MANILA, Philippines - Just one person or group appeared to have earned a windfall when the outgoing Arroyo administration allowed the private sector to import 200,000 metric tons of rice last year, President Benigno Aquino III said on Wednesday.
The Philippines, the world's biggest rice importer, bought from abroad a total of 2.47 million metric tons of the grain for its requirements in 2010, an election year. The state-owned National Food Authority (NFA) imported the bulk of the country's staple.
"(Administrator Lito Banayo) is puzzled why the manager's checks of those who were given a chance to import came from only one bank," Mr. Aquino said on Wednesday in a speech at the 65th anniversary celebration of the Liberal Party.
"And it allegedly doesn't stop there. The checks were in sequential order. It appears that only one group or one person benefited there," the President said.
He also said the volume of rice that the country imported last year was not only three times more than what was needed but was also overpriced.
Sought for comment on who or which group could have cornered the rice importation quota for the private sector, Mr. Aquino begged off from revealing any more information.
"Pasensya na (Sorry). We want to ensure the facts before we accuse anybody," the President said in a text message.
Asked how much money was covered by the checks that paid for the rice imported by private traders, Mr. Aquino said, "a more formal audit is currently being conducted."
"Once completed, we will inform all of you," he added in the text message.
Banayo wasn't immediately available for comment on Mr. Aquino's remarks.
Offices in Pangasinan
An NFA audit found that 8 of the 10 awardees of the rice importation quotas in Luzon were all cooperatives with offices in Pangasinan province, said a source privy to a Malacanang probe of the previous administration's massive rice importation program that the NFA said was overpriced.
Mr. Aquino earlier said he had given instructions to several departments in connection with the overpriced imports.
"Several departments have been given assignments which I am not yet at liberty to discuss," the President said.
In his report to Mr. Aquino last week, Banayo said the private importation deals were given to favored contractors supposedly through a questionable first-come-first-served scheme.
"Among the findings were: fictitious cooperatives and corporations were given the quotas, and qualifications standards were extremely liberal," Banayo said in his executive summary submitted to the President.
In the same report, Banayo said an audit of NFA importations during the Arroyo years showed that rice was overpriced by an average $60 (S$76.86) per metric ton over 10 years.
In the last three years, Banayo said the overprice was $125 per metric ton.
The NFA chief said the huge overprice and excessive importation of rice pushed up the NFA debt to P177 billion. NFA losses largely stem from its sale of rice to the poor way below the actual cost.
"We bought more rice than what we needed in 2010. It was estimated that we needed 1.3 million tons of rice. That's why we imported more than two million tons of rice-almost 2.5 million tons," the President said in his speech Wednesday before his party mates.
The President said the authority to import was "times three of what was needed."
"What's painful is that the overprice was estimated at $60 to $125 compared with the benchmark prices of the (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)," he said.
"Just multiply the factors. My calculator can no longer handle it," he added, to show how huge the amount involved was.
During the global cereal crisis in 2008, huge Philippine importations of rice increased the cost of the grain on the international market.
The President said that as a result of the over importation, the NFA had to double its number of warehouses to store the grain.
"(We) needed to rent warehouses. The 400 warehouses of the NFA were insufficient. It became 800," he said.
The President asked his party mates both in the executive branch and in the legislature to reform the NFA.
"The rice imports in 2008 were used up in 2010 but we also imported in 2009 and in 2010. What a waste," he said.
"Let us reform the NFA. Let us reform its mandate so it will be much better," he added.
-- Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network