THE arrival of a large shipment of sugar in Batangas on Feb. 9 came on the strength of a memorandum issued by the Office of the Executive Secretary, though its arrival preceded the official issuance of a formal sugar order, a Department of Agriculture (DA) official said.

Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban said in a televised briefing that the shipment of 260 20-foot containers landed in Batangas was the result of his decision to urgently address supply and price issues besetting the sugar market.

“In response to the directive of the President to address inflation and create a buffer stock and given that sugar is one of the components of most of commodities that drives the consistently high inflation rate, I acted with haste and interpreted the memorandum issued by the Office of the Executive Secretary as an approval to proceed with the imports,” Mr. Panganiban said at the briefing.

Sugar imports typically need to be cleared by the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA). In this case, the SRA issued Sugar Order No. 6 authorizing imports of 440,000 metric tons of the commodity, part of which was to help form a buffer stock to stabilize prices.

Sugar Order No. 6 took effect on Feb. 18, and the authorities said on Wednesday that they are still taking applications from importers seeking to bring in sugar.

“The directive of the executive secretary to me was a manifestation that that directive is already a sugar order,” Mr. Panganiban said.

As a result of his interpretation of the executive secretary’s memorandum, which he concluded pointed to the “urgency of the situation,” Mr. Panganiban said he instructed three companies that are “capable” and “accredited” to proceed with the sugar imports “provided that they agree to reduce the prices (to a level) that is commercially acceptable… and that they will shoulder the cost of warehousing.”

“I hope that will verify things that have come out in the papers recently.”

Senator Ana Theresia Hontiveros-Baraquel had questioned the Batangas shipment, saying that it might have amounted to “government-sponsored smuggling.” 

Formal applications to bring in sugar on the strength of Sugar Order No. 6 were solicited between Feb. 19 to 23, Ms. Hontiveros-Baraquel had noted, noting that in the normal course of business, successful applicants are due to be notified five days after the last day of submission, which is today.

“What is the earliest date to (bring in) imported sugar? It is March 1, 2023,” she said, indicating that there might be importers who “jumped the gun.”

Citing reports, Ms. Hontiveros identified the importer as All Asian Countertrade, Inc.

Mr. Panganiban said at the briefing he was aware of the SRA’s process for authorizing imports.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who is concurrently the Secretary of Agriculture, “was aware” of the imports, he said. “He was properly informed that the sugar had arrived.”

The companies were selected “from a list that was given to me,” Mr. Panganiban said, noting that the importers selected were “the most capable importers that we have.”

Earlier in the day, an SRA official, Board Member and Planter’s Representative Pablo Luis S. Azcona, said he was not aware of the documentation supporting the Batangas shipment, saying he had not received a copy.

At the time Mr. Azcona spoke to reporters, Mr. Panganiban had not yet conducted his briefing, and doubts were expressed about the validity of the documentation accompanying the Batangas shipment.

Ms. Hontiveros-Baraquel had said that the Batangas shipment was covered by an undated memorandum order and a signed letter from Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban.

The undated memo was addressed to SRA officials allocating the imports to three shipping firms.

On the other hand, the signed letter dated Jan. 13 authorized one of the shipping firms to import 240,000 MT. The letter also mistakenly refers to the SRA as the Sugar Regulatory “Authority” rather than “Administration.”
“The SRA is trying to make this program legit and fair to everybody. So, there is a process that we have to follow and we just wish for everybody to fall into place and follow the process,” Mr. Azcona said, referring to the ongoing application process for importers. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, and Sheldeen Joy Talavera