Farming in a conflict zone
19th February 2013 by Reuben Levermore, Manila | 2 Comments
Farmers everywhere face challenges, but life in a conflict zone is not usually one of them. In 2008, after intense fighting between the Philippine Army and Muslim insurgents, the people of Datu Saudi township in Maguindanao province did what many people would, and left the area. Datu Saudi became a ghost town. Then in 2011 a year after residents returned to their village, they were struck by flooding and again were forced to evacuate.
Eking out an existence, and an income, in such circumstances has clearly been exceedingly difficult. Datu Saudi, however, is surrounded by fertile and abundant land, characteristic of the Muslim Mindanao region in the southern Philippines.
Late in 2011, the New Zealand Aid Programme partnered with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help people in Datu Saudi and 13 other towns in Maguindanao use agriculture to re-establish their lives.
There is nothing hi-tech about this project. With New Zealand’s funding, local FAO staff distributed tools, seeds and fertiliser to families and, in partnership with other agencies – including the Department of Agriculture in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – taught people basic agriculture skills so that they might make a better living.
When I visited Datu Saudi on 17 January with FAO country representative for the Philippines, Kazuyuki Tsurumi, we were shown how local people had been helped to plant rice, corn, vegetables and even mushrooms to earn income. The project has also supplied small metal cages to enable the catching of freshwater “tilapia” (also known as St Peter’s fish). As I told a local TV reporter, many New Zealanders are familiar with the saying that “if you give a man a fish, then he can feed himself for a day, but that if you teach a man to fish, then he can feed himself for the rest of his life.”
But what I liked best was the potential to add value to these basic products. Sold fresh at the local market, tilapia fetches 30 Philippine pesos (that’s about NZ$1) a kilogram. But when treated with home-made vinegar, then dried and preserved, a kilo will fetch 160 pesos. An entrepreneurial approach to basic agriculture can improve the lives of families in Datu Saudi and 14,000 other people covered by this project.
The risk of re-ignited conflict is one that – with commitment, political leadership, and some negotiation – can be minimised. As we drove through rural Maguindanao, we saw many banners expressing support for the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. This Agreement is a significant milestone in the quest to establish peace in Muslim Mindanao. The Framework Agreement was signed in October between the Philippine Government and the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
In accordance with the Framework Agreement, political leaders and negotiators are trying to conclude arrangements for a new autonomous political entity, to be called Bangsamoro (or Moro nation), which would replace the current ARMM. If the process succeeds, then the new entity will be in place when President Aquino’s term ends in 2016. His personal commitment to the peace process has been instrumental to the progress that has been made to date, and our Prime Minister John Key was able to acknowledge that progress when he greeted the President in Wellington in late October.
The turnout of a couple of hundred people, and their festive spirit, in Datu Saudi last week gave me a very clear sense that these people see the peace process as vital for their families to be safe and to make a better life for themselves.
The people of Datu Saudi, and the Executive Secretary for the ARMM Regional Government, are very grateful for New Zealand’s support for agriculture in Maguindanao. This is one way in which our nation – itself built on agriculture – can help to make a difference. In time, a more peaceful Muslim Mindanao will be more prosperous and will further improve the Philippines’ reputation as an investment partner and tourism destination.