Cane Points: Paner's HFCS Victory Spelled Her Demise?

Ormoc City's Hermie Serafica, the planters representative to the Sugar Board, was reportedly appointed by President Duterte as the next Sugar Regulatory Administrator.

The Sugar Alliance of the Philippines originally recommended its spokesman, Atty. Dino Yulo, to fill the post vacated by Atty. Anna Rosario Paner with her resignation two weeks ago. Sugar leaders manifested that they would also be happy even if it is Hermie, the recommendee of Agri Sec Manny Pi?ol and Sen. Migz Zubiri, who would be appointed.

Last year, the Alliance pushed for Hermie's appointment as SRA head. Digong anointed Paner, reportedly on the behest of a pro-Duterte taipan who has his fingers into sugar milling, trading and retailing. Hermie got appointed to the Sugar Board, perhaps to soothe the Alliance's ruffled feathers.

Now that Hermie was reportedly elevated as SRA head, it is most likely that Dino, who is this year's recommendee of the Alliance, might also be appointed as planters rep to the Sugar Board, most probably for the same reason as last year.

Paner's unceremonious departure from SRA surprised industry stakeholders. While her appointment expired on June 30, Paner was expected to continue in her post. Stakeholders were in awe of her steadfast stand on the HFCS issue and they were looking up at her to stop the further influx of HFCS and other alternative sweeteners.

If there is something that can define Paner's short stint at SRA, it is her stand against HFCS.

Beverage companies and other industrial users have been importing HFCS several years back. Bureau of Customs records reveal that 53,405 metric tons of HFCS were brought into the country in 2012, 32,199 mt in 2013, jumping to 213,185 mt in 2014 and to 247,204 mt in 2015. In 2016, HFCS imports hit a record high of 373,138 mt!

Paner had the misfortune to head SRA when sugar prices dropped from P1,800 per bag in September 2016 to about P1,300 per bag in December 2016. Sugar prices hovered at that level until the end of the crop year.

Sugar leaders, particularly from Negros where about 60% of local sugar is produced, howled and slammed Coca-Cola, the biggest HFCS importer, and even Pinol, who was perceived to be siding with Coke against the sugar industry in the HFCS controversy.

Pinol retorted by taunting the Negros sugar leaders, pointing out that they are partly to blame for the HFCS problem. He posted on March 21 in his Facebook page:

"Guess who was President of the Philippines when the use of HFCS was allowed by government?

You are right! President Benigno Aquino III whose presidential candidate the hacienderos of Negros Occidental supported in the last elections.

So, here is a situation where sugar planters, acting like spoiled brats, are accusing me of being anti-farmer for seeking a win-win solution to a problem which was created by the very administration they supported."

Upon the orders of President Duterte, SRA issued Sugar Order No. 3 regulating the importation and use of HFCS. Paner was reportedly pressured by Pi?ol and two other cabinet members to go easy on the implementation of Sugar Order No. 3. Paner did not budge, despite the legal roadblock filed by Coke on the order's constitutionality.

Sugar Order No. 3 practically stopped HFCS importation at its tracks. From 373,138 mt in 2016, HFCS imports as of August 2 dropped to around 200,000 mt, most of which landed before the effectivity of Sugar Order No. 3.

Was Paner's defiance of Pi?ol and two other cabinet members on the HFCS issue play a role in her forced exit from SRA?

Paner was compelled to resign, reportedly because Digong took issue on SRA's hiring of three consultants at P200,000 per month, a rate higher than the monthly salary of the President who works 24/7.

Is the hiring of consultants a power which is vested solely on the SRA chief? Or, considering the amount involved, does it require the approval of the Sugar Board? If Paner acted on her own, then it is but right that she should take the fall. If it was a collegial decision, then Hermie and Atty. Roland Beltran are equally guilty.

Was the consultant issue simply used as a smokescreen to ease out Paner, who has demonstrated that she can't be bulldozed even by three cabinet secretaries, and replace her with somebody more pliable?

There are two billion and more reasons why some hidden hand would want to control the agency which exercises the power of life and death over the sugar industry.*

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