Department of Agriculture

From bilyonaryo to milyonaryo: New agriculture chief shrugs off conflict of interest concerns

Ralf Rivas

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From bilyonaryo to milyonaryo: New agriculture chief shrugs off conflict of interest concerns

OFFICIAL. Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. holds his first press briefing on November 6, 2023.

Ralf Rivas/Rappler

'When I was asked by the President to join DA, I actually hesitated a couple of times. But at the end of the day, I was challenged to do something for the country,' says Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s new agriculture chief donated P30 million to his campaign and was basically the Philippines’ fishing tycoon prior to his appointment.

If you’re concerned about Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr.’s potential conflict of interest, he said taking the job is not financially rewarding.

Laurel held his very first press briefing ever in his life on Monday, November 6, and directly answered that question. 

“Basically, I divested, no more interests in all companies that I used to own. Don’t quote me on this, dati nga bilyonaryo ako, ngayon milyonaryo na lang ‘eh (I used to be a billionaire, now I’m just a millionaire),” Tiu said.

From bilyonaryo to milyonaryo: New agriculture chief shrugs off conflict of interest concerns

While Laurel asked not to be quoted on this, and reporters typically agree with this sort of arrangement, we’re publishing it anyway. This remark was said in a room packed with reporters, and some TV networks livestreamed the press conference, including the Department of Agriculture (DA). Hundreds of people watched the DA’s livestream.

Laurel emphasized that taking on the job as agriculture secretary, which Marcos concurrently held for over a year, is a full-time job. He has “no time to do anything else.” 

“When I was asked by the president to join DA, I actually hesitated a couple of times. But at the end of the day, I was challenged to do something for the country. Bottomline, I love our country and I want to help,” Laurel said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Marcos earlier vouched for Laurel’s work ethic and familiarity with the sector, especially on fisheries.  The President also attested to the new DA secretary’s character, having “known him since we were boys.” 

Business interests

Prior to his divestment, Laurel was president of Frabelle Fishing Corporation, a seafood production company that was first established in 1966. According to its website, Frabelle owns “a fleet of over 100 vessels, and a growing workforce of 5,000.”

He was one of Marcos’ top campaign contributors through the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP), the political party that carried his presidential run in 2022. According to PFP’s statement of contributions, Laurel donated P30 million to the campaign.

In August 2022, Laurel joined the Private Sector Advisory Council (PSAC) which was created to help form and recommend policies to the President on matters related to the economy. Laurel is under PSAC’s agriculture sector with five other business leaders. He is also the president of the Agusan Power Company.  

In a radio interview, Federation of Free Farmers Chairman Leonardo Montemayor said Laurel should show agriculture stakeholders that he’s genuine. Divesting won’t be enough, especially in the Philippine context where politicians exert influence over business interests.

“I think ‘yung mga agam-agam or apprehensions ng mga grupo, palagay ko valid ‘yun, dapat harapin nang husto…maraming nababahala kasi even now, ‘yung mga miyembro sa Kamara at Senado…kung may mga panukalang batas na may conflict at dapat ay aatras sila, ay sige pa rin, so nagbibigay laman ito sa suspetsa na hindi totoo ang pagda-divest,” he said in a Radyo 5 interview.

(I think the apprehensions of the groups are valid and he needs to face them. There are lots of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who still participate in creating laws even though they have clear conflicts of interest. So there’s suspicion that divesting is not really true.)

Plans

Laurel said Marcos’ directive was to increase overall agriculture production across all commodities, with “special” emphasis on rice.

He intends to modernize, irrigate, fertilize, and use the right type of seeds for this.

When asked whether Marcos’ ambitious promise of bringing a kilo of rice to just P20 is possible, Laurel said it’s hard to say.

“It’s hard to say. The problem with the world now, it’s so complicated. There’s climate change. El Niño is now here and it will continue until the middle of next year. Anything can happen, we won’t know if there will be war elsewhere, we won’t know if another ship will block the Suez Canal,” he said.

“We need to have our silos, we need to have buffer stock, and we have to change some laws, I believe,” Laurel added. – Rappler.com

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  1. ET

    Congratulations to the new DA Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. Very nice words: “But at the end of the day, I was challenged to do something for the country. Bottomline, I love our country and I want to help.” The People will have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, it might end up as: “But at the end of the day, I perceived the opportunity of helping my business and wealth indirectly grow. I have to pretend that I wanted to help and love my country.”

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Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.