FAILURE

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By Miguel Raymundo

THE appointment of former senator Francisco Pangilinan as Presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization raised a lot of questions back in May. And, almost three months after being named de facto Agriculture Secretary, Kiko still has nothing to show for it.

While the competence and public service record of Pangilinan may not be questionable, it is President Aquino’s move to put him on top of the National Food Authority (NFA), National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) and Pesticide Authority—agencies under the Department of Agriculture (DA)—that is highly suspectable.

Unsavory

Despite efforts by how Malacañang massage and sugarcoat the fact that Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala has been effectively stripped of much of his powers as DA chief, there is no denying the unsavory nature of the Pangilinan appointment.

At face value, the move could be interpreted as yet another attempt by the Aquino administration to redeem itself from the double-barreled scandal involving the misuse of billions in public funds via the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and other pestering issues of graft and corruption that have effectively dislocated the “Matuwid na Daan” schema.

Pangilinan’s entry to the Cabinet is, to a certain extent, akin to the selection of another former senator, Ping Lacson, who was appointed as Presidential Assistant for Relief and Rehabilitation (PARR) in the face of government’s systematic failure to address the needs of millions of Filipinos in Eastern Visayas who suffered the devastation of super typhoon Yolanda back in November.

Poster Boy

Lacson, who as senator refused to collect his PDAF allotments, was the perfect poster boy for the PNoy administration in its effort to neutralize reports of the delay in the delivery of typhoon relief being caused by unscrupulous government officials filching millions in foreign cash and equipment donations.

However, Lacson’s appointment carried no real powers with it. He had no access to funds and had no authority whatsoever to police the government agencies involved in the massive relief and reconstruction effort. This, Lacson learned the hard way—after losing a publicized run-in with Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson over his declaration that the temporary bunkhouses being constructed to shelter typhoon victims could be grossly overpriced.

Pangilinan, meanwhile, has an almost unblemished publish service track record. He is as likable as Mickey Mouse. But unlike Lacson, Pangilinan is loyal to PNoy and is a Liberal Party stalwart and critics believe there is more to his appointment than just “cleaning the ranks of the DA”.

Trouble

Less than a week after Kiko’s appointment, two agency heads under the DA tendered their resignations. PCA Administrator Euclides Forbes and National Food Authority (NFA) Administrator Arthur Juan both submitted their courtesy resignation letters to the Office of the President.
Juan, who had just been recently appointed to replace Orlan Calayag, gave his letter on May 6 and asked that his resignation “be made effective upon the appointment of a replacement.” Forbes, appointed in January 2011, filed his resignation on May 8.

“I filed a courtesy resignation to enable the new boss to choose (a new administrator). But I’m willing to stay,” Forbes told reporters.

Pangilinan refused the resignation of Juan, who had been earlier accused by rice trader Jomerito “Jojo” Soliman of extorting PhP15 million from him. Reports said PhP10 million was purportedly for Pangilinan and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas while the remaining PhP5 million was for Juan.

Soliman claimed that Juan’s lawyer Patricia Galang is also involved in the extortion. Soliman said the PhP10 was deposited to bank accounts provided by Juan while the PhP5 million was supposedly delivered to Juan in cash.

Juan has denied the allegations and government has yet to finish its investigation into the matter, the reason cited by Kiko for refusing his resignation.

Pangilinan believes trader Jojo Soliman made up the allegations against Juan because Soliman’s license was suspended for his practice of allegedly mixing animal feeds with rice.

Forbes, meanwhile, has been replaced by Romulo Arancon Jr. as PCA head. Also, word is out that NIA Administrator Claro Maranan and FPA Director Norli Gicana are also likely to be replaced.

Impossible Task

With less than two years before the end of the PNoy presidency most observers believe that it is impossible for Pangilinan to address the issues of rice smuggling, food security, and rebuild the livelihood of millions of Eastern Visayas farmers who lost their means of living to Yolanda.

