POSTSCRIPT / October 2, 2008 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Is $1-B GSIS global investment in peril?

OBSTINACY: The Government Service Insurance System cannot hide behind any law, policy or plain obstinacy in refusing to disclose where it has invested contributions, reportedly running into billions, of its 1.4 million members.

It is not enough that the GSIS admits in a general way having invested in American, European and other foreign equities. Its captive members are entitled to know exactly where the funds went, how much was stuck per portfolio and under what terms.

The need for full disclosure gains urgency because of fears that substantial amounts had been gambled on financial and investment firms abroad that had gone either bankrupt or are on the brink of collapse.

Then there is the question of whether or not some laws or tenets of responsible stewardship have been violated.

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BRAVADO: The lack of transparency of GSIS prompted labor leader and former senator Ernesto Herrera to remark: “The only investment funds we know that are very sneaky are privately run hedge funds that tend to be extremely risky.”

Herrera, secretary-general of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, said he was appalled at the GSIS’s “bravado” with respect to its vaunted $1-billion global investment program (GIP).

“All that we want is for the GSIS to be more open,” he said. “Secrecy breeds irregularities, whereas transparency promotes accountability.”

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EXAMPLE: The GSIS may want to follow the example of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the world’s largest public pension fund, that had $240 billion invested in the US and around the world as of June 30, 2008.

Herrera noted that CalPERS even “reports on its website the exact number of shares of stock that it holds, including the acquisition cost of every lot of stock, and posts the aggregate daily market value of its investment portfolio for all to see.”

He said the GSIS must also disclose the terms of its contracts with Credit Agricole Asset Management Ltd. and ING Investment Management, the designated fund managers of its GIP.

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FARM CRISIS: Many people may not know it, but a few years back an agricultural crisis threatened Northern Luzon.

Crops such as corn, rice and tobacco showed signs of ill health. Aside from growing thinner, some plants started to lose their normal foliage color. Their leaves prematurely turned yellow or brown.

Wide areas planted to these crops in La Union, Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte and Cagayan were affected. The livelihood of thousands of farmers and the economic well-being of these provinces were in peril.

Learning of the problem, Dr. Lucio Tan — an avid agriculturist and one of the biggest tobacco buyers in the North — researched on it and learned that deteriorating water quality was the culprit.

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SEAWATER SEEPAGE: A chemist by profession before venturing into big business, Tan actually had warned Ilocos farmers early on that they were extracting excessive fresh water from the aquifers for irrigation.

With his deep understanding of soil types, chemistry and farming conditions, he grew concerned about the possible catastrophic effects of seawater seeping into the water table.

As he had warned, salt water indeed seeped into the aquifers and polluted the water being tapped for irrigation.

The deleterious effects of saltwater showed in the unhealthy and severely damaged crops. This threatened the livelihood of farmers, leaving thousands in debt because of poor harvests.

Tan reckoned that the only way to restore the health of crops was to use fresh water for irrigation.

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SMALL DAMS: Thus was born Tan’s small water impounding projects (SWIPs) in northern Luzon that systematically collected large amounts of rainwater for irrigation during the long dry months.

The taipan commissioned soil and water experts, engineers and agriculturists to design and build mini-dams and rehabilitate damaged reservoirs. He personally reviewed the designs, ordering revisions when needed, using his knowledge of chemistry and engineering.

He then instructed Fortune Tobacco Corp. and his family’s Tan Yan Kee Foundation Inc. to fund the projects that would provide fresh water needed for healthier crops, enhanced productivity and diversified opportunities for farmers.

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THE SCORE: Without fanfare, the Lucio Tan Group has completed seven small water-impounding projects in Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union and Cagayan that can store a total volume of almost a million cubic meters of fresh water.

The Quiling Norte and Abkir diversion dams alone in Batac, Ilocos Norte, which were completed in November 2006, irrigate some 450 hectares. The Silag-Pacang dam in Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur, covers 130 hectares, while the Garab rehabilitation project in Iguig, Cagayan, serves 100 hectares of farmlands.

The Patpata 1 and Patpata 2 projects in Balaoan, La Union, cover 50 hectares, and the Dadda rehabilitated facilities in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, serve 25 hectares. Two more small dams are being built in the area.

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QUIET WORKER: Tan’s quiet efforts at conservation and enhanced productivity did not go unnoticed.

The Asia Pacific Roundtable for Sustainable Consumption and Production recently conferred on him the Eco Award for Water Sustainability, recognizing the taipan’s pioneering work in restoring mini-dams for irrigation.

Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands — who chairs the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation – personally handed the trophy to Tan in Cebu City.

It was a fitting tribute to the quiet worker whose timely intervention through his SWIP initiative nipped an impending full-blown calamity in Northern Luzon.

Being a chemist, engineer and an agriculturist with a feel for the soil and farm hands, Tan has contributed meaningfully to poverty alleviation in farming communities.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 2, 2008)

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