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U.S. Trade Policy Unintentionally Hurt Philippines - 2003-05-16


At the time it seemed like a good idea. Last year the United States tried to reward its South American allies in the drug war with trade preferences. In theory lower tariffs on products like tuna would offer an economic alternative to those working in the drug trade. But in the reality of today’s complicated global economy using trade to help one country, can have unintended consequences on others.

As VOA-TV’s Brian Padden reports, the Philippines almost found itself the unintended victim of this U.S. Trade policy until it was able to convince the United States of the connection between tuna and terrorism.

Here in the port city of General Santos, on the troubled island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, authorities believe tuna may be the key to peace.

NATURAL SOUND – CANNON GOING OFF

On other parts of the island, government forces regularly clash with rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF, who want to establish a separatist Islamic state. But here in General Santos, a thriving tuna industry is providing jobs and hope to people like Evelyn Intumon.

EVELYN INTUMON
“We chose to settle in General Santos because unlike other places like Cotabato city, this place is peaceful.”

The wages Evelyn Intumon earns at a local tuna processing plant allow her to support her children. And while she lives in a mostly Christian neighborhood, she feels free to practice her Muslim faith without discrimination or persecution.

EVELYN INTUMON
“They are also good. They also respect us.”

The tuna industry says Evelyn Intumon’s experience is typical and exemplifies the issues that drive terrorism in the region.

The Philippine tuna industry, based here in General Santos employs over 100,000 people. Any loss of jobs in this part of the Southern Philippines, argues the government, would constitute a threat to peace and security.

But Philippine officials recently found themselves facing just such a threat from their biggest market, the United States. In 2002, the U.S. Congress proposed removing all tariffs on tuna from Andean countries in South America involved in fighting the illegal drug trade. Word of this set off alarms for Philippines Secretary of Trade and Industry Mar Roxas, who saw the implication for his country’s tuna industry.

MAR ROXAS, PHILIPPINE SECRETARY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
“What was contemplated by the U.S. law was zero percent tariff for tuna coming from the Andean counties, while tuna coming from the Philippines would continue to be slapped a higher tariff. And that would certainly, including the transport costs, that would certainly put us at a disadvantage and would lead to closure of factories.”

Months of intense lobbying ensued, which culminated with a meeting between visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and President of the Philippines Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in August of 2002.

MAR ROXAS, PHILIPPINE SECRETARY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
“While he may have been expecting to speak with the President on antiterrorism, and security and defense and other related matters, our President made it a point to bring it up, the tuna issue, and that she said that maybe I should have served you a tuna fish sandwich for lunch as a way of conveying our continuing concern.”

The Secretary got the message. The two countries already were close allies in the war against terrorism. The U.S. military provides counter terrorism training and support to Philippine troops. And the U.S. agreed that economic opportunities were also needed to sustain any lasting peace with rebel groups, according to Dan Martinez, the economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

DAN MARTINEZ, ECONOMIC OFFICER, U.S. EMBASSY IN MANILA
“We believed that for these peace agreements to succeed, there had to be jobs, economic activity, for the combatants to return to.”

Following Secretary Powell’s visit. The U.S. Congress modified its plan and granted Andean nations a zero percent tariff only on tuna in pouches, not cans. Tuna in pouches is a relatively new technology and at present a very small part of the tuna market. For Philippine Secretary Of Trade and Industry Mar Roxas, this was a temporary victory.

MAR ROXAS, PHILIPPINE SECRETARY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
“It’s not to say we are happy forever with respect to tuna in pouches being given duty free treatment, because eventually it could take over the tuna in cans. But at least for the near term, we are back at the level playing field.”

So for now Evelyn Intumon’s job is secure. And as the tuna industry prospers, Philippine officials believe, the prospects for peace on the island of Mindanao also improve.

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