Usapang Bigas: FOI Practice on Availability,
Price Stability, and Importation of Rice

I. Organizational Profile

The Right to Know, Right Now! (R2KRN) Coalition has been a staunch advocate for the passage of the FOI Law since it was convened in 2002, initially as the Access to Information Network (ATIN), before expanding into R2KRN in 2009. It is the main civil-society network that engages both the executive and legislative fronts.

R2KRN has adopted a systematic approach for documenting cases of FOI practice to build public demand for FOI and nurture a community of practice whereby citizens can claim their rights to information. Thus far, three rounds of coordinated FOI Practice had been completed by the Coalition members. In the second half of 2018, the Right to Know Coalition focused on how FOI affects the appreciation and discussion of the most pressing economic and political issues that are emblematic of the state of governance, transparency and accountability, and the delivery of public services in the country. The Coalition’s FOI Practice Round 4 specifically focused on the following:

● The implementation of Package 1 of the Comprehensive Tax Reform Program (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN Law) of the Duterte administration. The Action for Economic Reforms is lead researcher for this project.

● The Memoranda of Agreement, contracts, and relevant documents covering mining operations and companies in the Philippines. Bantay Kita, a coalition of CSOs monitoring mining and extractive industries is lead researcher.

● Contracts, projects, and issues surrounding the “Build, Build, Build” program or the massive infrastructure and civil-works program of the Duterte administration. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, ANSA-EAP, Ateneo Policy Center, and the Makati Business Club are the parallel research teams.

An audit of the provisions and implementation of FOI Manuals, and action taken on citizen requests, by various agencies of the Executive Branch, under EO No. 2 or the Duterte administration’s FOI policy.

● The crisis in the supply and distribution of rice. A common-concern project of the Right to Know Coalition, Action for Economic Reforms, Focus on the Global South, Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, Social Watch, and Rice Watch Action Network.

In the 4th round, the coalition decided to take on a common FOI Practice project, where different coalition members do coordinated work on a single issue and/or agency. It chose the rice issue, specifically the questions of how the country came to a point of a rice-supply crunch and how this was managed by the government, as its initial joint project. A group of five member organizations, with established campaigns and advocacies on agrarian reform, rural development, the right to food, social reform and fiscal policy, was formed to reconstruct the story of rice through FOI Practice.

The core team includes the following R2KRN Members:

Action for Economic Reforms (AER), a public-interest organization that conducts policy analysis and advocacy on key economic issues, is a co-convenor of R2KRN. It considers access to relevant and timely data critical to judicious research and analysis.

Focus on Global South is an activist think tank that works with social movements, progressive individuals and organizations, academics, policy makers and legislators in challenging neoliberalism, market capitalism, militarism, and corporate-driven globalization, while strengthening just and equitable alternatives. Its Philippines Program focuses on development policy research, advocacy campaigning, and grassroots capacity building on socio-economic issues, trade and investment agreements, the commons (land, water, freedom of information, public services), climate and environmental justice, and power and democracy.

Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) is a network committed to push the following agenda: (a) Promoting sustainable rice farming; (b) Strengthening community and farmers’ rights over seeds; (c) Retaining quantitative restrictions (QRs) on rice; and (d) Increasing domestic support for the rice industry.

Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services (Rights! Network) supports the struggle of landless and near-landless rural poor communities, including indigenous peoples and informal rural settlers, for agrarian reform, rural development, and rural democratization in agrarian flashpoint provinces. It is a polycentric network of independent and autonomous member-NGOs/CSOs based in different provinces in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao islands.

Social Watch Philippines is part of an international network of citizens’ organizations struggling to eradicate poverty and the causes of poverty, to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and the realization of human rights. It puts forward a strategy of advocacy, awareness-building, monitoring, organizational development, and networking to promote social development concerns, through increasing social participation and awareness. The network counts as members around 100 CSOs and individuals.

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II. Context for the Information Requests

As a food staple, rice is among, if not the, most important commodities in the country. Its availability and affordability affect millions, particularly those who are struggling against hunger and poverty. While the government has declared commitment to achieve rice self-sufficiency since 2010, and despite billions of pesos allotted for the rice self-sufficiency bid, local outputs have been unable to meet national demand, much less compete with other Southeast Asian countries in the trade arena.

