Presiding over the resumption of the Senate deliberations on its concurrence on the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda shared the frustration of farmers, who are among the direct stakeholders of currently the world’s biggest free trade pact.
During the public hearing conducted by a special subcommittee under the Committee on Foreign Relations, Legarda assured that farmers’ issues are heard and answered by the concerned agencies.
“Kami po ay nandito para sa inyo.”
“The Senate leadership is one with you. Iisa-isahin, ano ang issue ninyo at didinggin ng lahat ng ahensya ng gobyerno. Ito ba’y nasa probisyon ng RCEP? Ito ba’y talagang makakasama? O baka may panukalang batas na dapat gawin para masolusyunan ang inyong concerns. Kami po ay nandito para sa inyo,” the veteran legislator said.
Among the issues raised by agricultural groups that expressed opposition to the country’s move to participate in the RCEP is that a free trade agreement among its member economies would lower the tariffs on certain products, leading to an increase in imported food products.
They said this does not protect the Philippines’ agricultural produce as it would bring down local prices and eventually harm local farmers’ earnings.
Moreover, they said there are already existing free trade agreements with RCEP member countries.
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Fred Pascual defended RCEP and assured that the government would continue to provide the needed support and level the playing field to help equip and sharpen the capacity of local businesses.
“RCEP provides a framework of rules and disciplines to ensure regulatory consistency, creating a conducive business environment that is key to ensuring the confidence of the business sector and spurring further economic growth,” Pascual explained.
“While we recognize the concerns raised by some sectors, it is important to understand the bigger picture and view RCEP in terms of the opportunities it can bring to us,” the trade chief added.
The trade head stressed she is one with the farmers being a farmer herself, but also considers the benefits that the country could get from RCEP.
“Hindi tayo pwedeng maiwanan sa ASEAN.”
“Ramdam ko kayo at pinag-aaralan ko ito. On the other hand, naiintindihan ko rin kasi hindi tayo pwedeng maiwanan sa ASEAN,” the lady senator said.
After hearing the farmers’ concerns and the government’s side, she stated that the stakeholders would be consulted to help draft the guidelines, which will be part of the Senate’s concurrence to the agreement’s ratification.
Legarda said she would add environmental and sustainability provisions in the guidelines since those are not included in the RCEP rules.
With the support of Senate President Migz Zubiri who attended the hearing, a special oversight committee shall likewise be created.
It will be in charge of overseeing the implementation of the guidelines and ensuring that the concerned government agencies are giving the needed support to the farmers and other sectors.
“Gagawa tayo ng guidelines, policies, programs, funding, resources, commitments, and oversight that will ensure that the agencies who negotiated for this — [the DA] who are mandated to bring about a robust agricultural sector, and the DTI to bridge the trade deficit — will do better than better, will do their best,” Legarda said.
RCEP members include the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and five of its major trading partners, including Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.
The regional pact is said to open a wide range of market opportunities for investors, particularly in export-oriented enterprises, and further promote the economic efficiency of its member states.
Only the Philippines has yet to complete the ratification process among the 15 signatory economies.