MANILA- The continuing attacks and extortion activities by communist rebels in Mindanao and "unclear" policies on agribusiness ventures by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) are among the factors that further weaken the country's fruit export.
Industry players and workers in the banana and pineapple sectors have expressed growing concern over the atrocities committed by New People's Army (NPA) rebels against fruit plantations in Mindanao, despite a much-publicized interim ceasefire supposedly forged between the government and communist insurgents in the Netherlands.
They have also lamented the attempts by some DAR officials to scuttle legitimate and valid agribusiness venture deals between banana plantation developers and agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs), in blatant disregard of President Rodrigo Duterte's policy of honoring all contractual obligations of the government.
"We used to be the world's second largest banana producer and exporter next to Ecuador. But today, the Philippines has been edged out by Costa Rica. Ironically, this could be the best time for us to recover because of the increasing demand from large markets like China, but unpredictable state policies are pulling the industry down," said Antero Sison Jr., president of Marsman Estate Plantation Inc. (MEPI), in a statement.
The country's export earnings from banana plunged to USD440 million in 2015, down by about 60 percent from USD1.1 billion in 2014.
"We can learn to cope with extreme weather phenomena like the El NiAo and the La NiAa by applying and developing climate-resilient technologies," Sison said. "But no technological application can be developed against the inconsistency of DAR policies."
Hernando Rivero, a member of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative (DAMARBDEVCO), for his part, said "DAR officials, whether deliberate or not, have been contributing to the decline of the banana industry, which has helped tens of thousands of agrarian reform beneficiaries significantly improve their living standards and that of their families."
The DAMARBDEVCO has forged an agribusiness venture agreement with MEPI, which donated the land cultivated by members of the cooperative.
Agribusiness venture agreements (AVAs) between cooperatives formed by ARBs and banana plantation developers are among the most successful partnerships in the agriculture sector. The AVAs have enabled banana growers to earn more than farmers planting rice or other crops.
Sison said the DAR appears to be unconcerned over the plight of banana ARBs when its head, Secretary Rafael Mariano, ordered a blanket review of all AVAs or leaseback agreements despite these deals already upheld as legal, fair and aboveboard by government authorities and the courts.
The DAR has been after the cancellation of the AVA between MEPI and DAMARBDEVCO.
"It saddens us to think that the DAR doesn't care whether our ARBs and other workers in our plantation lose their jobs. Their officials are indifferent to their plight and couldn't care less if our farmers and their families go hungry," Sison said.
Alex Valoria, president and CEO of the Tagum Agricultural Development Co., Inc (TADECO), on the other hand, said on top of contending with NPA atrocities and unpredictable policies, the banana industry also has to deal with political concerns.
Valoria was referring to the quarrel between Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr., which has dragged TADECO, owned by the Floirendo clan, into the mess.
Alvarez's feud with Floirendo has prompted him to brand the JVA between TADECO and Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) as illegal and demanded that the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate the agreement.
TADECO and BuCor have a decades-long JVA to develop the Davao Prison and Penal Farm into a banana plantation primarily to help rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for reintegration into society.
"Our joint venture agreement with BuCor is a successful model for rehabilitating inmates who get to earn decent incomes that help them provide for their families while serving their sentences. This is a legally binding agreement that has proven to be aboveboard by the Congress, the Executive Branch and the courts. This arrangement would not have lasted this long if it has not been proven to be beneficial for all the parties concerned -- the government, TADECO and the inmates being rehabilitated inside the Davao penal farm," said Valoria.
"Now, all of a sudden, the JVA is being branded as void and illegal based on some legal hocus-pocus meant to satisfy political whims," he said.
"We cannot accomplish our goal of maintaining the global competitiveness of our banana industry if the government itself is the one sabotaging us. Investors can just pack, leave and relocate elsewhere. The ultimate losers here are the workers and their families," he added.
Meanwhile, Speaker Alvarez on Friday said that with only one more hearing before the House of Representatives closes its probe on the land deal between the BuCor and TADECO, the company has yet to present any convincing proof that the contract is legal.
The Speaker had sought a probe into the deal between BuCor and TADECO, owned by the Floirendo family, alleging it was not only contrary to law but also disadvantageous to the government.
The first joint hearing of the House Committee on Good Government and the Committee on Justice was held on May 9.
"Meron pang isang ini-schedule na hearing pagkatapos nito at ii-establlish natin kung ano talaga yung facts and then the committee will recommend kung anong mga kailangang batas na pwede nating gawin upang sa ganun maiwasan natin yung ganitong pagkalugi ng gobyerno," he said.
Testifying before the two committees, DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said he adopted the findings in the preliminary report of the fact-finding panel tasked to investigate the controversial land deal, which declared the BuCor-TADECO deal as illegal.
Aguirre recommended that the deal be revoked by the President or for the BuCor to file an appropriate action in court to nullify the JVA.
He also recommended that the President issue a proclamation reclassifying the lands in question as alienable and disposable before the Bucor is allowed to enter into agreements for the concession of its property, subject to bidding requirements under the law.
Alvarez said the concerned committees may recommend the filing of plunder charges if they find sufficient evidence the government lost at least Php 50 million as a result of the BuCor-TADECO land deal.
"Kung mapatunayan natin na talagang yung gobyerno ay talagang napagsamantalahan ng pinakamababa yung Php 50 million ay baka pwedeng pumasok sa plunder since this involved a government official also in cahoots with other family members," he said.
In his own estimate, Alvarez believes the BuCor-TADECO land deal has prejudiced the government by as much as Php 106,167,191 per year.
Source: Philippines News Agency