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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Solon: Gov’t should consider investing in Automatic Identification System to track small boats used in smuggling, illegal tobacco trade

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The government should consider investing in Automatic Identification System (AIS), a vessel tracking method, in its fight against smuggling and illicit  tobacco trade which have grown  into gigantic proportion, making these not only economic, but a national security threat.

Former Congressman Jericho “Koko” Nograles warned that agriculture smugglers and perpetrators of illegal tobacco trade have unbelievably become “bigger and bolder.”

The magnitude of agriculture smuggling, illegal tobacco trade, and all related illegal trades leads to suspicions of their threat to national security. Illegal activities have even been linked to financing terrorism. 

“The problem wasn’t as bad as now,” said Nograles during the Anti Illicit Trade Inter Agency Dialogue. “Then, barely two years ago,  the legitimate tobacco industry was just getting pinched.  Now it’s bleeding.”

A serious victim of illegal tobacco trade is the consumer himself who is exposed to risks of adverse health effect brought about by unregulated tobacco manufacturing.

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“We are fighting illegal tobacco smuggling because it is posing serious health risks to consumers while the government suffers from foregone revenue in billions,” according to Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Deogracias Victor B. Savellano during the same dialogue.

“With its complex nature, we need a whole-of-nation approach in this fight.   We should involve all agencies including DND (Department of National Defense) and the National Security Council,” he said.

Tobacco smuggling’s impending victim also are legitimate tobacco manufacturers that are paying their tax dues.

“If smuggling and illegal tobacco trade continues, the legitimate industry will close.  They will pack and go.  These will accelerate their decision making to say ‘it’s the end.’   That is goodbye to people who are willing and happy to pay taxes,”  said Nograles.

Government should look into strengthening its border control while also investing in human resource training, automation, digitalization, and technology in the fight against smuggling, said Savellano.

Automatic identification system or AIS is a transponder system enables information exchange between ships and ship stations (Marine Online).

As there are dotted gray lines between countries’ territories at sea, the question on which country has jurisdiction on policy enforcement over this area arises.

An AIS system will enhance collaborative agreements between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines on the  enforcement of anti-smuggling laws over these questionable areas.

“These dotted gray lines have become a good business for smugglers,” said Nograles, explaining it must be another reason why illegal activities have been flourishing.

As part of the AIS technology, a tracker of vessels, an app called “Marine Traffic,” is capable of identifying vessels including small boats that are now apparently being heavily used in smuggling. 

The small boats, called “jongkong,” are able to dock on any small island which may have caused the huge growth in illicit trade activities.

The AIS technology may be very expensive for small fishermen.  But if government shoulders the costs, its economic benefit  may turn out to be huge since the illegal trade problem is even causing huge economic losses to the country.

“The new Coast Guard has proposed it (AIS),  but it’s too expensive.  But we find ourselves in a situation now that is so absurd that the losses could actually pay for the solution,” said Nograles.

Under prevailing practice, only vessels with huge capacity are required to acquire the system that enables their tracking at  sea.

And jongkong boats are not required to install such system, making these untraceable, enabling tobacco smugglers to easily run away with their illegal trade.  

If government invests in such system, Nograles suggested government may even find it easier to guard its territorial rights over West Philippine Sea. 

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