Rice Crisis Relegates the ZTE Broadband Scandal to the Background

Jun Lozada made a plea not to let the rice crisis distract us from pursuing the truth about the NBN-ZTE scandal. Said he:

The pieces that complete the NBN-ZTE picture have not surfaced yet. It would really be dangerous for the Filipino people to distract themselves from the real issue of corruption.

As a sometime rice trader himself, his past experiences show that the Philippines has no problems in rice supply.

He may have a point, but the urgency of the looming rice crisis cannot be ignored. Between the pressing need to feed one’s hungry family and the convoluted tale of corruption and cover-up among our leaders, it’s not hard to predict which will draw our people’s attention and energies first. It is not just a distraction, as Mr. Lozada would like to believe. It’s a matter of life or death.

President Arroyo has taken full advantage of the crisis, and the respite it has given her, to reassert her authority and give the impression that she’s still in charge. She gave officials of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) a dressing down Friday, saying that they should focus on rice hoarding and price manipulation, not on smuggling. She has threatened rice traders who may be hoarding rice with instant imprisonment and charges of economic sabotage. Armed soldiers have been guarding the distribution of subsidized rice since last week. Together with the tough talk, GMA has been scrambling to import rice at cut-throat prices, from traditional exporters now reluctant to sell, like Thailand and Vietnam. The Philippines is now the largest rice importer in the world.

The Catholic church has also stepped in to help, as some 75 church-accredited outlets in the Archdiocese of Manila and seven other dioceses in the suburbs and in the province of Bulacan are to open their doors on Sunday to the “poorest of the poor” who may wish to buy NFA rice at subsidized prices. No wonder Jun Lozada, the focus of a many church-related anti-Arroyo activities during the past months, feels left out.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and Jun Lozada agree on one thing though, in that we have don’t have a food crisis (in supply) but a “rice price crisis”. We have access to enough rice, but cannot sustain the price at a level to keep a lid on the social volcano which will explode once the price breaches a critical point. As the Inquirer asks pointedly:

But for how long can the government keep the price of rice at its present level? The NFA now buys “palay” [rice before milling] at P17 a kilogram. That should translate to a selling price of P34 a kilo for milled rice, NFA officials say, meaning that the government agency loses P15.75 for every kilo it sells at P18.25. In the case of imported rice, the subsidy is about P10 per kilo based on a purchase price of $700 per ton. Under these terms and at its current level of buying and selling, it has been estimated that the NFA would lose close to P50 billion a year. Where will the government get that kind of money?

Thus, even as the rice crisis provides some temporary relief for President Arroyo from the scandals hounding her, she will face a dangerous “harvest of wrath from (the) hungry masses” if she fails to manage it properly according to columnist Amado Doronila.

And there’s no immediate deliverance in sight. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), there will be no respite from the rice crisis until Arroyo ends her term in 2010.In the IRRI’s evaluation:

The global rice crisis is not expected to diminish until 2010 and may take from five to 10 years to finally settle down, according to the chairman of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Elizabeth Woods of the IRRI said “the problems related to rice production and supply in Asia over the past year or more are cause for serious concern.”

IRRI has warned of potential civil unrest in the country if the government fails to provide cheap rice amid a sustained increase in prices over the past two years to near-record levels. The institute also said rice prices are likely to keep rising for some time as production of the staple fails to keep up with soaring demand. “Longer term demand-supply imbalance is clearly indicated by depletion of stock that has been going on for years,” the latest edition of the IRRI publication Rice Today quoted IRRI economist Sushil Pandey as saying. “We have been consuming more than what we have been producing and research to increase rice productivity is needed to address this imbalance,” Pandey added. As the price of rice hovers near record levels, many poor countries face the specter of riots by hungry people, according to IRRI.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the ZTE broadband scandal has been pushed off the front pages. What’s a poor whistle-blower to do ?

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