In 2016, the Duterte administration adopted rice self-sufficiency as a goal, extending key programs to enhance local production until 2020. Such strategy, however, was challenged by economic advisers/experts, arguing that food security through importation might make better use of public funds allocated for the agriculture sector. In 2018, the Duterte administration pronounced that it will instead focus on enhancing local competitiveness and now views “self-sufficiency as impossible.”

A critical context to the rice issue is the matter of quantitative restriction (QR), or the limits imposed on the importation of rice. When the Philippines acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, it negotiated for special treatment in rice, exempting it from tariffication for 10 years. In exchange for the exemption, the Philippines committed to import a minimum quantity of rice (minimum access volumes). Internally, it has likewise committed to prepare the sector so that it can face open competition when the time comes. It has since negotiated two extensions, from 2005 to 2012, and then again from 2012 to 2017. In 2017, the Philippines gave formal notice that it will lift the QR on rice, and move toward tariffication.

By September 2018, the calls for rice tariffication had been amplified in light of the steep increases in rice prices. This came at a time when national inflation reached 6.7 percent, with regional inflation hitting as high as 12 percent. The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law was blamed for the surge in prices, but a closer look at the data also pointed to the contribution of food prices, especially rice.

Rice prices have gone up since 2017. The highest price increase was recorded in September 2018, when average retail price for well-milled rice reached PhP48.98 per kilogram. Economic managers, who placed the direct inflationary impact of TRAIN at around 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points, failed to take into account TRAIN’s speculative effect. Nonetheless, it could not be denied that critically low levels of rice stocks, delayed arrival of rice imported by the private sector, hoarding by traders, and farm devastation due to typhoons, all contributed to increases in rice prices. Abetting worries about rice were news reports of the National Food Authority importing weevil-infested rice from Thailand.

Clearly, rice is a complicated issue. Through FOI Practice, R2KRN hopes to reconstruct the story of rice, and shed light on the following questions:

● What happened to the rice industry under a WTO-exempt status?
● How does NFA perform its mandate of rice price and supply stabilization?
● Who are the actors engaged in and benefiting from the business of rice?
● Special topics:
o Why did the weevil infestation of a batch of rice imports happen, who was responsible for it, and what was done to remedy the situation?
o How big a problem is rice smuggling and hoarding?

Ultimately, answers to these questions will also give a picture of how government manages the rice situation which has teremendous impact on the people’s welfare.

This FOI Practice is meant to underscore the importance of the following:
● Access to information is access to services: information on government action tracks how it fulfills its mandate for securing the availability and affordability of rice.
● Information is accountability: information shows who benefit from government regulation (licensing) and programs (distribution).
● Information is crucial for policy development: accurate information is crucial for timely decisions and trouble-shooting; it signals policy and implementation gaps, and the need to update or establish new rules.
● Information as policy history: it is important for the government to have proper data standards, including in data archiving, to preserve critical documents of historical significance.

Target Government Institutions and Documents/Information Requested

The FOI Practice Team contacted the following agencies to request for specific information related to the issues above.

Department of Agriculture (DA). Executive Order (EO) No. 116 series of 1987, reorganized the Ministry of Agriculture and renamed it the Department of Agriculture. The DA is the frontline agency for agriculture and fisheries, takes charge of the agricultural policy framework, directs public investments in the agricultural sector, and provides support services necessary to make the industry profitable and to spread the benefits of development to the rural poor. In 2016, the DA declared the continuation of the rice self-sufficiency program. For 2018, DA had a budget of PhP53 billion, and a renewed focus on enhancing the productivity of small-scale and community-based food-farming.

The Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) is a loan and grant facility implemented by the DA. It provides loans or income generating project grants for food producers in the agriculture and fisheries sector. ACEF was created by Republic Act (RA) No. 8178 in 1996 from proceeds of the importation of the minimum access volumes of agricultural products tarrified under the WTO, with a life of nine years. It was extended by RA9496 (2007) until 2015, and by RA 10848 (2015) until 2022.

