"...chairman of the Davao-based banana exporter Unifrutti Group Philippines, John tells me that there is a bright future for Mindanao if peace is achieved. Many businessmen are interested in Mindanao and are committed to invest about $366 million for agriculture".
John Perrine, an old friend of mine whom I had not seen for many years, shared some of his insights and experiences gained after almost two decades of doing business in Mindanao. Now a naturalized Filipino and chairman of the Davao-based banana exporter Unifrutti Group Philippines, John tells me that there is a bright future for Mindanao if peace is achieved. Many businessmen are interested in Mindanao and are committed to invest about $366 million for agriculture.
In 1996, John made his first investment in Datu Paglas in Maguindanao via the La Frutera banana plantation with a partner, but he wanted to make sure that the concern of investors regarding safety and security within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was first addressed. He articulated his concerns with Datu Paglas Mayor Toto Paglas who gave John a firm commitment that his investment and his people will be protected.
A subsequent dialogue with the late MILF chairman Hashim Salamat was also enlightening: “You cannot have peace without development. We need your investments to succeed so that others will follow,” the MILF leader told John. (This was echoed by Salamat’s successor Al Haj Murad who told the businessman that more impact investments were needed to give hope to the people and sustain peace efforts.)
Mayor Paglas was as good as his word because he made sure peace and order was installed, with cattle rustlers, hold-uppers/highway robbers and drug dealers given a chance to mend their ways, and if they refused – he went after them, John recalled.
Despite the upheavals brought about by the all-out war declared by Erap Estrada and Gloria Arroyo (in 2000 and 2003 respectively) against rebels, the company never suffered any business interruptions and none of the personnel got killed because the MILF declared the area a no-conflict zone, even informing the military that they were withdrawing their forces to prevent any fighting that could disrupt business operations.
Apparently, about 60 percent of the 2,000 employees of La Frutera were former MNLF and active MILF combatants and during the period of all-out war, the MILF leadership instructed the men to stay on the job so that the business operations would remain unhampered. It’s no secret that poverty has been a major reason for the continuing war in Mindanao – and John saw the MILF and the Muslim people as no different from Christians.
“Muslim communities have the same families that we do, with wives, daughters and sons. The desire of every father is to be able to care for his family – providing them with their basic needs and a future that can provide their own livelihoods,” John says, and when children cry because they are hungry, a father will do anything to find a solution and stop the crying and hunger.
John happens to be a member of the Peace Council on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and it is understandable why he is such a strong advocate for the BBL as it is apparent that his experience is a good example on how doing business in proposed Bangsamoro areas can actually work.
According to John, the formula for his success in investing hinged on the satisfaction of several “prerequisites.” First is to make sure that your business will be in an area that is under the full control historically of one clan, to make sure that there is no clan conflict or political rivalry that could turn the business into collateral damage.
Almost the entire area of the ARMM/Bangsamoro has been historically ruled by tribal or clan leaders, and the same is still largely true today. “Most areas are divided into clan territories and the word of the Datu can be absolute within such an undisputed territory. No matter what the political structure may look like from the outside, it is still a very strong feudal system of territories,” John notes.
There is also of course the “rido” – clan clashes or family conflicts – that have been a great scourge for both Muslims and Christians as these are violent vendettas against warring clans with murder often a preferred “solution.” In fact, a lot of people consider rido even more dangerous and deadly than the decades-long conflict between Muslim insurgents and the military with thousands having died due to rido-related clashes.
“Enlightened leadership” which is evidenced by the presence – or absence of basic social services for the people in the community – is equally important. Although there is the so-called IRA or internal revenue allotment that the local government receives from the national government, it’s no secret that corrupt local officials pocket the funds that are meant for development and delivery of services to constituents.
“Most of the ARMM communities have no development and suffer from 70 percent poverty rates. An investor that enters may literally be the only employee or provider of livelihood... [and] the company will need the support of the local leadership,” John avers, adding that there should be shared values demonstrated by the local leaders.
John’s experience with the MILF and the local leaders in Mindanao has no doubt shaped his positive perspective and his zeal for having the BBL passed. However, many also believe that legislators must not lose sight of the fact that not all stakeholders were consulted or considered in the drafting of the proposed measure. Questions regarding its constitutionality must also be fully satisfied as it would be even more unfortunate for the measure to be passed in haste – only to have it suffer a setback when critics and opponents will question its legality before the Supreme Court like what happened with the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain or the MOA-AD during the time of Gloria Arroyo.
SPYBITS opinion column by Babe G. Romualdez