By Madelaine B. Miraflor
Controversial French-Russian businessman Robert Gaspar has already backed out of a plan to build a massive banana plantation in Mindanao, but Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol remained confident the huge investment can still push through with or without the controversial investor.
In a late Friday interview, Pinol confirmed that Gaspar is no longer in the picture in the planned 5,000 to 20,000-hectare banana plantation in Camp Abubakar, the main base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
He, however, maintained that the Russian companies that were supposedly being represented by Gaspar are still pushing through with the investment, this time “through proper channels” with the help of the Russian government.
In fact, he said, a Philippine delegation is set to fly to Russia by the end of this month on hopes of securing investments as well as a bigger market for some of the country’s agriculture products like coconut oil and banana.
According to Piñol, the trade mission will “further penetrate the huge and previously unexplored market” of Russia as well as the other member countries of the Russian Federation.
During the trade mission, a deal is expected to be signed between the Philippines and a group of Russian companies that originally plan to build the banana plantation within the MILF camp. Pinol refused to give further details of this new deal.
It could be recalled that Gaspar was said to be representing a group of Russian and Swiss investors who intended to build in Camp Abubakar what could be the next largest contiguous banana plant in the world, but found himself in hot water over misrepresentation of a company and his alleged involvement in a money laundering case in Spain.
Business Bulletin first reported two weeks ago that Swiss mining firm Solway Investment Group, one of the companies that Gaspar was supposedly representing, has denied having plans to venture into the agriculture sector and invest in Camp Abubakar.
Though Solway acknowledged its involvement with Gaspar, the company’s corporate communications team in Switzerland said in an email that any news beyond its investment in mining in the Philippines “is not accurate.”
When this news broke, an anonymous source tipped the Philippine media about Gaspar being “wanted for financial scam in Spain.” This was later on confirmed by old news reports from different European publications, which tagged Gaspar as one of the right-hand men of Kremlyoskaya gang, one of Europe’s biggest gangsters involved in money laundering activities.
In a meeting last week, Piñol was also told by Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor Khovaev that Gaspar is not Russian.
“Robert and his team already backed out of the project in Bangsamoro. They took a step back [after] I told him I don’t want my agency to be dragged in this controversy,” Piñol said Friday.
“There are really Russian groups that are willing to make the investment although [Khovaev] told me Robert Gaspar is not a Russian citizen,” he added.
Piñol made no comment about initially defending Gaspar, but said his agency “only wants somebody to invest” in the country.