December 6, 2021 | 12:05

MANILA, Philippines – Forty-eight local farm groups are angry over the imminent ratification of the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, which they say was finalized without consulting stakeholders in the agricultural sector.

The groups – made up of farmers, fishermen, workers and businesses – are calling on the Senate, which is inches away from ratifying the trade deal, to “deny” their agreement to RCEP, arguing that the lack of consultation between stakeholders denied them the opportunity to turn the deal into something that won’t hurt their livelihoods.

The RCEP is expected to come into force on January 1, 2022.

“The RCEP agreement was finalized without consulting agro-fishing stakeholders, who are directly concerned. Today there is no longer any opportunity to modify our commitments or the legal text of the agreement, ”said the 48 signatories in a press release.

The 2011 Association of Southeastern Nations Summit in Bali, Indonesia then crafted the free trade agreement, designed to remove 90% of tariffs on imports in 20 signatory countries.

The treaty, which also aimed to establish a common rule for electronic commerce and commerce, was officially signed at a virtual summit in November last year, to which all ASEAN member countries were signatories, in the exception of Timor-Leste. China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have also signed the agreement.

“There is no clear and consistent basis for classifying agricultural tariff lines in the country’s list of tariff concessions,” the groups said.

These farm groups lament that once the Philippines officially ratifies RCEP, 75% of the country’s 1,718 farm tariffs will be reduced to zero. They predict that 15% of fares will be reduced, leaving 9% immune to any change.

All 48 stakeholder groups fear the rule change that will hamper the application of effective trade remedies, citing safeguard duties as the only legal solution for import surges, when the level of incoming goods exceeds normal levels.

Likewise, the group pointed out that RCEP discourages quantitative restrictions on imports, coinciding with the Philippine law’s ban on rice pricing. Stakeholders are also wary of projections and possible losses if a country withdraws from the free trade agreement.

Rather, the performance data shows the deterioration of our terms of trade: minimal increases in exports, dependence on traditional commodities, increasing imports and widening trade deficits. Our outlook is unlikely to improve under RCEP, ”they said.

Some 30,000 companies from the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry approved the impending ratification of the free trade agreement by the Senate during a hearing on Friday, which reportedly consulted with the country’s economic players.

Among the signatories to the group were Rafael Mariano, former minister of agrarian reform under the Duterte regime, and Ernesto Ordoñez, former undersecretary of agriculture and commerce in previous administrations.

“Even without RCEP, our bilateral and regional free trade agreements with all RCEP member countries will remain in effect. We will always take advantage of opportunities available outside of RCEP, ”said the 48 groups.

“We can continue to negotiate with our Free Trade Agreement partners to obtain additional benefits comparable to those of RCEP,” they added.