Under the Rice Tariffication Bill, which was approved by the bicameral conference committee in late November 2018, a Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) was created, with an annual appropriation of PhP10 billion for six years after its signing. DA is the agency primarily responsible and accountable for RCEF.

The requesters asked for the following documents from DA:

● Documents on the importation and distribution of rice and Reports related to the weevil-infested rice from Vietnam and Thailand (similar to the requests made to NFA, see below);
● Documents related to the government’s request to extend the quantitative restrictions (QRs) on rice and the concessions that were given as compensation for these extensions (similar to the requests made to DTI, see below); and
● Documents related to ACEF and RCEF
o Annual reports (narrative and audit/expenditure) 2000 to 2007 and its succeeding extension from 2007 to 2015
o Available pertinent and related documents on RCEF.

National Food Authority (NFA). The NFA is mandated to ensure food security and the stability of supply and price of rice. It is responsible for the procurement of paddy from bonafide farmers and their organizations, buffer stocking, processing activities, dispersal of paddy and milled rice to strategic locations, and distribution of the staple grain to various marketing outlets at appropriate times of the year.

The following documents were requested from NFA:

• Documents on the importation and distribution of rice
o Official documents on the mechanisms for the allocation of Minimum Access Volume (MAV), as well as the General Guidelines for Importation by the NFA from 1995 to the present;
o List of institutions/corporations with import licenses for rice from 1995 to present, as well as the status of such licenses;
o Minutes of all the NFA Rice Council’s regular and special meetings held from January 2016 to the present;
o Documentation and related documents regarding the concessions for extending the QRs on rice with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2005, 2012, and 2017;
o Reports related to the weevil-infested rice imported from Vietnam and Thailand;
o Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures for rice imports from 2014 to 2018;
o Agency level reports detailing the “weevil infested” rice imports from Thailand and Vietnam that arrived in Subic Bay Freeport and Tabaco City, Albay this year; and
o Reports showing the markets to which the weevil-infested rice have been distributed.

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). DTI also plays a pivotal part in the rice crisis primarily because of its central role in the trade of agricultural products. Under EO 133, dated February 27, 1987, the DTI is mandated to coordinate, promote, and facilitate the country’s trade, industry, and investment activities, with the end in view of accelerating and sustaining economic growth. Through its international trade office, DTI exercises responsibility over all matters pertaining to foreign-trade relations, including the implementation of the country’s commitments to the WTO. Among these commitments is the tariffication of rice after the expiration of the special treatment on rice.

From DTI, the following documents were requested:

● Request letters submitted by the Philippine government to the WTO in 2007 and 2012 seeking to extend the QRs on rice
o WTO response to the government’s request to extend QRs on rice
o Official documents reflecting the concessions given in return for these extensions;
● Official documents/statements issued by the government that (1) declare the extension of the concessions on lower tariffs to certain agricultural products, and (2) grant such concessions to interested WTO parties, as compensation for the government’s extension of the QRs on rice;
● Official document/s submitted by the government to WTO in March 2017 declaring that it will tariffy the QRs on rice once the waiver on the special treatment on rice expires on June 30, 2017; and
● Letters received from WTO/WTO members in reaction to the government’s extension of the QRs on rice, as well as the government’s responses to these letters (2017).

Bureau of Customs (BOC). Created by Republic Act No. 1937 in 1957, the BOC has the principal mandate to implement an effective revenue-collection method, and to prevent and suppress smuggling and the entry of prohibited imported goods into the country. BOC supervises and controls the entrance and clearance of vessels and aircrafts engaged in foreign commerce.

The requesters asked for the following documents:
• Official report on smuggled rice intercepted at designated ports of entry containing the following details:
o Registered name of importer
o Source country of smuggled rice
o Volume and value of smuggled rice; and
● Official report on the disposal of intercepted smuggled rice.

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III. RESULTS

In total, we filed FOI requests with four agencies, covering 19 classes of documents (with some documents requested from multiple agencies). We made eight calls, sent 21 email and three fax messages, logged in to the eFOI portal once, and made two hand deliveries. Agency response time took one to 21 days (as of December 6, 2018). We received three referrals or redirection, and three denials, two of which were for the same documents requested separately by different team members. An appeal for these documents was filed, and has been pending for 18 days. Of the 19 documents, we obtained the following: five complete, four incomplete (data do not cover earlier years); while 10 documents have either been denied or have yet to be released.

