As Mrs. Arroyo mulls an increase in El Niño funds, the United Opposition (UNO) is urging farmers and watchdogs to monitor how government is going to disburse the cash.

“We support moves to prop up the agricultural sector at this difficult time but it is also our civic duty to ensure the money will redound to the benefit of farmers who will be battling the dry spell. It would be awful if good money goes after bad,” UNO vice presidential candidate Jejomar C. Binay counseled.

“For far too long, the Department of Agriculture (DA) has been accused of misusing people’s money, and our people have not forgotten the P728-million fertilizer scam and the P3.1 billion in irrigation funds disbursed in 2007 without any project pursued in Luzon save for one in Isabela that ended a day after it started,” he added.

Binay’s advice came amid a statement by Palace officials that Mrs. Arroyo is mulling an increase in emergency funding to address the adverse effects of the dry spell instead of resorting to emergency powers.

“Let’s be fair to our farmers. They have been used for so long as beneficiaries of billions of pesos for fertilizers, seeds, technical assistance, irrigation support and farm-to-market (FMR) roads. The sad thing is that the Commission on Audit (CoA) has slammed the DA for wasting these funds. Let’s stop this madness, this ‘farm to pocket’ syndrome that afflicts DA as the flagship of graft,” Binay said.

The Makati mayor said “let us make it hard for grafters to make hay as the sun sets for the Arroyo regime. Allow farmers and citizens known for their probity to be part of the group that exercises oversight functions on all big farm projects.”

The dry spell is expected to batter the country for as long as five months, wreaking havoc on agriculture and causing damage estimated to run to P10 billion.

“Towards the end of her term, we sincerely hope that Mrs. Arroyo and her cronies will not use this crisis as a means to line their pockets with taxpayers’ money. But since this administration already has a track record for graft, we suggest that additional safeguards be set in place,” Binay said.

Binay has earlier cited the apprehension of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) that the original P12-billion El Niño fund may meet the same fate as the P3.1-billion earmarked for ‘invisible’ irrigation projects in 2007.

The opposition leader suggested that a strategy similar to the Road Watch project of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), be adopted by the DA and line agencies which will handle the funds.

Under the Road Watch program, the DPWH partnered with the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN), an umbrella group of watchdog organizations to monitor all aspects of infrastructure projects being implemented by the DPWH.

“From the procurement to the implementation, TAN representatives are always present,” he said.

Binay added that the DPWH entered into the agreement after the World Bank (WB) debacle which resulted in the suspension of a $232 million loan for the second phase of the National Road Improvement and Management Program (NRIMP) after an investigative body found evidence of collusion among bidders in the first phase of the project. It resulted in the blacklisting of eight contractors from WB-funded projects.

“This El Niño fund will be doomed to a similar fate if we do not act now. The P728-million fertilizer scam in 2004 was already an embarrassment. The P3.1-billion irrigation fund another nightmare. If we do not act now to see where this money is going, we can be sure that this will only benefit ‘invisible’ farmlands again,” he stressed.

“Rampant graft is the root cause why our mainly agricultural country could not feed its own people and its food security is based on imports of rice, sugar, frozen pork, chicken and even vegetables,” Binay rued. “These funds are important to ensure that our farmlands withstand the heat brought on by El Niño. These funds are relevant to prevent the drought from taking its toll on our crops.”

“Our food security, water and power requirements are all effected by this dry season, so we must take care that these funds are not diverted to benefit the powerful few and for once, do good for the Filipino masses who have toiled to pay their taxes that is the source of these funds.”

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