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Evasco, NFA feuding over rice importation?
His undersecretary got the ax in connection with rice importation, but it is Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. who is pushing hard for bringing in rice from abroad through private traders during the ongoing harvest season. ROBINSON NIÑAL/PPD, File
MANILA, Philippines - His undersecretary got the ax in connection with rice importation, but it is Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. who is pushing hard for bringing in rice from abroad through private traders during the ongoing harvest season.
Officials of the National Food Authority (NFA) are blocking Evasco’s efforts, because they reportedly want importation to be on a government-to-government basis.
Evasco is one of President Duterte’s most trusted men. He managed Duterte’s election campaign.
Aside from being Cabinet secretary, Evasco chairs the NFA council and oversees several other agriculture and housing agencies. Many consider him as the second most powerful official in the Duterte administration.
On Wednesday, the President told farmers in Nueva Ecija that he had just fired an undersecretary.
“I was appalled that an undersecretary, they reviewed the decision of National Food Authority administrator Jason Aquino denying the importation… and it was appealed in Malacañang, filed in the Office of the President,” Duterte said.
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“Sabi ko, ‘Anong mukha ko na iharap ko sa farmers (I said ‘how do I face the farmers)? Why would we allow importation to compete with local product?’ Hanggang ngayon, hindi ko mabasa anong ginawa nilang rason (Until now, I cannot figure out their reason for doing that). Of course, hindi natuloy dahil binara ko (it did not push through because I stopped it),” he said
Duterte did not name the dismissed official but Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol revealed she was Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez, an undersecretary in Evasco’s office in Malacañang and an appointee of former president Benigno Aquino III.
While Valdez got axed, it was Evasco who wanted to rush rice importation last week.
Documents obtained by The STAR show that the NFA council chairman sent two memorandums to NFA officials asking them to immediately submit to him for his signature importation permits for private traders.
The memos, dated four days apart, were marked “Extremely Urgent.”
They were addressed to Tomas Escarez, NFA deputy administrator for marketing operations, and Lemuel Pagayunan, grains marketing operations department manager.
Evasco furnished NFA administrator Aquino copies of his two memos, which were printed on the letterhead of the Office of the President.
He sent the first memo on March 24.
Four days later, Evasco sent another memo to the same officials. This time, he threatened them with “disciplinary action” for refusing to prepare the documents he asked from them on March 24.
He told Escarez and Pagayunan that the NFA administrator refused to comply with the order of the NFA council.
“Thus, the order has been forwarded to your department to process the same for the signature of the NFA council chairman as he is likewise authorized to issue said import permits and extensions thereof,” Evasco told the two NFA officials.
“This is a matter of national food security and your refusal impacts not only the NFA but that of the nation,” he said.
He reiterated his directive for Escarez and Pagayunan to immediately submit the rice importation permits for his signature.
It is not clear why Escarez and Pagayunan chose to defy Evasco, despite the firm, commanding and threatening tone of his memos, but they clearly supported Aquino in his feud with the NFA council boss on rice importation.
NFA sources said if importation is resorted to, their administrator, who is a retired military officer, wants it to be done on a government-to-government basis to obtain the best price for Filipino consumers.
Nothing to do
Meanwhile, NFA spokesperson Marietta Ablaza said Aquino had nothing to do with the President’s decision to sack Valdez.
Duterte has sided with Aquino to not extend rice importation under the MAV scheme.
Ablaza said Aquino, along with deputy administrators Tomas Escarez and Ludovico Jarina, met with Duterte on Monday to discuss the country’s rice importation.
“He was able to prove his point. So it was him that the President believed in. He was just able to convince the President that the MAV needs no extension,” Ablaza said, referring to Aquino.
“I don’t think he suggested or asked for the removal of Valdez. It just so happened that the President believed the stand of the NFA,” she told The STAR.
Ablaza said Aquino explained the policies on rice importation during the last meeting with Duterte.
“We don’t know how administrator Aquino presented the facts to the President. It just showed that the President appreciated the issues and NFA’s stand on importation.”
– With Louise Maureen Simeon