Pangilinan: I'm here to help 'clean up'

MANILA, Philippines – Newly-appointed Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization Francis Pangilinan said part of his marching orders from President Benigno Aquino III is to help clean up agencies under the Department of Agriculture (DA), which has been linked to irregularities.

On Tuesday, May 6, Pangilinan took his oath before President Benigno Aquino III, who signed two executive issuances in line with the new Cabinet official's appointment. 

By virtue of an Executive Order, the President transferred 4 DA agencies to the Office of the President (OP) –  the National Food Authority (NFA), the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA).

Under a memorandum order, Pangilinan as  Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization would have oversight functions over the 4 agencies.

His functions are the following:

Target reforms

Responding to questions, the former senator said he was appointed to help Aquino achieve his target reforms in agriculture before the end of his term.

"As far as we are concerned, there are serious problems affecting our agriculture sector, which needs to be addressed and we are here to help address these problems," he said.

When asked,  Pangilinan said corruption and smuggling issues affecting the agriculture sector are also part of his responsibility.

"The President said I am here to help clean up these agencies. That was what he told me. So addressing this includes allegations of corruption and smuggling," he said.

Pangilinan said he plans to do this through a "combination of interventions" which includes making people account for their acts though evidence, providing support for "those who are well-meaning" or dedicated public servants, and to provide direction to agencies.

"We have to provide direction for these agencies and inspire the bureaucracy and mobilize the bureaucracy towards that particular direction," he said.

He also said he himself will see where project funds are going, emphasizing that "there are funds but they are being wasted."

Aquino satisfied with Alcala

Pangilinan clarified that his appointment should not mean that Agricultural Secretary Proceso Alcala is failing in his job. He said he has been assigned to provide "support" since the DA deals with a broad range of subsectors.

"There are serious concerns and issues affecting the agricultural sector that will need my support and my attention and to help…the Secretary….I think the President felt the need to fast-track and to add support, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with that," he said.

He also clarified that he and Alcala would work hand-in-hand to oversee the 4 agencies, and no one was necessarily higher than the other.

When asked, Pangilinan said Aquino did not talk to him about Alcala and his alleged links to irregularities.

"There was no mention of Alcala being linked to various cases as a reason as to why I was appointed," he said.

Aquino has been criticized for his continued defense of Alcala despite irregularities and questionable transactions linked to his name and department.

Reports and exposés in the past years have mostly identified the DA and agencies or corporations under it as channels of pork barrel misuse. (READ: Aquino defends agri chief Alcala over pork barrel links)

Alcala has denied allegations of involvement in the scam run by a syndicate allegedly headed by Janet Lim-Napoles. A whistleblower had linked Alcala to the scam, alleging that he facilitated funding for two dummy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created by Napoles.

Napoles allegedly used pork barrel money for ghost projects in connivance with lawmakers who got kickbacks.

Aside from being named in a state audit report as a possible beneficiary of pork barrel kickbacks, Alcala is facing two plunder complaints. He is  also accused of malversation of funds and violation of election laws before the Office of the Ombudsman for allegedly using DA funds to bankroll the gubernatorial bid of his son, Irvin Alcala, in Quezon province in 2013.

Ready for challenges

Pangilinan, who became a full-time vegetable farmer after he left the Senate in 2013, said he is ready for the challenges of his new job.

Pangilinan said he knew that for "inclusive growth to happen, the primary sector that needed help was the agriculture sector." Inclusive growth, where high economic growth is supposed to be felt by poor Filipinos, is the Aquino administration's main focus in its remaining years in office.

"Food security can only be done when you secure your farmers and fisherfolk and the overall program is to address that," Pangilinan said.

When it comes to issues on rice, he said the priority is to keep prices low, to fix the importation policies of the government, and to address the NFA's P170 billion debt.

To help the coconut industry, Pangilinan said the farmers should be helped against infestation of coconut plantations, and to bring them out of poverty. Coconut farmers, he said, are among the poorest in the country even if the Philippines is a top exporter of coconut products. 

He also said Aquino's problems with the NIA are very clear, and vowed to help solve them. In 2013, Aquino fired NIA head Antonio Nangel after the agency missed its targets for two consecutive years.

No revamp

With just two years left to achieve his goals, Pangilinan said he does not expect to institute any major revamps in the agencies he is overseeing.

He said he may bring in some people, but he will work with the current employees in those agencies.

Pangilinan said he accepted the position because of his promise to Aquino.

"I committed to helping the President since Day 1, he said.

After the 2013 midterm elections, Pangilinan had been asked to help with the DA but turned it down to spend time with his family.

Pangilinan, an ally of the President, was a senator from 2001-2013, and chaired the Senate Committee on Agriculture.  Rappler.com