By JAMES TABABA
On May 9, 2023, stakeholders and organizations from the agricultural sector gathered at the Philippine Social Science Center Auditorium in Quezon City for the “Bantay RCEP, buy Filipino Assembly” event.
“Bantay RCEP, buy Filipino Assembly” represents a significant display of unity from over 130 organizations, networks, and individuals who have joined forces to re-examine the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement in February. These groups, together with other sectors, are opposing the RCEP and are committed to defending and supporting the agricultural and related industries. The aim is to address challenges and barriers to development, foster competitiveness that will benefit the farmers, fishers, and the Filipino population as a whole, and also promote locally produced products.
The RCEP is a mega-regional trade agreement signed by the ten ASEAN member countries and their five free trade agreement partners, including Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. The RCEP aims to create a free trade zone between the member countries which would eliminate tariffs on a majority of goods traded within the region.
Agri stakeholders believe that the country is not prepared to compete with international trade as the agriculture sector is considered a neglected industry. Atty. Elias “Bong” Inciong, president of the United Broiler and Raisers’ Association, stated that free trade agreements in the past have not worked in favor of the industry. The RCEP will endanger food security, displace local products and local jobs and will only result in minimal benefit to consumers. Leonardo Montemayor, Board chairman of the Federation of Free Farmers, also emphasized the importance of holding accountability for commitments made by the senators and executive agencies.
Senator Risa Hontiveros attended the event and expressed her opposition to RCEP. Notably, she was the lone senator who voted against the signing of the RCEP treaty on Feb. 21, 2023. The Senate Resolution 485 ratifying the RCEP agreement was passed with a vote of 20-1-1, with Senator Imee Marcos abstaining.
“I extensively interpolated and raised points in plenary to question this agreement that does not consider the interest of our agriculture sector particularly its smallholders, farmers, fisher folks, other rural sectors and Filipinos to be affected by the unmitigated impacts of free trade,” Senator Hontiveros said. “I was persuaded by the study of Rashmi Banga, which found that the Philippines goods trade balance would worsen by $264 million per year, and that it would lose tariff revenues of $58 million per year.”
Senator Hontiveros also mentioned that the Philippines had entered into several free trade agreements before, and if there were any benefits, they should have already been obtained from those agreements.
The senator expressed disappointment that RCEP was ratified quickly by the Senate, and stressed that the country was not ready for it. She highlighted that the RCEP could potentially displace local output with imported products, which could lead to unemployment and the bankruptcy of small businesses.
Senator Hontiveros called for the prioritization of local production and support for the country’s agricultural sector, including farmers, fisherfolk, and other rural sectors.
The assembly also heard from representatives of various sectors. They called for a focus on local production and support for the country’s agricultural sector, highlighting the need for rational, calibrated, and fair importation and allocation of goods and services, transparency, and accountability measures to ensure that the domestic industry is not threatened by imported products.
Rafael Coscolluela, a representative from the Sugar Council, stressed the importance of sugar importation as the country has lost a lot of sugar-growing areas, making it no longer capable of producing the national requirements. However, “If we depend more and more on sugar imports, we are going to kill the domestic sugar industry,” he said.
Josua Mata, Secretary-General of the SENTRO Labor Center, expressed his skepticism about RCEP, stating that there are many reasons to be doubtful about the agreement. Mata emphasized that the government has not listened to the concerns and warnings raised by various sectors about the negative impact of RCEP on the country. He also mentioned that studies have shown that the RCEP would lead to unemployment, particularly in specific industries.
Meanwhile, Catty Estavillo of Batay Bigas raised concerns about the impact of the Rice Tariffication Law. According to Estavillo, after four years of implementation, the rice industry has incurred a loss of 262 billion pesos. She also pointed out that the influx of imported agricultural products, including rice, has caused prices to remain high despite the supposed benefits of the law.
Pablo Rosales of Pangisda Pilipinas stressed that the development of the fishing industry lies in the hands of the fisherfolk, and the development of the local agricultural sector depends on the support given to local farmers and other rural sectors. “The progress of the country does not depend on trade agreements or foreign dominance but on the collective efforts of Filipinos,” he said.
The assembly concluded with call to action, urging Filipinos to work together to monitor the funding and implementation of promised support programs and reform, track key performance parameters to evaluate the impact of RCEP and Free Trade Agreements on the local agricultural industry, expand the coalition and promote public education, engage in the Senate oversight committee, and hold the senators who concurred with RCEP and the government officials who pushed for RCEP accountable for their actions.