The bitter taste of sugar imports
David John Thaddeus Alba had barely warmed his seat as administrator of the embattled Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) when he suddenly resigned, just as the Senate was about to investigate the latest controversial importation of 440,000 metric tons of sugar. Given the questionable timing, it’s easy to understand why Alba’s resignation a mere seven months into his term — supposedly for “health reasons” — was met with intense skepticism, and triggered even more questions about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the sugar import order.
As Enrique D. Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters said, “People can’t help wondering if his resignation has something to do with the current sugar importation, which is highly questionable, to say the least.” Rojas’ view was shared by Wennie Sancho, lead convenor of the labor-led Save the Sugar Industry Movement, who said Alba may have resigned due to “pressure from above.”
To recall, Sen. Risa Hontiveros has been leading the charge to investigate what she described as “government-sponsored” sugar smuggling since the shipments were delivered to the country on Feb. 9, even before the SRA gave the go-ahead under Sugar Order (SO) No. 6, a clear usurpation and violation of SRA’s mandate. Worse, only three “handpicked” importers—All Asian Countertrade Inc., Edison Lee Marketing Corp., and S&D Sucden Philippines Inc.—bagged the contracts to bring in the sweetener, whose prices have skyrocketed to as much as P110 a kilo for refined white sugar as of March 23, 2023, from just P55 in January 2022.
Alba had issued the import clearances following the Feb. 27 directive of Department of Agriculture (DA) Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban, who in turn said he was acting “upon the instructions” of President Marcos, who is concurrent DA head, as relayed through Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin. Panganiban brushed aside the nagging questions about the rushed entry of more imported sugar, citing the need to immediately lower the price of commercial sugar to between P80 and P84 a kilo.
No justification, however, can wash off the bitter taste left by the highly irregular transactions that have raised valid concerns that powerful and well-connected individuals and institutions are illegally profiting from the series of importation orders, specifically SO No. 6. Indeed, as Rojas pointed out, this was the first time that a shipment of imported sugar arrived even before the sugar order allowing its importation had been issued. This was also the first time that Malacañang directly ordered SRA to release the “illegally imported” sugar, a clear usurpation of SRA’s exclusive mandate to regulate the local sugar supply. Even more puzzling was the DA’s claim that it acted upon direct orders from the Palace in choosing only three traders to import the sugar. This is in violation of the provisions of SO No. 6 that laid out the awarding process.
As if these were not anomalous enough, the imported sugar will come in even while most sugar planters are still harvesting and milling their crop. No wonder the dismayed local sugar industry, from which Alba came, welcomed his resignation. “We praise his decision to resign if he reasonably feels that he [was] simply being manipulated to commit acts or omissions, which are disadvantageous and grossly damaging to the sugar industry,” Rojas said.
Alba, the former general manager of Negros Occidental-based Asociacion de Agricultores de La Carlota y Pontevedra Inc., one of the largest groups of sugar planters in the country, was appointed SRA administrator in August last year to replace Hermenegildo Serafica. History seems to have repeated itself as Serafica’s own resignation came on the heels of the issuance of SO No. 4 which authorized the importation of 300,000 MT of sugar. The Palace later said the order was “illegal,” hence the succeeding shakeup at the agency.
The expected management revamp resulting from Alba’s resignation should hopefully bring much-needed stability to an industry beset by high production costs that have adversely affected the livelihood of sugar farmers and pushed prices to levels that helped bump up the country’s inflation to a 14-year high. The industry is as hopeful that Malacañang would immediately name Alba’s replacement, as the position cannot be kept vacant at this crucial stage of the milling season.
But as Malacañang chooses yet another administrator to head the SRA in its important task to help keep sugar prices stable and the local industry viable, it must do so with the clear and sole objective of naming the most qualified for the post. “Our only hope is that administrator Alba’s replacement will be a person who has a comprehensive knowledge of the sugar industry, is not identified with any vested interests, and is a person of proven honesty and integrity,” said Rojas. Let the search — hopefully a transparent one — begin.
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