MANILA, Philippines?The success or failure of nations in their pursuit of economic development depends, among other factors, on nurturing racial harmony and peaceful coexistence, as well as on the manner by which they manage the environment and use natural resources.
Continued conflict among people, overexploitation of resources and poor environmental governance undermine any attempt at sustainable development and erode the prospects for economic growth and poverty reduction.
Long-term peace and stability are, therefore, closely linked to pursuing a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable path to development.
Safety and security for people in the workplace and the availability of reliable land, water, food and energy are essential ingredients for eradicating poverty, raising living standards and ensuring human dignity for all.
Today, the Philippines is unable to grow enough food to feed its population of nearly 100 million and yet each year it continues to add 2 million more mouths to feed.
At the same time, our ability to produce food is steadily declining. Luzon, which has been the traditional rice granary of the Philippines, is now beset with unpredictable weather patterns that have become the normal annual pattern: too much rain and flooding with typhoons, and extended dry seasons without enough rainfall or irrigation water to sustain crop production.
There are many other reasons why we are facing a food shortage, some of which were also touched upon by President Aquino in his first State of the Nation Address (Sona). Governance in our institutions is weak and allegations of mismanagement in rice imports and distribution persist.
Security of land tenure for farmers remains an issue, with much remaining to be done through the agrarian reform process. Much of land is being converted into real estate and property leaving less available land for agriculture and crop production. And, farmer-training and extension services need improvement.
Loss of forest cover
Another important reason for the emerging food crisis has to do with loss of forest cover. As a result of massive logging and slash-and-burn practices as well as natural fires, our primary forest cover has declined from over 70 percent in the 1970s to less than 3 percent today.
Forests are a vital source for regulating our climate and help provide the rainfall needed for our agriculture. They also absorb the carbon in the atmosphere, thereby helping mitigate against the dangers of global warming and climate change.
As a result of the aforementioned factors, we have a rather serious food situation in the country. We import on average about 1.5 to 2 million tons of rice annually and have a hunger rate of 20 percent.
Unless serious efforts are made to reverse these trends, the hunger rate could rise to as much as 30 percent in just the next decade due to rising population growth, which is estimated to reach nearly 120 million by the year 2020, i.e., 20 million more people in just 10 years.
A key issue we face is the future of the culturally unique and resource-rich island of Mindanao. Peace in Mindanao is critical not just for ensuring safety and security for all in the Philippines as well as in the Asia Pacific. The island is also vital for our food security.
However, despite numerous attempts to bring about peace and development, Mindanao remains one of the poorest islands in the country. Internal and external conflicts and all-out wars over many decades have claimed the lives of far too many people, and continuously aggravated poverty and despair on the island.
Such instability has disrupted agricultural production, destroyed economic infrastructure, affected the social fabric of society, displaced thousands of people from their homes, and deterred the much needed investment.
We must find an appropriate solution for Mindanao through deepened dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Engaging the enlightened leadership of Mindanao and finding young champions who truly believe in promoting racial harmony and social stability would be essential for inclusive and equitable development, and for ensuring that the dividends of peace are sustainable over the long term.
Mr. Aquino recognized in his Sona the critical need for revitalizing the peace process and mentioned the need for resuming the dialogue with Mindanao leaders.
This will entail continuing the peace dialogues started earlier by the government with its partners, engaging the private sector and identifying viable investment proposals in close consultation with the people of Mindanao.
Equally, partnerships with nongovernment organizations will be important for helping to build capacity and provide ground-level support for implementing investment and development projects.
Undoubtedly, the prospects for a peaceful coexistence are greater when partnerships with local communities and tribal leaders are strengthened, when more economic opportunities are provided to the masses to reduce poverty, and when there is enough food on the table to feed all members of the family.
The island of Mindanao is fortunate not to have extended dry seasons as we witness today in Luzon and has the water resources to support two to three crops a year?it can be, as it has often been called, the ?food basket? of the Philippines.
Mindanao?s highly fertile soils account for bountiful harvests of a variety of farm products: It grows most of the Philippines? major crops such as rubber (100 percent of national production), pineapple and cacao (90 percent), as well as banana, coffee, corn and coconut (over 50 percent).
Taken together, these crops account for over 40 percent of the country?s food requirements. The island economy also contributes more than 30 percent to the national food trade, making agriculture the driving force for the island?s socioeconomic development.
However, while Mindanao does not suffer the unpredictability of the northern typhoon belt, it does face its own challenges. As noted earlier, as with the rest of the country, slash-and-burn farming and illegal logging in Mindanao have caused the loss of mountain forests that produce rainfall for the plains and rivers and provide safe water for drinking, irrigation and hydroelectric power generation downstream.