Annexes I and II provide details of the documents requested and the agency response.

Below are notes of the team’s experience with the four agencies.

National Food Authority (NFA)
● Response time was quick at two days, with some documents released, and an update on the remaining requests. For statistical data, NFA referred us to the archive in their website. We got the general guidelines on rice importation, but there are data for MAV allocation only from 2014 to 2018, and nothing from before that until 1995.
● Two team members (AER and Focus) both requested for the minutes of the NFA Council’s meetings. Both were denied on the basis of confidentiality. The AER appeal is still pending at the time of this writing.
● The request for the documents related to the Philippine government’s communication with the WTO on the extension of the QRs on rice was ignored.
● Reports on the weevil-infested rice was released only after some back-and-forth with NFA. Prior to release, the NFA contact only said that the rice from Thailand was distributed in Regions III and V, but no official report was give.
● In the frequent communication with NFA, the team had to explain the request several times, and was asked to provide information on the requester’s organization. Several requests had to be sent to different offices, and the team even had to be asked to file an eFOI request for documents the NFA could not release (e.g. data related to rice import licenses).
● For referral to its website, NFA gave exact links only to some documents, while some requests were left hanging (no data for all the years covered by the requests).

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)
● Requests to DTI were filed with different offices, and sent by email and fax.
● Response was quick at six days.
● DTI through a different email address (NCR@dti.gov.ph) responded through email to clarify that DA is the more appropriate agency to handle our request (for WTO-related documents).

Department of Agriculture (DA)
● We sent several requests to DA, some of which we also filed with NFA (reports on the weevil-infested rice) or DTI (documents related to the extension of QR on rice, communications with the WTO).
● Requests were sent to different offices by email, one was hand-delivered, and followed up with phone calls.
● Some of the difficulties encountered when following up requests were the unavailability of the contact person, calls not being received/answered, and long/complicated request rerouting process.
● No document was obtained from DA as of this writing. For information on the extension of QR on rice, the team was sent the following link: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/markacc_e/qr_e.htm.

Bureau of Customs (BOC)
● BOC has no information (name, contact details) for its FRO. The person who received the call at the BOC did not know what an FRO meant, and the team was referred to the Public Information and Assistance Division and the Office of the Commissioner. The FRO who responded to our request did not provide his/her name and/or contact information.
● The team was asked to file a request through the eFOI. After one working day, BOC denied our request citing confidentiality and suggested that we provide a duly signed request letter addressed to the Management Information System and Technology Group.

The FOI Practice experience showed sluggish, although positive responses from two out of four agencies, particularly the DA and the NFA through their FROs. We observed that processing FOI requests requires a handful of approvals before data/information can reach the requester.

It is also important to note that the FOI request process for NFA is not clear. Although we followed the instructions indicated in its manual on sending information requests through email, the FRO instructed us to file our request under the Electronic Freedom of Information (e-FOI) Portal — a procedure that is not specified in the NFA manual when sending requests through email.

It is unclear to some agencies how the request process should go. The BOC request might have gone more smoothly had the request been filed with the Department of Finance, but we were also interested in how attached agencies would respond to FOI requests.

All agencies have either denied access, rerouted the requests to other offices that cannot disclose information out of “confidentiality.” None of the agencies specified which exception/s the requested documents fall under. Several offices did not respond despite follow-ups, or may have deliberately ignored requests since it was out of their jurisdiction. Most offices justified their non-release of data/information due to: (a) inconsistencies between requested data and actual data sets available; (b) confidentiality of the requested information; (c) no actual data/information was available specific to the request; or (d) the data/information is already available in website external to the agency.

IV. INSIGHTS

The most critical issues we noted in this FOI Practice are: (1) agency knowledge of documents in its possession, and which units should requests be properly referred to; and (2) the question of where older records and data can be located.

