Senators vow to follow up on aid:

PhilFIDA scored on ‘lost’ P121-M abaca rehab fund

The Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA) came under fire last week from several senators after they learned that Catanduanes has yet to receive the P121-million funding for the rehabilitation of its abaca industry.

In the online hearing of the Senate Committee on Food Production and Agrarian Reform, Sen. Cynthia Villar, Sen. Nancy Binay and Sen. Imee Marcos vowed to look into what happened to the funding promised by Agriculture Secretary William Dar, Sen. Bong Go and PhilFIDA executive director Kennedy Costales during their visit to the island shortly after super typhoon Rolly ravaged 75% of its abaca plantations.

The hearing was held to discuss Senate Bill 1978 and House Bill 6149 seeking to declare Catanduanes as the abaca capital of the Philippines.

Costales had revealed during the hearing that the P121 million supposed to be charged to the agriculture department’s Quick Reaction Fund (QRF) was no longer available due to technicalities.

“Hindi pupuwede ang cash-for-work sa QRF at na-exhaust na din po ng DA ang funding sa dami ng disasters,” he bared.

“Ba’t kayo pumunta dun at nangako ng P121-million kung wala naman pala kayong ibibigay? Hindi ba kayo nahihiya? Ano yan, binobola n’yo ang tao?” Sen. Villar said in reaction to the revelation.

She promised Governor Joseph Cua and Congressman Hector Sanchez that she would write Sec. Dar and Sen. Go to find out where the funding went. Villar likewise asked Costales to submit to the committee his reports on the ‘lost” funding as well as two other issues affecting the PhilFIDA and the national fiber industry.

“Ayokong magmukhang tanga sa Senado if I defend the bills when they start asking questions,” she told the PhilFIDA chief. “Hindi puedeng nawala yun out of nowhere.”

Gov. Cua had raised the issue during the hearing of the two bills last week, more than three months after Sec. Dar and Sen. Go made the promise to Catandunganon abaca farmers.

“Apektado ang ekonomiya namin plus pandemic, kaya… ‘yun ang inaantay namin. Malaking bagay sa amin ‘yung cash-for-work dahil walang mga hanapbuhay ‘yung mga farmers ngayon na kung saan nga, kaagad may sweldo sila habang nag-re-rehab tayo ng abaca,” the governor said.

He noted that something similar to the PhilFIDA and the DA’s cash-for work assistance during Typhoon Nina in 2016 would be better than the department’s current proposal of buying fertilizer.

“Dahil ang purpose ng cash-for-work, double purpose. Para sa time na walang abaca sa Catanduanes, nag-ca-cash-for-work tayo to replant the abaca, may income sila. May personal income, and then at the same time, naaapura ‘yung pag-rehab ng abaca ng Catanduanes,” he explained.

For his part, Cong. Sanchez asked the government to focus not only on the planting and production of abaca but also on post-harvest facilities, including the P20 million abaca processing facility to be established by PhilFIDA in Caramoran this 2021.

“Kasi ho, sayang ‘yung mga pinag-paguran ng mga farmers, we are producing world-class fiber,” he stressed, appealing for the release of the P121-million abaca rehab fund.

He said that the province is getting some funding for the management of abaca disease but it is not enough

“kasi matagal na pong panahon na napapabayaan ng FIDA.”

The discussion regarding the abaca rehab fund also highlighted a discrepancy between PhilFIDA’s figures regarding damage sustained by abaca plantations in Catanduanes and that reported by the provincial government.

In reply to a query from Sen. Binay on the agency’s programs for replanting in the island, Dir. Costales indicated that there is no need to replant damaged abaca plantations.

“Kahit tinamaan pa ng bagyo yan, tutubo at tutubo yan,” he averred, adding that the new plants will reacj maturity in 18 to 24 months.

He insisted that not all plantations in Catanduanes were totally damaged, with 75 percent of the abaca still standing.

This was countered by Gov. Cua, who cited data showing that after the three typhoons, 80 percent of the islands’s 46,000 hectares of abaca plantations were damaged, with only 20 to 25% still producing fiber for the farmers.

He recalled that after typhoon Nina in 2016, the DA’s rehab program was focused on buying suckers and fertilizers, with the latter vigorously opposed by the provincial government as the abaca fiber market demands naturally-grown abaca without fertilizer.

“Pag nagkaroon ng fertilizer, wala nang bibili ng abaca ng Catanduanes,” Cua emphasized.

While he agreed with Costales that the fallen abaca can regrow naturally, it would be much faster if there is abaca rehabilitation, the governor stated.

“Kasi ang problema natin, ang nawawala na pera sa amin is P100 million a month,” he said, referring to the estimated value of fiber lost by the province’s farmers as a result of the disaster.

On the other hand, Executive Director Aurora Peralta of the Association of Abaca Pulp Manufacturers Inc., also expressed support for the assistance to Catanduanes but said it should also be extended to the rest of the country.

In supporting both Congress bills, she said Catanduanes abaca farmers can be considered models based on what she had seen in the island’s plantations when she worked with PhilFIDA.

“Ang abaca sa Catanduanes, sila lang po ang may pinaka-malinis, pinaka-maayos na plantation,” Peralta stated, pointing out that their very livelihood depends on it.

Peralta likewise bared that the current lack of supply in the country to meet demand from customers has forced pulp mills to import abaca fiber from Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Two other representatives of fiber trading companies – Rubilyn Valdehueza of Newtech Pulp Mill and Nelson Lim of the Specialty Pulp Manufacturing Association – echoed the assessment of the supply situation.

Of the 15,000 metric tons of abaca fiber the company buys every year, 5,000 metric tons come from Catanduanes, Valdehueza revealed.

On assistance for the abaca industry from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Gov. Cua should focus more on production rather than marketing.

“We thank the efforts of the DTI for the programs on training of handicrafts, but this only [composes] 3-5% of the total requirements. Since 95% goes to export for pulp and paper, we should focus more on the rehabilitation and production,” he said.

In sum, the three senators all expressed full support for the approval of the two bills, with the PhilFIDA saying that its passage would greatly promote and support the abaca industry in Catanduanes and uplift the economic condition of the abaca farmers.

SB 1978 is sponsored by both Sens. Villar and Binay while HB 6149 was introduced by TGP partylist Rep. Jose Teves Jr., who was represented during the online hearing. A similar House bill was passed in the 17th Congress but it was not acted upon by the Senate.

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