Part 1 of 2 – Prospects for the New Secretary
Bongbong Marcos Jr. views agriculture not just as a trade commodity, and more than a livelihood. He says “without food people weaken and die and societies come apart; it is an existential imperative and a moral one.”
“Food sufficiency must get the preferential treatment,” he adds.
However, the president failed miserably when he designated himself as secretary of agriculture. He said his presidential powers were needed to address the gnawing pains of the sector, but he neither had the time and competence, worse while at it, he displayed no moral ascendancy, for the task.
I mentioned ascendancy, because in my honest opinion, he messed up bigtime by wittingly or unwittingly participating in the technical smuggling of rice, sugar and onions. He gave prejudicial preference for suppliers who later on were exposed as his campaign contributors.
In aggravation, none of the 10 names exposed by Suldan Kudarat 2nd district Rep. Horacio Suansing Jr., during a House Committee on Ways and Means hearing last January 23, allegedly involved in large-scale agricultural smuggling in different points of entry in the country, were even considered persons-of-interest.
They were Michael Ma, Lujene Ang, Andrew Chang, Beverly Peres, a certain “Aaron”, Manuel Tan, Leah Cruz, Jun Diamante, Lucio Lim, and Gerry Teves. One of them has been found to be the business partner of the brother of the first lady Liza Araneta-Marcos.
The sad consequence was high officials of the department were made scapegoats for the president’s mistakes. They have been suspended from their positions and slapped cases by the Ombudsman.
In fairness, however, the president surprised the whole country when he appointed the erstwhile president of Frabelle Fishing Corporation Francisco Tiu Laurel as his replacement to lead the department.
As expected, this did not settle well with the president’s critics as Laurel was said to be an eight-digit contributor to his 2022 political campaign. Detractors immediately labelled him a “crony”.
In a report by the Philippines Daily Inquirer, Laurel refuted claims that his appointment was a “payback” for his significant contribution to the campaign of longtime friend President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the elections last year. “Definitely, there’s no payback. As I said, [this is a] sacrifice. This is for the country.”
The new secretary said he had already divested his interests in Frabelle Group of Companies, whose diversified business interests include deep-sea fishing, aquaculture, canning, food manufacturing and processing, food importation and trading, cold storage, shipyard operations, wharf development, real estate development and power generation.
“I have no more interests in all the companies I used to own,” he said. I have verified that the new cabinet member has indeed divested himself, in other words, fulfilling an important requirement before taking public office.
So I agree with the Manila Times that also welcomed the news and wrote an editorial saying “After holding the job himself for more than a year, Marcos’ choice displayed some refreshing ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and offers the prospect of real progress in improving the country’s agricultural sector.
When asked about “P20 per kilo rice” he responded as a no-nonsense businessman by correcting expectations raised by a campaign promise of the president himself, saying that may not be a practical goal since it is important to balance affordable prices for consumers with sustainable prices for producers.
His first official act is a simple but strategic return to basics – relaunching the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics. “Our data right now is not that accurate.” Without correct data on production, supply and demand, he continued, the DA cannot properly respond to issues such as prices for agricultural commodities.
It was during the term of Noynoy Aquino when the specialized functions of the BAS were transferred to the Philippine Statistics Authority. This classic error is one of the deleterious decisions that created dysfunction in the department, distancing vital data from the real-time user in favor of a staff depositary and archive.
Of course it caused bureaucratic delay to decision-making in the line department akin to delaying the flow of oxygen to the human brain.
Fishing to farming?
I have been asked – could a fishing magnate also make a successful agriculture secretary? My initial response is actually a bewilderment why presidents do not ask this question when they appoint politicians, public relations practitioners, academicians, has-beens and even smugglers to the position.
Domingo Panganiban, the alter-ego of President Marcos Jr. as secretary was a third-time failure going into his fourth disaster. Nobody even asked if the president would succeed with such a recycled pion at his side.
The only appointees that have shown success in managing the agriculture department have been supply-chain economists.
Ferdinand Edralin Marcos Sr.’s first agriculture secretary was his vice president Fernando Lopez but in name only. It was his Executive Secretary Rafael M. Salas, who doubled as overseer of the department throughout his first term. It was Salas’ genius that birthed the Green Revolution, but all credits went to the First Lady.
During his Marcos Senior’s second term, the cabinet position was bequeathed to Arturo Tanco, a technocrat under whose 13-year watch the Philippines became a rice exporter.
There has been no significant achiever since Tanco until Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed entrepreneur and successful fruit producer and exporter Luisito Lorenzo Jr. who learned the ropes from his father Moro Lorenzo, the famous basketball player who ended up taking over the Del Monte Plantation from the Americans, which at 28,000 hectares is one of the world’s largest pineapple farms in the world.
Cito, as he is fondly called, also grew the Lapanday Agricultural Development Corporation acquired by his father Moro, from the Ayala and Aboitiz families in the 1980s, onto the Lapanday Group of Companies. Based in the Davao region, Lapanday is one of the country’s top exporters of cavendish bananas.
As secretary, Lorenzo relied heavily on the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics and the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR). Armed with vital information from these two subsidiaries, he was able to surgically establish realistic targets and “roadmaps” for immediate enforcement of given programs and strategies not just for robust harvests but “Sigla’t Yaman sa Kanayunan” – enthusiasm for enriching the countryside.