Referrals, rerouting, and redirection are understandable, especially if requests are complicated and/or involve older documents, as long as the request is eventually successful. Non-responsive units, incomplete data, and dead ends are frustrating for requesters.

In the end, we were not able to get all the data and documents we need. Based only on what we obtained through the FOI Practice, supplemented by data procured from the agency websites or news reports, it is difficult to paint a full picture of the rice industry. Particularly, the request for the minutes of the NFA council meetings, which could have shed light upon how the council might have possibly discussed their plans of action on responding to the different issues concerning the rice sector, was denied. Another important document that we were not given access to is the BOC’s reports on smuggled rice intercepted at ports of entry. Such information could have allowed us to better understand the factors that contributed to the ongoing rice crisis. Since we were deprived access to such documents, we have been likewise deprived access to the information that can identify the possible root cause(s) of the problem and consequently have also been deprived of the ability to come up with appropriate recommendations. Further, this poses issues on the agency’s accountability measures.

With regard to the actual data that were retrieved, here are our observations:

● The general guidelines on the importation of rice and MAV allocation contain pertinent information that allow us to create a comprehensive picture of the private sector’s rice importation process — from the application process of institutions interested to import rice to the post-importation process. However, while the guidelines on rice importation could have served as a useful benchmark in identifying possible noncompliance of NFA, which may have contributed to the rice crisis, this document is difficult to optimize since we were not provided with the minutes of the NFA Council’s meetings on rice importation that reflect what actions the agency actually took or what decisions it made.

● BOC denied the request for details on rice smuggling, citing confidentiality issues. While the request was broad, it asked for names of the importers of the smuggled rice, as well as for less personal details like the volume of rice smuggled into the country. There had been numerous criticisms about the failure of BOC to curb smuggling in rice, and there had been news reports on smuggled rice being intercepted or disposed. If at least some information is being released to the media, why is it not also released to researchers? Smuggling is among the concerns of farmers who, already burdened by high input costs and hit by natural calamities, become even less competitive in the face of cheaper smuggled rice. On a related note, if huge quantities of rice are being smuggled into the country, yet prices continue to be high, what then are the greater contributing factors to the rice problem?

● Some information on increases on the country’s MAV for rice as a result of the extensions of the QR in rice, from news reports or documents submitted to legislative bodies. There are no information, however, on other concessions made on non-rice commodities. Without this, the real costs and benefits of retaining the QRs or tariffication cannot be estimated with accuracy.

● The ACEF was supposed to be a mechanism to assist farmers affected by the liberalization of agriculture trade. It is the inspiration for the RCEF proposed under the Rice Tariffication Bill. A close evaluation of ACEF’s performance would go a long way in ensuring that RCEF will indeed be able to respond to the needs of affected rice farmers.

The FOI Practice Team on Rice tried to piece together the information gathered, and made more detailed notes on the rice issue. See Box –Usapang Bigas: Notes on the Story of Rice

V. RECOMMENDATIONS

Based from our experience on this practice round, we recommend the following measures:

● There should be dedicated personnel to manage not only information requests, but to maintain information and data-management systems. Such personnel should have full knowledge of where documents originate and where they are kept, to help expedite request routing. The approval system should also be streamlined, and should be reflected in an FOI request flowchart.

● Each agency should have a comprehensive information map, clearly identifying the documents that are publicly available and documents with restructed access, and marking information co-managed with other agencies.

● There should be stricter implementation of basic manual requirements:
o As an exercise of due diligence, the receipt of a request (even those not delivered personally) should be communicated to the requester, preferably through a written response. The same goes for denials where the reason for the non-release of data/information is provided in written form to the requester.
o Names and contact details of FOI receiving officers should be clearly indicated in agency websites and directories, and distributed to all offices for reference.
o Agencies have to be more conscious about the prescribed 15-day response period and the 20-day extension period.

● Data format issues: As far as practicable, documents for release should also be in soft copies and/or machine-readable format.

● Data storage and archiving issues: Agency websites do not always carry the historical data and documents. In such cases, FROs should be able to direct requesters to libraries or other relevant offices for physical copies of the documents. Needless to say, the storage and archiving policies should be clear to FROs and other personnel responsible for record management. — Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, December 2018