Banana industry: Better prospects for 2018

As the year is getting to a close, with it is the heightened hope of stakeholders in the banana industry.

For one, said Stephen A. Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, the government has started listening to the calls of the industry. “In fact, we have become so busy because they (government agencies) want us to immediately submit our wish lists,” said Antig.

Both the Departments of Agriculture and the Trade and Industry (DTI) have initiated steps towards easing the burden of the industry, considered the top export grosser of the region at an annual of $1 billion in export receipts annually.

Help is coming

On the part of the DTI, the agency has started negotiating with markets of Philippine bananas in an effort to, if possible, eliminate tariffs on the commodity. Antig lamented that while Philippine bananas that get sold in its markets are imposed a low of 8% and a high of 18% in tariff rates, those from other countries do not carry such burden.

“We hope that we will be able to persuade our buyers to eliminate or at least reduce the tariff rates so that we can also maintain our competitiveness,” Antig added.

On the part of the Agriculture department and the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the agencies have tasked the industry to come up with list of where they could intervene. Industry stakeholders have long called for assistance so that the country could sustain its standing in the global market as among the top five sources of high quality bananas.

One key call of the industry, said Antig, is for the BOC to reduce its fees which have ballooned to about 300%. For example, the certificate of origin fee has gone to P1,000 from just about P130. “We hope the agency will consider our call because the increases will be a huge problem especially for small exporters,” he said.

In the local government front, the industry has slowly moved closer to possible compromises with these government agencies. In Compostela Valley, the provincial government has started to discuss with the stakeholders the move to reduce the P1,000 per hectare environmental tax.

Although there are still a few kinks that need to be straightened, Antig is confident that a compromise can be had by next year as the provincial government has agreed to reduce it to just P100.

He hopes that by next year, the stakeholders can use the compromise they could hammer out with the Compostela Valley government in initiating a similar step with the Davao City government, another local government unit that has imposed an environmental tax at a higher rate of P2,500 a hectare.

Solution to diseases

Among the biggest problems that the industry has been facing are the diseases that have wrought havoc on farms. One farm has even decided to close down its operations in Compostela Valley after 100 hectares of the farm was afflicted with the soil-borne Fusarium wilt, more popularly known as Panama disease because of its origin.

At present, some research facilities are looking into how to fight the disease even as the Agricultural department has developed the so-called Fusarium wilt resistant varieties. Dr. Lourdes Generalao, president of the state-run University of the Southeastern Philippines, earlier said her institution is looking into mass producing the variety.

Antig, however, said that the Fusarium wilt problem is just one of the many problems that the industry is facing in terms of diseases. There is the Black Sigatoka and the other similar infections.

“This is the reason we need a government-run research center that will really focus on addressing these problems,” he said as he even cited the need for a council tasked to draft an industry masterplan.

Despite the move of some legislators to push government to approve the establishment of the council, the proposal has hit a snag as it has failed to get enough support. To at least address it in an easier way, there is a proposal that will create a similar body, but that the industry will spearhead it, instead of relying on government.

Challenges

Even with the rosy prospects, there are still huge barriers that the industry needs to overcome. The irony, Antig said, is that most of these are initiatives of people in government, the very people who are supposed to help it.

Among these is the initiatives of some lawmakers to legislate policies that will cover the so-called agricultural venture agreements (AVAs), those contracts that agrarian reform beneficiaries sign with companies that provide them assistance in their farming activities.

Antig said imposing policies on these mutually-agreed contracts does not only endanger the whole system, but put the legality of policies in question. “These are legally-binding agreements and, unless there is enough proof that one party is in a disadvantaged position, government cannot dip its finger into it,” he added.

For now, however, Antig hopes that the better prospects will be sustained as the new year enters.