President Duterte warned rice hoarders and cartels in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 23, with these words:
“I now ask all the rice hoarders, cartels, and their protectors. You know I know who you are. Stop messing with the people…. Consider yourselves warned. Mend your ways or the full force of the state will be brought to bear against you. I am directing all intelligence agencies to unmask the perpetrators of this economic sabotage and our law enforcement agencies to bring them to justice.”
Rice is one consumer product whose price cannot be allowed to rise beyond the capability of the poorest Filipino. The Philippine rice industry can well produce enough rice for the country, but at prices higher than rice produced in Thailand and Vietnam. Thus, we annually purchase low-priced rice from these two countries through the National Food Authority (NFA), so that every rice store in the country has NFA rice at half the price of the top commercial varieties.
The other factor behind high rice prices – some say it is the bigger factor – is the price manipulation by rice cartels and hoarders. They release stocks into the market in quantities calculated to keep prices high.
A week after the President’s SONA warning, Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Oscar Albayalde discosed that the PNP has already started investigating some personalities through its Intelligence Group. Those arrested, he said, could face charges of economic sabotage, which is punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment and a fine of twice the value of the smuggled agricultural product.
There have been many government warnings on manipulation of rice supplies and prices, including some directed at smugglers, but these have largely been ignored by interests with powerful political backing as well as well-placed connections in the business world.
The President’s SONA warning, coupled with the PNP mobilization of its resources, may make a big difference this time. A PNP drive against rice hoarders, cartels, and smugglers may not have quite the same impact as its previous campaigns against drugs and “tambays” violating local ordinances, but it is bound to be more effective than previous government efforts to straighten out the rice problem.