‘Dark truth’ behind agri post for PBBM ‘exposed’

By Beting Laygo Dolor, Editor
(First and second parts)

MANILA – PressOne may not immediately ring a bell with most Filipinos, but the news and information website is fast becoming a reliable source of real news as opposed to the now prevalent fake news that occasionally appears even in the most established newspapers and broadcast media organizations.

Officially known as PressONE.PH, the young organization has assumed the mantle of leader in responsible journalism.

One reason is its fearless nature which jaded journalists expect will cause the company to soon be in the crosshairs of Malacanang.

As a case in point, PressOne recently came out with a column known as Razor’s Edge by Antonio J. Montalvan ll entitled ‘His first act as Agriculture Secretary.’

What Montalvan wrote is nothing less than a haymaker, exposing as it did the real reason then newly-elected President Bongbong Marcos appointed himself secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

Montalvan started by asking the same question that must have been in the minds of countless Filipinos after Marcos assumed a portfolio “that he had neither previous experience nor aptitude on.”

Less than a week after taking his oath as president of the republic, Marcos released P100 million to open a tomato processing plant in Barangay San Joaquin in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte.

The announcement was made by his nephew, Ilocos Norte Governor Matthew Marcos Manotoc, son of his sister, Senator Imee Marcos, from her relationship with sportsman Tommy Manotoc.

The plant was the Northern Foods Corporation (NFC), a company that was first set up by Marcos when his father and namesake was still president.

Long in a moribund state, NFC had been driven to the ground due to the mismanagement of its executives.

Montalvan cites as his source a research paper on the company primarily written by Joel F. Ariarte Jr. of UP Diliman’s Third World Studies Center. Ariarte is also, incidentally, connected with Vera Files, another independent news organization which has been around for decades, and which concentrates on investigative reports.

“Like any Marcos story,” Montalvan wrote in his column, “the establishment of NFC as a tomato processing plant was a family affair.”

The agri firm’s beginnings can be traced to March, 1984 when Bongbong Marcos was Ilocos Norte governor. He had written a memo to his mother, then First Lady and also Minister of Human Settlements Imelda Marcos.

The memo called for the immediate approval and release of funds to establish what was supposed to be a “food and vegetable processing plant” in the Marcos family’s home province of Ilocos Norte.

That memo was then forwarded by Mrs. Marcos to her husband, the president.

Being a Marcos project, and a prestige one at that, it came as no surprise that NFC was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission a mere five days before the memo from the son was handed to the mother.

 Marcos Jr. credited the idea of setting up the NFC from Agriman Consultants, an agri-business company which had several joint ventures with Imelda Marcos’s Ministry of Human Settlements.

The son of the dictator said in his memo that the tomato processing plant could generate new jobs and business opportunities.

It might have achieved its lofty goals at that, if only it were properly managed.

Referring to NFC as “a prestige project of the Governor [Marcos Jr] and the President [Marcos Sr.],” the memo stated that the proposed company would be the first large-scale processing industrial facility in Ilocos Norte and Northwestern Luzon.

It would, Marcos Jr said, be “a concrete manifestation of the wisdom of the President’s and the First Lady’s program on industrial dispersal and rural mobilization.”

Marcos Jr. asked for P110 million – a substantial amount back in 1984 – for his project, which would be sourced from investments, private loans, and public funds. He said the company would be operational by the end of the year.

Marcos Jr. further asked his father for even more funds, to the tune of an extra P60 million.

This would be in the form of a P50 million equity infusion plus a loan of P10 million “at favorable interest rates.”

His father and mother agreed that the NFC would be funded by the Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran, which was under the direct supervision of the First Lady. The KKK had been created in 1981 as a nationwide movement to mobilize local resources for the establishment if viable productive enterprises.

There were, however, a number of red flags that few questioned back then. The KKK’s governing body would be chaired by the president himself, while Imelda’s ministry became is secretariat-cum-implementing agency.

The dictator also created the KKK Processing Center Authority via Executive Order No. 866 and appointed his wife as its head.

Finally, its budget was included in the General Appropriations Act AKA the national budget.

The stage, it seemed, had been set. Not for the company to achieve its admittedly noble goal, but for its quick fall from grace.

