[PHOTO AT LEFT - former budget secretary Benjamin Diokno, ESTRADA ADMIN]

MANILA , MAY 3, 2010 (STAR) By Jess Diaz - The inability of the government to increase the production of agricultural products, especially rice, is President Arroyo’s “biggest failure” in her nine years in office, former budget secretary Benjamin Diokno said.

“This administration failed to increase the production of rice and corn, the nation’s two principal staple food, despite billions of pesos spent to boost growth in the farming sector,” he told a news forum over the weekend.

Diokno was budget secretary during the Estrada administration. He now teaches economics at the University of the Philippines.

He recalled that in the early days of her administration, Mrs. Arroyo held office at the Department of Agriculture (DA) to impress upon the nation that she would like to increase agricultural productivity and make the country self-sufficient at least in rice and corn.

“I thought she was serious. Had she accomplished that supposed goal, the government would have fed more people and there would be fewer Filipinos who are experiencing hunger,” he said.

He agreed with Albay Gov. Joey Salceda that there are more hungry Filipinos now than there were at the start of Mrs. Arroyo’s term despite the modest economic growth that the nation has been achieving.

Salceda was one of the President’s economic advisers until he joined the camp of Liberal Party standard-bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III two weeks ago.

Diokno said as it turned out, the Arroyo administration only used the DA and the farming sector “for fund-raising in 2004 and 2007.”

He said Mrs. Arroyo and her allies among congressmen and senators diverted billions in pork barrel funds to the agriculture department and agencies under it with no concrete results in terms of increased farm productivity.

Former senator Francisco Tatad shared Diokno’s assessment that the agriculture sector is the favorite destination of pork barrel funds, a big part of which goes to the pockets of corrupt lawmakers.

“I know of a senator who has at least P7 billion in ‘pork’ and whose favorite cover for skimming his funds is agriculture,” he said.

Diokno’s mention of the election years of 2004 and 2007 is a reference to the fertilizer scam that resulted in the loss of billions of taxpayers’ money.

It was in 2004 when Mrs. Arroyo defeated the late popular actor Fernando Poe Jr. by one million votes. A year later, the “Hello, Garci” tapes about vote rigging surfaced, which nearly led to the collapse of the Arroyo administration.

Three months before the May 2004 presidential election, Malacañang released P728 million to then DA undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante, who gave the money to more than 100 congressmen, governors and town mayors who were administration allies.

The opposition claims up to this day that the funds were used for Mrs. Arroyo’s election campaign. The Commission on Audit discovered that liquid fertilizer bought out of the funds was overpriced by as much as 1,800 percent.

Many of the foundations congressmen used to purchase fertilizer were found nonexistent.

The same irregularity was repeated in the 2007 congressional elections. In fact, the same foundations were used to launder funds.

Diokno said Congress has been allocating billions of funds every year to increase the production of agricultural products under the so-called Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization Act authored by Sen. Edgardo Angara, a former DA secretary.

But there is little evidence that these funds have been put to good use, he said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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