc., Edison Lee Marketing Corp. and S&D Sucden Philippines Inc.—to buy some 440,000 MT of sugar from abroad.
Panganiban confirmed that he cleared the release of the questioned sugar imports, which he argued was a necessary move to lower the steep selling prices of refined sugar that was being sold at about P100 a kilo then.
“It has a clearance. It’s done. The (import order) has been given by the SRA,” Panganiban had said. “This is the sugar that will lower the price of commercial sugar in the Philippines. It will be P80 to P84 per kilo.”
Line to the President
Sugar groups were divided over the decision to name Panganiban as the interim SRA head while the Palace is on the lookout for a permanent head for the agency.
National Federation of Sugarcane Planters Inc. (NFSPI) president Enrique Rojas said this development sent “mixed signals” to industry stakeholders.
“On one hand, it assures us that Malacañang is concerned over the vacancy in SRA’s top post. On the other hand, Panganiban’s designation raises eyebrows, considering his direct involvement in the highly irregular awarding of import rights to three hand-picked traders, and the questionable release of imported sugar which arrived prior to the issuance of the sugar order allowing its importation,” Rojas pointed out.
Rojas, for his part, said they were hoping that Panganiban would adopt a consultative approach in the decision-making process within the SRA and “that he will be fair and will not display any favoritism in his treatment of all stakeholders.”
United Sugar Producers Federation of the Philippines president Manuel Lamata said Panganiban was a “good choice” to head the SRA.
When asked if this would help revitalize the sugar industry, Lamata said: “I suppose so because he has direct contact with the President. Anything the industry needs [we can expect] action immediately.”
“I personally welcome the prompt replacement of the SRA administrator as it is a full-time job,” Philippine Sugar Millers Association Inc. president Pablo Lobregat said.
Sugar at P70/kilo
Meanwhile, Azcona said they would fast-track efforts to sell around 4,000 MT of seized sugar at the Kadiwa stores at P70 a kilo “soon.”
The SRA approved on Tuesday the amendments to an internal memorandum circular that would allow the donation of smuggled sugar for sale to the public.
Azcona said the agency was working on the logistics side before making the seized smuggled commodity available to consumers.
Azcona said the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the SRA were also exploring measures to mitigate the potential impact of the El Niño dry spell on local production.
“One of those is cloud seeding. It is also being proposed by the provincial government of Negros. Now, we just have to come up with the cost and logistics involved to do that,” he explained.
For cloud seeding, Azcona said the SRA might seek an additional budget from the DA since the SRA only runs on a corporate budget and might not have enough funds to shoulder the cost of cloud seeding.
The SRA board member also said the agency proposed providing pumps and irrigation equipment, among others, to farms with access to water, as well as “suggestions for solar pumps so it’s continuous.”