With the Senate’s decision on whether or not the Philippines should join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership nearing once again, members of the agriculture sector gathered to express their concern about its effects on the industry should the country decide to take part in the trade agreement.
Trade Justice Pilipinas, an organization advocating for just trade and investment policies, invited representatives from different agricultural sectors to express their concerns about RCEP.
Janel Geconcillo of Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (PKKK) read the group’s statement. The group pointed out that despite agriculture providing 25% of the country’s jobs (35% if agribusiness is included) and 50% of Filipinos depending directly or indirectly on the sector, most of the poor still remain in rural areas. “ Clearly, the promised days from trade liberalization following our membership in the World Trade Organization in 1995 and subsequent regional and bilateral treaties and trade agreements have not materialized,” she read. “our agricultural trade deficit has actually ballooned to nine billion US dollars annually. Exports have not significantly expanded beyond traditional items like banana, pineapple, and coconut-based products. Meanwhile, our capacity to supply farming markets with competitive products have failed in comparison to our neighbors. In turn, we have become a dumping ground for imports of practically all agricultural commodities—rice, pork, chicken, fish, salt, onion, garlic….”
Many practitioners are wary of entering another trade agreement without proper safeguards to ensure that the Philippines’ agriculture industry does not suffer when tariffs for many products are lifted, given its penchant for leaning on importation instead of bolstering local agriculture when food supplies dwindle, especially since “RCEP will eliminate tariffs of (84)% of our industrial tariff lines.”
The fear is that, “This could result in massive job losses and bankruptcies of small and medium scale enterprises.”
The statement further pointed out that, “proponents of RCEP had one year to engage the agricfisher people to attain a mutual understanding on why our commitments under WTO and past (trade agreements) have not worked for us. Yet, they made no serious effort to dialogue… to avoid past mistakes and to achieve real progress.”
Previous concerts have and still include a lack of safeguards to ensure that local agriculture practitioners do not lose their already tenuous opportunities once tariffs are lifted. They also point out that most of RCEP’s tariff concessions are already covered under existing trade agreements, and these agreements will continue whether or not the country decides to join RCEP. There is also a fear that the country will lose instead of gain export markets because many of its sectors remain competitive due to a lack of systemic improvements. They counter the accusation that the agriculture industry is protectionist by saying that no farmer or fisher wants to remain poor, and that the systemic factors that contribute to this have yet to be addressed by the government.
Again, one returns to the preference for importing even basic goods instead of supporting the infrastructure that local farmers need to become competitive just within the country. Without a specific plan in place to ensure that the local agriculture industry will be given priority, many stakeholders will remain skeptical of RCEP’s ability to improve the industry.
As Geconcillo concluded, “Under the circumstances, it will be foolhardy to dive into the RCEP bandwagon. Let us not put the cart before the horse. The lives and welfare of millions of farmers, fishers, workers, and other stakeholders are at stake with their… to vote no to RCEP.”