MANILA - On the day President Benigno S. Aquino III visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Angelito Banayo, his former rice czar, was indicted by the Senate for involvement in a failed attempt to smuggle rice into the country.
Banayo resigned last year to run for Congress in the May 13, 2013 national elections in his home province of Agusan del Sur, but congressional pundits thought the decision to leave the Aquino administration was due to other reasons.
Aquino’s visit to the IRRI, the world’s top rice research center at Los Baños, Laguna, a province south of Metro Manila, was part of 2013 National Year of Rice celebration held last Feb. 13, and also to get update on progress of the agreement signed between IRRI and the Department of Agriculture (DA) on the delivery of research and extension services of the Food Staples Sufficiency Program (FSSP) of his administration.
No statement was made during the visit, but the President met with the rice scientists and toured the IRRI facility.
Dr. Emerlinda Roman, chair of the IRRI Board of Trustees, said the “IRRI and the Philippines have had a long and fruitful history together that has helped enhance the Philippines' excellent international standing and impact in terms of agricultural research productivity” and was gratified the President took time out to grace the event.
The statement was reechoed by Dr. Achim Dobermann, IRRI’s Deputy Director General for Research, who said “The Philippines is more focused than ever before on improving productivity in its rice sector to meet its rice self-sufficiency targets,” adding “the Philippine government is providing IRRI with unprecedented financial support to ensure research and development outcomes help rice farmers.”
The President also toured the International Rice Genebank, which conserves over 117,000 different types of rice, including nearly 10,000 from the Philippines.
That same day, Banayo, who was the administrator of the National Food Authority (NFA), the principal agency monitoring rice stocks in the country, was indicted by the Senate, recommending before the Office of the Ombudsman the filing of graft charges against him and members of a “rice cartel.”
The recommendation, contained in the 43-page Committee Report No. 763 prepared by the Senate committee on agriculture and food chaired by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, stemmed from Banayo’s alleged involvement in a botched smuggling attempt of an export firm, identified as Indian White Rice, at the Subic Freeport.
The report showed the evidences submitted by Bureau of Customs (BOC), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the NFA to the Senate reflected an “illegal shipment of 420,000 tons of rice by an Indian businessman into the Freeport zone… which involved certain government officials who allowed the illegal transactions to be consummated regardless of the irreparable injury it would cause to the government.”
Aside from Banayo, those indicted included Gilbert Lauengco, his former chief of staff and member of the Special Bids and Awards Committee (SBAC); assistant NFA administrator Jose D. Cordero, Grains Marketing and Operations Department and SBAC chair; Serafin Manalili, provincial manager, NFA Bulacan Provincial Office; Yolanda Navarro, NFA Albay Provincial Office; and members of SBAC, namely Celia Z. Tan, vice chairman; and Judy Carol L. Dansal and Mr. Carlito G. Co, members.
The Senate recommended also that charges be filed against twenty-six (26) rice cooperatives for culpability of violating the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines.
The case against Banayo, who bragged that the Philippines would be rice-sufficient under his watch, was earlier strengthened after a trader Simeon Sioson showed before the Senate to accuse him of rice smuggling, and favored traders over farmers.
In a letter to the Senate panel, he explained that NFA records would show that the trader was someone who consistently took part in all NFA activities for farmers.
He referred to his accuser as a whiner, saying “[Sioson] always argued against the concept of bidding out allocations and demanded that farmer groups, especially his own farmer groups, be given import allocations under a special price.”
Banayo stressed that the pertinent rules for the bidding process in the procurement of rice from abroad were followed to the letter.
“The total service fees earned by the NFA then was only Php103 million,” he wrote. “When I took over the agency, I insisted that allocations for the right to import be bidded out and the government earned Php 1.6 billion in 2011 and Php 2.6 billion in 2012 in service fees, which was the basis for the highest bidder.”
“Insofar as the charge that I favored importers over farmers,” he added, “that is again baseless. During [my] term, drastically reduced the levels of importation of rice from 2.5 million metric tons in 2010 under the previous administration to 860,000 metric tons in 2011 and 500,000 metric tons this year. Of the 500,000 metric tons imported, 380,000 metric tons were brought in by the private sector and fully half or 190,000 of that import allocation were reversed for farmer importers.”
But this assertion was strongly debunked by Rigoberto Tiglao, an economist who was also an envoy to Greece under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who showed statistics from the United Nations clearly showing different figures from those that the NFA administrator bannered.