BUDYONG: Tuna, going, going…

MARIKINA CITY (MindaNews/04 September) — Tuna is yummy as sandwich or served inihaw or tinola.

Tuna – cooked well – turns on one’s appetite. For one, it tastes good. And for another, it is reasonably priced even in the mushrooming eateries in Metro Manila.

Sadly, if the Wikileaks disclosure last week of the contents of a Manila US Embassy cable is true, the tuna industry is facing huge problems.

The cable, however, is not just a harbinger of ill-tidings.

As a Mindanaonon, I read some delightful bits in that supposedly ‘top secret’ communication.

While the cable, for instance, admits that the industry is confronted with serious problems, it suggests that probable solutions also exist to solve them.

Certain barnacles, however, attach themselves to the suggested remedies that make them far from smooth.

One difficulty is that the President has publicly announced his aversion to hearing of people’s problems especially through his cabinet secretaries.

And the other is that the issue necessarily involves other nations, particularly our next door neighbor, Indonesia.

Now, if President Noynoy really dislikes getting to know of people’s concerns through his department secretaries, we are probably left with no choice but to use the pages of our newspapers to air them and hopefully get the Administration to properly redress those grievances.

In that respect, we can thank the Wikileaked cable for bringing up the issue in the open and in a manner that was not possible in times past.

Because of the revelations of Wikileaks, the President should now find it even easier to take up the cudgels for the industry than for him to give up his addiction to cigarettes or coke.

The specific item in the cable that might incite the President’s interest and facilitate his active involvement on the issue is that the US is disposed to support the country get a fair shake from Indonesia with whom we share the sea that’s filled with tuna of all varieties.

And while tuna may not be in the same league as ‘chicken joy’ in the infelicitous simile the new Tourism Secretary used to describe his way of attracting tourist money to the country, the tuna industry already brings in at the very least, something like $400 million annually to Mindanao.

The tuna business, the cable also underscores, “is vital to southern Mindanao, home to eight canneries – two in Zamboanga City and six in General Santos City.” And it provides “100,000 jobs and ancillary employment for an additional 50,000.”

Moreover, the existing canning factories “General Tuna and Celebes Canning recently announced new investments of P347 million to expand production facilities and create 547 new jobs.”

Incidentally, more than half of the exported tuna goes to the US and a little less than half to the EU. That being fact, and considering US strategic interests in this part of the globe, it looks like the industry is assured of a good US market even in the face of competition from some Andean countries which are also in the tuna business.

The cable, however, warns of “a potential reduction” in our tuna exports to the EU because of “heightened health” concerns.

Whatever be the other motives behind the EU threat to reduce its tuna imports from us, the health issue cannot and must not be ignored. Our health authorities, the DOH (Department of Health) and BFAD (Bureau of Food and Drugs) must tighten up the rules that govern the canning industries in the country, particularly, the tuna canneries.

No country can sell its products for long, especially food, if these are perceived to be disease carriers.

And while domestically we should do what we ought to do to assure all consumers that our food products are safe, we should also be as aggressive in pushing for what is in our best interests at the international negotiating table.

The cable reports that Indonesia is reluctant to extend our bilateral fishing arrangements with it “beyond December 3,” 2011.

Indonesia, the cable says, wants to reduce our access to its fishing grounds where “60 – 70% of Philippine tuna originates.”

Indonesia likewise wants “reflagging most Philippine vessels that use Indonesian waters …”

Reflagging means requiring Philippine-registered vessels “to employ 60% Indonesian crew” and “to process their catch in Indonesia or export it through Indonesian firms to Philippine processors.”

It is a safe guess that the desires of Indonesia as expressed in those terms are negotiating points. They may not necessarily be written on stone.

Nonetheless, we must consider that if the bilateral agreement on fishing with Indonesia is not renewed, there would be other adverse effects on our tuna industry. Philippine fishing vessels would be subject to surveillance and seizure by Indonesian authorities. And in General Santos City alone, the tuna industry would suffer a 40 – 100% decline.

That decline in real terms would mean that thousands of people would be thrown out of work.

President Noynoy cannot and should not ignore the cable’s warnings. He says he wants peace in Mindanao? Peace is the last thing that people who are hungry and hopeless have in mind.

The President might already have taken note of or acted on the matter. But the public still has to know what exactly he is doing about it. It is time for his public information bureau to disseminate the presidential views on it.

The cable also notes of some perceived hesitation on the part of our negotiators to forthrightly advance the local tuna industry’s interests.

It might bear repeating that there is no time more opportune than now for our negotiators to go for the whole hog, as it were. Now we have the backing of the US, the world’s superpower – even if it does so out of its preoccupation with anti-terrorism. And under International Law, we may even invoke Article 62 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The article requires signatories to UNCLOS to “allow access to unused aquatic resources … to minimize economic dislocation in states whose nationals have habitually fished in the zone.”

Still, as neighbors sharing not only common seas but also ethnicity, some cultural traditions and customs, it may be best for us to forego the threat of might (the US being behind us on the tuna issue) or even the sanctions of international law such as UNCLOS.

We should probably bank mainly on the long years of our friendship with Indonesia and build up the cause of our tuna industry on that basis.

The renewal negotiations will resume on November 24-25 in Jakarta.

It would be best for the President to send our best negotiators to do the job and emphasize to the Indonesians and the peoples of the world the importance we attach to the matter under negotiation.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel is dubbed the “Father of the Local Government Code.”  He defied the Marcos dictatorship while serving as mayor of Cagayan de Oro City, was named the first Local Governments Secretary in the post-Marcos era, later elected senator and for several years was  Senate President.)