On a roll

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 12:00am

Very soon, the luscious fruits from Mindanao will compete with American apples and oranges in the markets of Manila. These fruits from the southern Philippines, along with beef and chicken, may soon be cheaper, thanks to the shipping lanes for roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) vessels opened by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

They will cut travel time from Mindanao, in the south, to Manila, on Luzon island in the north, by 17 hours.

The scheme has long been used to link islands without bridges - fully loaded cargo trucks roll on to steel-hulled ships, then roll off once they have reached their port of destination, eliminating much cargo-handling.

But it was only implemented after more than 10 years of lobbying by Filipino manufacturers, exporters and farmers. They had pointed out that products and raw materials from Mindanao were much more expensive than imports as 60 per cent of their cost went to shipping and handling fees.

In a land where four out of 10 residents are poor and malnourished, the spoilage rate when transporting goods borders on the criminal - every year, 40 per cent of goods - worth about 30 billion pesos (HK$4.3 billion) - never reach the market, according to a USAid study. It also showed that about 20 per cent of total corn production a year - worth 4.5 billion pesos - is spilled during transport. Corn grows abundantly on Mindanao, yet Luzon's poultry and livestock farmers would rather import Thai corn because it is far cheaper, being heavily subsidised indirectly by the Thai government.

For years, shipping families and those controlling dock services blocked the RoRo idea, saying they would lose revenue and, therefore, so would the government. Interestingly, many of their ships are RoRos, capable of carrying up to 500 passengers and 59 trucks, but few were used as such - due to the absence of access ramps and, as critics point out, the shippers' greed.

When Mrs Arroyo announced in December that she would not run for the presidency next year, she listed the RoRo sea lane among her priority projects. Former president Joseph Estrada actually started it in 2000. Had he not been ousted in 2001, Manila's RoRo terminal might have been named Mary Ejercito, after his mother, instead of the Eva Macapagal Super Terminal - after Mrs Arroyo's mother.