Such is the extent of the damage that in rivers such as the Agusan and Kumaykay the water discharge (estimated in liters per second) has decreased by up to 75 percent, and the Pulangi hydroelectic power station operates at about 50 percent of its capacity, thus adversely affecting food production and energy supply for the island and the country as a whole.
If this trend is not reversed, the Philippines will lose its only viable food basket, and we will be facing a starving population.
We must, therefore, tackle this issue through an aggressive campaign for reforestation and watershed management in the pristine natural environments of Mindanao.
Principally, these areas include the five mountain ranges that are the haven for primary mossy forests and the critical watersheds which are located in the heart of Mindanao, especially Bukidnon and parts of Lanao del Sur, including one of the largest water reservoir on the island?Lake Lanao.
Specifically, the primary mossy forests to be protected include, the Pantaron, Katinglad, Kalatungun, Matigsalug, and Wao and Bumbaran mountain ranges. These watersheds feed six major river systems, namely, Cagayan, Tagoloan, Pulangi, Maridugao, Davao-Salug and Gingoog. (See maps.)
Saving the mossy forest would ensure adequate supply of water, food and energy, and help improve the livelihood of people, thereby increasing the prospects for peace and equitable development in Mindanao.
Alongside, we must also develop the large available fertile agricultural lands downstream of the large river systems, with extensive water-supply and rural-irrigation networks, post-harvest facilities and farm-to-market roads.
To do this, we must encourage private investment and public-private partnerships, and build a coalition with like-minded people from the academe and nongovernment organizations to enable a strong bottom-up consultative approach to community-driven development.
The main areas for agriculture development include South and North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Southern Bukidnon?and most especially, the two largest undeveloped areas?Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, which are an integral part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Similarly, closer attention is required for the three island provinces in the ARMM, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (or Basulta) for their unique but complex development circumstances.
The people of Mindanao are fed up with long years of conflict. They want to live in peace and dignity, earning a decent livelihood. They want their children to be educated and have a healthy, productive life. The best weapon against poverty, social disharmony and despair are peace and sustainable development.
Indeed, the role being played by the government of Malaysia in the peace process together with other sincere partners such as the United States Agency for International Development and The Asia Foundation, is commendable and appreciated, and should be accelerated to help find a solution acceptable to most, if not all.
However, we cannot get bogged down by the territorial issues forever. While the negotiations between the past Philippine administrations and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other parties must continue, we cannot simply be waiting for the solution to emerge which could take longer than we may wish.
Given the enormous tragedies of the past, the mood in the debilitated population of Mindanao is now ripe for bringing about peace through economic growth and progress.
We must seize the moment and forge ahead with the country?s development agenda, which should be one in which Mindanao is given the appropriate resources to develop. This should be done in close concert with the many development partners who are so eager to help the people of the island. We need Mindanao just as much as it needs us.
The Aquino administration has a duty to address the Mindanao factor and help turn the challenge into an opportunity for inclusiveness, equity and social justice for all Filipinos.
The good news is that the President has recognized the importance of peace on the island and promised to restart talks in earnest soon after Ramadan.
The Filipinos and the people of the region and the world will be closely watching with much interest how the situation evolves and how, in a meaningful way, the new administration, its partners and the Mindanao leadership engage in the dialogue.
Finding the right solutions to the challenge of Mindanao through continued engagement and mutual respect for its culture and people can enable us to end the conflict, move toward an era of peace, and provide us with the security of food, water and energy, and prosperity of the Filipino nation as a whole. By working together, we will realize the promise of Mindanao.
(Urooj S. Malik is chair of Hineleban Foundation, a nonprofit organization working for peace and sustainable development in Mindanao. He worked for the Asian Development Bank for over 25 year and, during the past 10 years at ADB, he served in the senior management stream, first as country director in Cambodia, then as director for Mekong Infrastructure, and finally as director of agriculture, environment and natural resources, Southeast Asia Department.)
* 135,626 sq km – land area
* 21.6 million ? population (2007)
* P3,572 (ARMM) ? P17,050 (Region 10) ? range of per capita gross regional domestic product (2008)
* $2.99 billion ? total value of exports (2008)
* 26 percent ? incidence of hunger among households, equivalent to about 1.1 million families (SWS, June 2010)
* 120,000 ? estimated number of deaths as a result of the conflict between Moro secessionists and government forces since 1970 (2008)
Sources: NSO, NSCB, SWS, UP Forum
Compiled by Kate Pedroso, Inquirer Research