More autonomy urged for ARMM

Written by Carmelito Q. Francisco, Business World.

An official of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has urged President-elect Rodrigo R. Duterte to help the region sustain its growth by either maintaining the status quo in terms of policy or finding ways to improve its capacity of absorbing new investments.

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Lawyer Ishak V. Mastura, head of the ARMM-Regional Board of Investments, said in an interview he is hoping the incoming administration will put emphasis on providing the region with bigger authority to run itself than clipping its system.

“As long as the powers given to the ARMM are not taken away, and let it serve as baseline in improving autonomy, then there will be better investment climate because this will help stabilize peace in the region,” he said.

This mindset is shared by leaders of the business sector who have thought providing bigger power to the region will allow it to attract more investors.

Haron U. Bandila of the ARMM Business Council said the region has slowly gained notice among investors.

He said providing the regional government a bigger role in running itself will allow it come up with better mechanisms needed to maintain a conducive climate for investments.

“The incoming government must look at which part of the regional government needs help and it must assist it in improving its rules and must not clip its wings to ensure that investors take notice of its potentials,” Mr. Bandila said.

The incoming administration has started meeting with leaders of two major rebel groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to discuss issues on how a lasting peace agreement could be implemented.

In the case of the MILF, the outgoing administration of President Benigno Simeon S.C. Aquino III failed to convince Congress its proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, a proposed settlement that was a result of 17 years of negotiation between the government and the rebel organization.

In the case of the MNLF, the administration of then President Fidel V. Ramos signed a peace deal with MNLF leader Nurullaji Misuari on September 2, 1996. However, both sides claimed the other side abandoned its obligations to the peace agreement and this has since resulted in intermittent clashes, including the Zamboanga siege of September 2013 that displaced about 100,000 civilians.

Last week, Mr. Duterte met with heads of both organizations, Murad Ebrahim for the MILF and Abul Khayr D. Alonto for the MNLF.

Mr. Mastura said these initiatives will eventually help the region become a huge economic contributor to the country.

Mr. Mastura said last year, his agency registered about P6.5 billion in new investments, particularly in agriculture -- with the biggest being the investment of Unifrutti Group of Companies which spent about P3.7 billion for the expansion of its banana farms.

During the first quarter, the agency registered about P1.7 billion in new investments, among them the oil palm investments in Central Mindanao and the mining investments in the island province of Tawi-Tawi.

A new company in power generation is setting up an eight-megawatt power barge in Tawi-Tawi to help provide power to new investors in the province, Mr. Mastura said.

Although it is early to say, he said, whether investments last year could be surpassed this year, Mr. Mastura expressed confidence, “We will definitely have a good year this year.”

Edgar L. Bullecer, Unifrutti senior vice president, said although his company has not come up with an actual fund value, it will continue investing in the region.

“We have grown our investments tremendously and we believe we can grow it some more and help the economy of the region grow and provide employment to its people,” Mr. Bullecer said.

The company first entered Maguindanao in the 1990s by partnering with the prominent Paglas family in developing about 1,000 hectares of land for banana production.

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