The NEDA Board-Regional Development Committee (NB-RDCom) for Visayas Area convened for its Second Quarter Meeting for 2016 on June 17 at the Ironwood Hotel, Tacloban City. Hosted by the Regional Development Council (RDC) VIII, this was also the last meeting of the Committee under the Aquino administration.

The meeting was presided over by the RDC VIII Chairperson and Leyte Governor Leopoldo Dominico L. Petilla. It was participated in by Bohol Provincial Planning and Development Coordinator (PPDC) John Titus J. Vistal, representing RDC VII Chairperson and Bohol Governor Edgar M. Chatto; Negros Occidental PPDC Ma. Lina P. Sanogal, representing RDC Negros Island Region (NIR) Chairperson and Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Maraǹon; NEDA VI RD Ro-Ann A. Bacal, Acting Chairperson of RDC VI; NEDA VII RD Efren B. Carreon, Vice-Chairperson of RDC VII and NIR; and NEDA VIII RD Bonifacio G. Uy, Vice-Chairperson of RDC VIII and Head of RDCom Visayas Secretariat.

In the said meeting, the Committee deliberated the issue on the smuggling of matured coconuts and coconut seedlings from Eastern Visayas to China, which was initially brought to the fore in the Second Quarter 2016 Meeting of the Economic Development Committee (EDC) VIII. Present as the resource person and the main proponent of the issue was Mr. Emmanuel S. Licup, Managing Director of SC Global Coco Products, Inc., one of the leading agri industries in the region. He disclosed that the smuggling of coconut seedlings has already been prevalent as early as 2011 in Samar and in some areas in Mindanao, with smugglers being mobile in their attempt to hide from authorities. However, it was only in the aftermath of Yolanda, during which the supply of coconuts was low in particular to Eastern Visayas, when the effects of such illicit activity had become apparent. Specifically, partially dehusked coconuts were allegedly shipped from Southern Leyte to Cebu City via the ports of Ormoc City, Baybay City, Hilongos and Hindang, which were eventually exported to Hainan, China. The smuggling activity recently gained national attention when Mr. Jesus Arranza, Chairman of the Federation of Philippine Industries, Inc. called for an urgent investigation of the said concern. Under Executive Order 1016, the exportation of matured coconuts and coconut seedlings is prohibited.

The Committee supported the proposed interventions identified by the EDC VIII to arrest the smuggling of matured coconuts and coconut seedlings, including the proposed interagency alert communication system that will track the movement/trade of coconuts. In addition, the body also passed a resolution enjoining the Bureau of Customs to initiate an investigation on the smuggling issue, the agency being responsible in inspecting products for export. The Philippine Coconut Authority, which has created a national task force to conduct a probe of the coconut smuggling, has yet to release an official report on the status of such illegal trade.

The Committee also endorsed the request of the RDC VI for the Congress of the Philippines to increase the penalty imposed on truck overloading. The proposed adjustment in penalties will seek to amend Section 6 of Republic Act No. 8794, which currently provides for minimal fines on overloading violation.

Another highlight of the said meeting was the presentation of the status of Yolanda rehabilitation and recovery programs in the Visayas regions. In relation, the Committee, through a resolution, requests the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to expedite the identification of lands suitable for resettlement projects as well as the issuance of land titles in Bantayan and Camotes islands. The acquisition of titled lots has been difficult in these places since these were declared as wilderness and natural reserve areas.

To keep track of the issues raised in the previous meetings, updates on the operationalization of the Negros Island Region and the status of the Cebu-Leyte-Bohol-Southern Leyte (CELEBOSOLE) Project on the Danajon Bank Double Barrier Reef were also presented. The body also supported three resolutions passed by the NB-RDCom Mindanao on the inclusion of long-term programs and projects of the Area Spatial Development Frameworks in the Comprehensive Integrated Infrastructure Program, the request for the Department of Budget and Management to post in its website the region and island-specific national budget, and the request for institutionalization of RDC-Agency Central Offices (ACO) dialogue during budget reviews.

In his closing remarks, Chairperson Petilla underscored the need to sustain the unity among the Visayas regions in pursuing inter-island development. He pointed out that the realization of inclusive growth means putting more emphasis on the lagging areas in the Visayas such as the Samar Island provinces. He also expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to serve the Visayas in his capacity as the RDCom Visayas Chair.

Jensen D. Rico, PFPD, NEDA VIII