For starters, the agriculture sector grew by only 1 percent from last year and the coconut industry is in shambles losing one-third of its production—the output of Eastern Visayas farms destroyed by Yolanda.

With some 33 million coconut trees destroyed, it will take 10 years before the region begins to produce coconuts again even as thousands of farmers continue to wait for the arrival of much-needed government relief almost a year after the typhoon.

Meanwhile, the promise of rice sufficiency is more likely to remain just a promise with government spending focused on rice imports than the development of new technologies and programs to help resurrect the local rice industry. PNoy himself defended the importations as a means to “curb smuggling and to bring rice hoarders to their knees”. With imported rice flooding the market, the future of the Filipino rice farmer under the PNoy administration looks dim.

On the issue of food security, more than a quarter of Filipino adults (36%) claimed to be food insecure, while 23% of Filipino children said the same in the latest National Nutrition Survey (NNS). The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has the highest prevalence of food insecurity. However, the problem is not concentrated in one area, but persistently scattered across all 16 regions of the Philippines.

Some regions may have fewer cases of food insecurity than others, but the data suggests that it may take more than a while before the government manages to end hunger for all Filipinos.

2016 Derby

So what is Kiko Pangilinan supposed to achieve given his limited time?

In a visit to IloIlo last July, the newly appointed Cabinet man was accompanied by Juan and a team of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents in the raid cum inspection of a local warehouse. The operation yielded 1,500 re-bagged sacks of NFA rice intended for resale as commercial rice. But local media was quick to dismiss the whole affair as nothing but a publicity stunt for Kiko who is being groomed as a vice presidential candidate in 2016.

“If the inspection was meant to curb the activities of unscrupulous rice retailers, authorities should have done it periodically in the past, not only during the visit of a Malacanang VIP,” a local columnist wrote.

“All over Western Visayas or in the entire country for that matter, more sacks of repacked NFA grains can be discovered if authorities are only doing their job religiously,” the writer added.

Other than posing for photo-ops and being interviewed on national television, Kiko actually had no business being in the area after it was cleared by NBI agents as a crime scene.

Money Man?

In his penultimate State of the Nation Address PNoy ended with the words “Hanggang dito na lamang po ako at maraming salamat”. After this, the frenzy was on for the 2016 polls with all government activity focused on preparing the machinery to propel the administration bet for the next presidential derby.

“Pangilinan’s main concern is to guard the expenditures of the PCA and NFA and to make sure that the ‘proceeds’ are funneled into the administration’s 2016 campaign kitty,” a PNoy critic said.

A large part of this observation owes to the fact that the DA agencies put under Kiko’s watch have become, post typhoon Yolanda, the most funded outfits of the department.

The Philippine plan for the recovery program has allotted about PhP18.7 billion for the rehabilitation of the agriculture sector, which includes crops, livestock and fisheries. The PCA, for example, has received PhP2.8 billion for the rehabilitation of the coconut industry—money that remains untapped because of the lack of legal guidelines covering the disposal of felled and damaged coconut trees that would satisfy the legal rights of land owners, tenants and other beneficiaries.
To fund the recovery program, government will utilize the billions in foreign relief and it is said to be even mulling the use of the PhP5.8 billion in coco levy held by the National Treasury after being declared as public funds by the Supreme Court.

The other half of Kiko’s assignment, agricultural modernization, is also a money post with the enactment of the Agricultural and Fisheries Mechanization (AFMech) Law which installed the DA (Secretary Alcala) as the lead agency in all programs and equipment procurement related to the farm modernization program.

All this amounts to a lot of cash that could be diverted and made available for the administration’s 2016 campaign by way of some clever budget maneuvering similar to the DAP.

In the end, Pangilinan may fail to attain food security and all other promises made to the Filipino people before President Aquino steps down from office. But all the media exposure in this regard should be enough to assure him a seat in the Senate come 2016—or even the vice presidency.

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