A vendor places sugar in plastic bags for sale. — PHILIPPINE STAR/EDD GUMBAN

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

ONE of the traders handpicked by the government of Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. in February to import sugar amid supply issues earned more than P10 billion amid overpricing, according to an opposition senator.

“This is not just a state-sponsored formation of a cartel,” Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel told a virtual news briefing on Tuesday. “It is a cartel that generates super profits, none of which will go to the national Treasury.”

All Asian Countertrade, Inc., one of the three traders chosen to import 440,000 metric tons of sugar ahead of a state go-signal, had an asking price of P85, P24 more than the price from a “trustworthy” importer, the senator said.

“The P85 asking price of All Asian imposed an additional P24 peso super profit for a total of P32 per kilo profit,” she said. “Multiplied by 440,000 metric tons, the profit goes beyond normal at P10.5 billion.”

“This is already huge since it’s only for three traders,” Ms. Hontiveros pointed out. “If normal profits are included, the total is P14 billion. With that kind of profit… it’s hard to imagine how much kickback there was.”

The lawmaker earlier filed Senate Resolution 497 seeking to probe the sugar imports.

On March 1, she questioned a Feb. 27 Agriculture department memo that cleared the release of 240,000 metric tons of imported sugar that she said entered the country without permits.

She called the imports “government-sponsored smuggling”.

In the memo, Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo F. Panganiban cleared for release imported sugar consigned to All Asian Countertrade.

The shipments entered the country without permits and before an import order was issued by the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), Ms. Hontiveros said.

The release of the memo showed that authorities were aware that shipments of sugar arrived in the country way before March 1, the earliest date legally imported sugar could reach Philippine ports, she added.

Aside from All Asian, Sucden Philippines Inc., and Edison Lee Marketing Corp. were also handpicked to import the sugar. The imported sugar arrived in the country on Feb. 9.

Ms. Hontiveros noted that as of Friday, the Bureau of Customs (BoC) had yet to allow the release of the first shipment from Batangas port, and it continues to monitor the entry of incoming shipments.

“This means that the BoC still treats as illegal any shipments of sugar by All Asian Countertrade, Sucden Philippines and Edison Lee Marketing,” she said. “So far, they are holding the line.”

This also meant that the Sugar Regulatory Administration had yet to give the go-signal despite claims that the imports had been cleared. She added.

The SRA did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

Ms. Hontiveros earlier sought the preventive suspension of the Agriculture official pending investigation of an alleged sugar cartel.

“No less than the Office of the Executive Secretary expressed doubts about the legality of the DA’s actions of choosing importers and allocating quantities to be imported before a sugar order could be signed by the SRA,” Ms. Hontiveros said.

The presidential palace did not immediately respond to separate text and Viber messages seeking comment.

“I continue to strongly demand an investigation,” the senator said. “If our blue ribbon committee will not open the investigation, talk to the planters and processors. They know what’s going on.”

“Talk to the industrialists. You will find that even their global head offices have been scandalized by what is happening here,” she added.

The sugar, which arrived in 260 20-foot containers, came on the strength of a memo issued by the Office of the Executive Secretary, Mr. Panganiban said on Feb. 22.

He added that he had asked the three traders since they had a proven track record to import the sugar and given the need to urgently address supply and price issues.

“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.