MANILA, April 9, 2008 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - As the government fends off accusations that it has not done enough to arrest skyrocketing rice prices, President Arroyo asked the public yesterday not to panic and announced the arrival of 500,000 metric tons of imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam.

“It would be unfortunate if panic took over logic, for we will endure and survive this moment and come through it stronger,” Mrs. Arroyo said, adding that the rice deliveries would be used as a buffer for the lean harvest months between July and September. “In the meantime, however, it will take unity and hard work.”

“We can report that our supply is secure for the foreseeable future,” Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement before meeting with economic officials.

“Our program of fertilizers, irrigation and infrastructure, equipment, education and expansion, loans, dryers and post-harvest facilities and seeds have allowed us to increase our rice production by more than the population growth rate of 2.04 percent,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

She also urged strengthened cooperation between government, the public and the private sector.

“We must all pull together including the government, the private sector, civil society and our faith community to help the poor and see us through this challenging time,” she said.

“We aim to prevent these strains on individuals and their families from becoming a crisis by taking decisive action,” Mrs. Arroyo said

An additional 700,000 metric tons is expected to arrive between April and June, with 80 percent from Vietnam and the balance split between Thailand and Pakistan, the statement said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the government would ensure stocks are properly distributed to reach the poor, who are most affected by soaring prices.

“Concerning enforcement of laws against hoarding and corruption, we have already taken steps to protect our consumers from rice bandits and unscrupulous traders,” she said.

“I am leading the charge to crack down on any form of corruption by public or private officials who would divert supplies or pervert the price of this essential commodity in any way,” she stressed.

The Philippines, a farming nation of 90 million, is among the world’s largest importers of rice, a staple food.

More lands for rice planting

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said the government is exploring measures to expand areas planted to rice, including the repair and rehabilitation of busted irrigation facilities in at least 300,000 hectares of idle land nationwide.

At the same time, Yap urged Congress to act on a pending legislative measure on a national land use policy.

Yap’s appeal came in the wake of calls by Senators Edgardo Angara and Loren Legarda for an increase in areas devoted to palay growing as part of long-term measures to attain rice self-sufficiency.

Yap said the proposed Land Use Act will, in the long run, help stop the unbridled conversion of prime farmlands into non-agricultural areas.

Yap has also ordered the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) to update him on Strategic Agricultural and Fisheries Development Zones (SAFDZs) suitable for palay production.

“I have asked the BSWM to indicate such areas suitable for rice production in terms of terrain, soil and water conditions so that both the government and the private sector can intervene in a focused manner to convert these into rice production sites,” Yap said.

“We just need everybody’s support to understand that food security is everyone’s concern. It is an issue important to all Filipinos and not just to a few people,” he said.

Yap said restoring rundown irrigation facilities is cheaper by P100,000 per hectare than building new systems, which can cost more than P300,000 per hectare.

For 2008, he said the DA hopes to expand areas planted to palay this wet season to 2.54 million hectares.

Yap said that for the dry season of 2009, the DA would target at least 1.8 million hectares of land for hybrid and certified rice seeds.

“We must inform farmers planting during the wet season of our target areas for hybrid and certified seeds so we can prepare the seeds that can be used by those who will begin planting during the November-December 2008 period,” he said.

Meanwhile, Finance Undersecretary and acting National Treasurer Roberto Tan said the World Bank has offered to help the country solve the rice problem.

“The World Bank wants to provide analytical advice to help us address or make more efficient the country’s food production,” Tan said. – With Edu Punay, Marianne Go, and Iris Gonzales

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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