The company would continue to exist long after the Marcoses were forced out of the country through the Edsa People Power Revolution, all the way to the Duterte regime. But by then, it was just a shell of its early self, while also standing as a monument to the total lack of executive and/or managerial ability of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.


Second of two parts

The research paper written by Joel Ariarte Jr of UP Diliman’s Third World Studies Center detailed what was not illegal during the Marcos dictatorship, but which must qualify as unethical.

Ferdinand Sr. and Imelda Marcos were more than doting parents to Ferdinand Jr. They agreed to their only son’s every whim, especially where money was concerned.

And while there has been much talk about Marcos Jr’s reportedly wild past, he has dismissed such talk as exaggerated or worse, little more than baseless rumors. But the Ariarte study showed that Marcos Jr. did grant some large financial favors to select friends, specifically one who qualities as a celebrity chef.

Mostly, however, Marcos Jr. acted as if the funds he was able to receive from his doting parents came from a bottomless well.

From its beginning all the way to the time that then President Rodrigo Duterte put the Northern Food Corporation (NFC) out of its misery by ordering its closure, the tomato processing plant operated in the red. Not because processed tomatoes did not have a market, but because of sheer lack of executive knowhow and managerial competence.

After getting P70 million from Imelda Marcos’ Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran (KKK), Marcos Jr. said he needed more. He said the amount was inadequate for the grand plans he had for the company.

Thus, in June, 1984, Marcos Sr. issued a memorandum to his First Lady telling her to “allocate P60 million from the KKK” as additional equity investment.

The P130 million start-up capital at least proved sufficient for starters, and the processing plant began operations in October, 1984.

The Marcoses even got US ambassador to Manila Stephen Bosworth to attend its inauguration.

Here is where Marcos Jr. decided to let Agriman Consultants manage NFC.

Agriman’s president was chef Sandy Daza, a close friend of Marcos Jr. and whose mother Nora Daza was also a confidante of Imelda Marcos.

Being a government-owned corporation, Sandy Daza gave Marcos Jr a seat in the seven-man board.

By 1987, NFC employees were scrounging for scrap copper wires and junk metal from the plant’s premises to sell in order to pay for their salaries.

The year before, or in 1986, the NFC’s equity level had sunk to less than P70 million. For all intents, the company was already bankrupt.

The company has become an example of how to run a company to the ground in a few easy steps.

A Lund University study from 1994 written by Esteban Pagaran stated that Agriman had committed various anomalies resulting in high overhead expenses.

Another study published by the Asian Institute of Management, also in 1994 and written by Rafael Ignacio quoted a NFC executive Mike Regino as saying the company’s top brass were flying in and out in chartered planes at company expense.

Clearly, Ariarte’s research was as in-depth as it gets.

By 2005, a barely functioning company was facing numerous internal problems, such as its machinery aging and contract-growing farmer preferring to sell their tomatoes to Divisoria traders, who were paying them higher rates.

The NFC justified its low buying price because the NFC was providing them everything, from land preparation to seeds to irrigation to planting.

A 2021 Commission on Audit report stated that a huge amount that Daza’s Agriman had taken as cash advances were no longer collectible as they had become “dormant receivable.”

By that time, Agriman had already closed down and there was no way COA could find the original transaction documents.

By the end of 2021, the Duterte government ordered NFC to be shut down and abolished.

President Duterte’s order said the NFC was “no longer consistent with the national development policy of the state.”

That should have marked the end of what was planned as one of the most ambitious government agri projects of its time. But just like Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was able to bounce back in one of the biggest political comebacks in history, so too did he plan  the rebound of the NFC.

Barely weeks as the country’s chief executive, Marcos Jr. – who had appointed himself concurrent Agriculture secretary – reversed the Duterte memo and ordered the revival of the NFC.

The government corporation that he had mismanaged almost four decades ago was revived with a cash infusion of P100 million in taxpayers’ money.

It is not yet clear if Daza will have a role in the management of the revitalized NFC. For now, he owns and operates several food outlets, some specializing in Thai food, and others in the classic Filipino snack of empanada.

Whether Marcos Jr. learned a lesson from his past mistakes is not clear. For now, it can be said that pride was one of his reasons for reviving a dead company. The NFC is, after all, his brainchild. He very likely wants to prove that he knows a thing or two about Philippine agriculture.