As result, he enabled rice sufficiency for rice at 97% (human staple) and for corn at 83% (animal feed), substantially reducing imports.
His introduction of the “GetExcel” tilapia and its quick dissemination to 14 regional hatcheries not only boosted inland fishery incomes nationwide but provided a new “poor-man’s” variety replacing galunggong. This variety is able to replicate palm-size food on the table four times a year beating Costa Rica’s three times.
At its peak implementation, the price of tilapia went down as low as P35 per kilo in Nueva Ecija close to the Central Luzon State University where it was genetically-engineered. The low price encouraged businessmen to grow the fish to another quarter becoming “pla-pla” that could be filleted and stored in supermarkets for a longer period.
Collaborating with the Department of Trade, he opened new markets for packed sardines, tilapia, bangus and tuna in the United States and Europe, a move that tripled the income of seaports in General Santos, Davao and Zamboanga. He pushed the Philippine Coconut Authority to maximize the diversification of derivative coconut products.
To improve farm to market access in western Philippines, Lorenzo conceptualized and coordinated with the Department of Transportation in birthing a nautical highway linked by roll-on-roll-off ferries, from Batangas to Mindoro to Aklan (and the island of Panay) to Negros to Cebu and Bohol to Northern Mindanao.
He introduced natural impounding system in the slopes of the Ilocos mountains in order to allow lowland water tables to replenish water levels to push back the creeping underground salination of tobacco plantations.
After motivating Nueva Vizcaya to compete with Benguet in vegetable production, he was able to start high-value exports to Hongkong and Singapore. The innovation was accelerated with the Novo-Vizcayanos seeking the help of the Ifugaos in terracing their mountain slopes for addition arable land with less need for fertilization.
Before Lorenzo, our historical national production average was 2.9% for the sector. In just his 20-month tenure as secretary, he raised this to 8.7%.
So it is totally possible for Kiko Tiu Laurel to even exceed these accomplishments because he can enjoy a longer tenure than Lorenzo.
A word of caution, however.
Public service in agriculture and fisheries is not just about doing the job effectively. There exists a mafia inside the department. Lorenzo did not last long because in order to serve the people well, he stepped on the toes of many who had been engaged in illegal activities.
We are all familiar about loan sharks. But that is small time corruption.
The supply chain is now full of criminal syndicates, engaging from fixed bidding from seeds, to fertilizers and pesticides, to hoarding and smuggling. They have built their own dark connections inside and outside the departments and are protected by named lawyers and the law enforcement connections.
They operate in both national and local levels.
The Manila Times wrote that “as to the chronic problems of smuggling and market manipulation by cartels, Laurel said that he would form an intelligence group within the DA to combat corruption within the department and contend with the smugglers and errant traders.
Well, Lorenzo formed a “whistleblowers bureau” that placed him on top of preempting corruption inside and outside the department that has a connection with agricultural and fisheries products.
It was so effective, it exposed an undersecretary of the department involved in the notorious fertilizer scam of 2004, using Janet Lim Napoles as runner for his shady deals.
The whistleblowers also made record apprehensions of smuggled goods at the Bureau of Customs or in transit to their clandestine warehouses. Container vans had luxury cars, cellphones, high-end appliances, even expensive eggs of priced fighting cocks stashed between crates of onions, carrots, chicken leg quarters and pork, even sacks of rice.
It also unraveled a great amount of budget intended for regional distribution being pilfered at the level of regional directors. Syndicates were also discovered to limit to groups that have already colluded on pricing, even before the bidding process.
The aggie mafia found patrons in Malacanang, and Lorenzo had to move over to the chairmanship of the Land Bank of the Philippines. Curiously his replacement was the husband of the owner of a supermarket chain linked with smuggling of agricultural and livestock products.
After eating death threats for breakfast, lunch and dinner for sometime, Lorenzo settled abroad for some years while the mafia used our corrupt justice system to file some 20 nuisance cases against him that have all been eventually dismissed by the courts, mostly for lack of evidence. One of these cases was dismissed by the Sandiganbayan only last October 2022, for inordinate delay by the prosecution in the preliminary investigation for a case that allegedly occurred in 2003.
His chief whistleblower was not lucky. On March 24, 2005, barely nine months after Lorenzo moved out of DA, Marlene Garcia-Esperat was having dinner with her two sons, when an assassin forced his way to enter her home, walked into her dining room, greeting her and pulled out a .45-caliber pistol and shot her in the head in front of her family.
She died at the scene. The gunman and his accomplices are now serving life sentences in jail but their handlers, and the true masterminds remain scot-free. https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/03/24/09/govt-pressed-act-unsolved-esperat-slay
This is why I reserve any judgments on Kiko Tiu Laurel’s appointment to be the secretary of agriculture.
The man is not going for a picnic, but a damn serious business that could put him in harm’s way if push comes to shove for public interest.
To me, his acceptance of this assignment, far from the luxurious comforts of his home and perks of his successful businesses, is already a selfless sacrifice and an act of heroism.
We are all stakeholders here.
So let us pray not only he succeeds, but that he slays the lurking vultures along his way. #
Next week: (Part 2 of 2) Kiko – Hope for The Blue Economy