The challenge and promise

datu_princess2-e1354074164605The success or failure of nations in their pursuit for economic development depends, among other factors, on nurturing racial harmony and peaceful co-existence, 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 for sustainable development and erode the prospects for economic growth and poverty reduction.

Long-term peace and stability is, 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 not only unable to grow enough food to feed its current population of nearly 100 million but, yet each year, it continues to add another 2 million more mouths to feed – 20 million in just 10 years.

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. As a result, today we import nearly 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 growth of the population growth which is estimated to reach nearly 120 million by the year 2020.

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 Asia-Pacific region; 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 your 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.

Indeed, the prospects for a peaceful co-existence are greater when partnerships with local communities and tribal leaders are strengthened, more economic opportunities are provided to the masses to reduce poverty, and 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 soil accounts 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 Philippines’ 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 socioe-conomic development.

However, while Mindanao does not suffer the unpredictability of the northern typhoon belt, it does face its own challenges. Slash-and-burn farming and illegal logging 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.

If this trend is not reversed, the Philippines will have lost its only viable food basket, and we will be facing a starving mass population.

We must, therefore, tackle this issue through an aggressive campaign for reforestation and watershed management in the pristine natural environment of Mindanao. This would ensure adequate supply of water, food, and energy and, at the same time, help improve the livelihood of people, thereby increasing the prospects for peace and equitable development in Mindanao.

Alongside this, we must also develop the large available fertile agricultural lands downstream of the large river systems of Mindanao, with extensive water supply systems 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 thinkers from the academe and non-governmental organizations to enable a strong bottom-up consultative approach to community-driven development.

The main areas to focus on for development include South and North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Southern Bukidnon – and most especially, the two largest underdeveloped 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 ARMM, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi (or Basulta) for attending to their own unique but complex development circumstances.

The people of Mindanao are fed up with long years of conflict and war. 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 is sustainable development.

We cannot get bogged down by the territorial issues forever. While the negotiations between the past Philippine administrations and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other parties have been going on, we cannot wait for the solution to emerge which may take longer than we may want. Indeed, the role being played by the government of Malaysia in the peace process together with other sincere partners such as the Asia Foundation, is commendable and appreciated, and should be accelerated to help find a resolve acceptable to most, if not all.

With 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, and this should be done in close concert with the many development partners who are eager to help the people of the island. We need Mindanao just as much as it needs us.

The incoming new administration of the Philippines has an essential duty on its hands to address the Mindanao factor and help turn the challenge into an opportunity for inclusiveness, equity, and social justice for all Filipinos.

Finding the right solutions to the challenge of Mindanao through continued engagement and mutual respect for the culture and people of Mindanao can enable us to end conflict and move toward an era of peace and prosperity. By doing so, together, we will realize the Promise of Mindanao.