Bukidnon governor, pineapple and banana growers squabble over lockdown
CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Bukidnon Governor Jose Maria Zubiri defended quarantine measures in the province against complaints from pineapple and banana growers even as he agreed to cooperate with the Department of the Interior and Local Goverment (DILG) to resolve the issue.
Zubiri issued Executive Order No. 20 to place the entire Bukidnon province under lockdown beginning Monday, April 13. The order followed its first case of the novel coronavirus disease.
Zubiri said he considered the safety of the people when he "encouraged everybody to [observe] strict home quarantine, including workers from the big companies."
The province is a major producer of agricultural products and is considered the food basket in the region. Zubiri's squabble with the food firms is the latest of his aggressive efforts against the coronavirus pandemic to raise legal questions.
“[Executive Order No. 20] is not intended to paralyze the businesses in the province but to ensure the safety of all the people including those workers in the agriculture sector," Zubiri said on Thursday, April 16, in response to a show cause order issued by the DILG.
But Zubiri showed willingness to adjust. “I would like to state for the record that I have never ordered agricultural banana and pineapple plantations to stop their operations. Neither did EO 20 categorically state the closure of banana and pineapple plantations,” Zubiri said on Thursday.
'No more reason to proceed with a case'
The row erupted when the DILG issued a show cause order against the governor for possible violation of quarantine guidelines based on a complaint filed by the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association Inc. (PBGEA) and Del Monte Philippines, Inc.
DILG undersecretary Epimaco Densing, citing complaints from the pineapple and banana growers, said Zubiri's Executive Order No. 20 hampered operations of food firms in the province.
On Friday, April 17, DILG spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said the governor has "withdrawn [his stand] and is now cooperating closely with the DILG."
"We see no more reason to proceed with a case," Malaya said.
Executive Order No. 20
The issue stemmed from what was interpreted to be the exclusion of banana and pineapple industries in the list of essential establishments and businesses that may continue to operate under E.O. 20.
The list included groceries, supermarkets, wet markets or palengke, water refilling stations, food delivery services, courier services and other delivery services, hospitals, medical laboratories, pharmacies and drugstores, banks, ATMs, savings and credit cooperatives, money-transfer services, gas stations and LPG stations, funeral parlors, and public utility services.
The provincial government received a letter from PBGEA on Monday morning, April 13, according to Zubiri. DILG endorsed the same letter to his office afternoon of the same day.
“There is nothing in their letter that would imply that they are against the said E.O. 20. They even interpreted the said E.O. 20 [to mean] their workers are allowed to work provided that the conditions are strictly followed,” Zubiri said.
But Zubiri suggested PBGEA sent a different letter to DILG Secretary Eduardo Año, where he said the group interpreted the E.O. to mean that their companies need to stop operating during the lockdown.
The province's sugar producers faced the same problem. On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Williar Dar also appealed to Zubiri to let food firms operate, citing complaints from sugar mills in the province.
'For export, not local consumption'
Even as he softened his stand, Zubiri tried to challenge the qualification of pineapples and banana growers – which he said export most of their products abroad – as "basic agricultural commodities" that may continue operations unhampered during the pandemic.
“These big pineapple and banana companies and exporters are not basic and essential commodities. Their product is not even for us. They are for export. Large banana growers and exporters cannot affect our food security,” Zubiri said.
He even accused Del Monte Philippines of "capitalizing" on the high price of pineapples overseas.
“Our people cannot even afford their pineapples because it is expensive,” Zubiri said.
Allegations of rice hoarding, too
It isn't the first time Bukidnon's measures to address the coronavirus pandemic faced legal questions.
Zubiri intended to secure the province's rice supply, a move that the National Economic and Development Authority said was tantamount to hoarding. – with a report from Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com