Sometime in 1983 in a darkened office space, I watched a short presentation on Mindanao—color images flashed from 35mm 2x2 slides from what is now considered a vintage slides carousel. As that period was engulfed in deep socio-political turmoil, the presentation highlighted the relationship between the South’s agricultural bounty and her people’s widespread poverty, as well as the oligarchic forces that supported such an enduring irony.

As early as then, nay even much earlier, social activists, sociologists, and political analysts were wont to refer to Mindanao as “the land of promise.”  And they did so not without basis; my own father, who migrated from Manila to Mindanao in the 1950s, had often said to anyone who cared to listen that the island’s soil was so fertile you could toss a seed on any random spot and expect it to grow in no time at all.

Is it any wonder then that in Davao alone at the turn of the century, the colonizing Americans believed they had stumbled upon, what historian Macario Tiu refers to as the “garden of the gods” and went on to establish the first large scale coconut and abaca plantations?

But the notion of Mindanao’s underdevelopment as aggravated by the purported encroachment of transnational corporations has since evolved over the last 100 years.  While  it may be true that Western companies continue to locate in the island and Washington itself maintains an abiding interest in the area’s peace prospects, Pax Americana as it was known then has now arguably diminished in power and sheen. 

The first formal recognition of this paradigm shift was in 1994, when the Ramos administration cast a steward’s eye on Mindanao and acknowledged its potential as the nation’s food basket, as well as its capacity to jumpstart its economy. At the outset, it noted that Mindanao posted only static growth during the preceding years, a reality traced mainly to 1) its being a mere raw materials provider for Manila and Cebu markets, 2) the absence of strategic infrastructure, and 3) its perennial peace and order problem. 

Historic Anomalies

Because of these historic anomalies, the vast majority of Mindanawons remained poor throughout the administrations of five Philippine presidents, even under the virtual windfall of foreign aid. The island is home to six of the ten poorest provinces in the country. As such, it continues to lag behind its counterparts in Luzon and the Visayas in the areas of national budget allocations, delivery of social services, and per capita income. 

Worse, researchers from the Philippine Business for Social Progress have uncovered the existence of a “second, poorer Mindanao” in Muslim Mindanao, proof that the island’s natural wealth has not translated to a strengthening of its social capital.

In response to this, the national government declared it would wean the island away from its dependence to its plantation economy and open its borders to the East Asean markets. That single policy helped set the stage for global competitiveness, and set in motion an unprecedented multi-industry effort to unite, take advantage of their potentials, and rekindle the Mindanao “pioneering spirit” from the vantage point of entrepreneurship.  

The impetus to move forward lay not only in the Mondanawon spirit, but also in the island’s latent competitive advantages. And not surprisingly, one of these lies in agriculture, which represents 32% of the country’s total output.  We account for 42% of the Philippines’ total food trade, which underlines our potential as the nation’s food bowl. As such, the island has been steadily drawing domestic and foreign investors not only to explore opportunities but to locate or expand their businesses in the South. 

To illustrate, a spike in investment inflows to the island over a 17-year period has been nothing short of dramatic. The annual rate of investment influx to the island has increased ten times from P5-6 billion between 2001-2010 to P50-60 billion between 2011-2016. Much of the new wealth has been in the agriculture and infrastructure sectors, said government sources in March. Muslim Mindanao alone was poised to welcome a P1.3 billion palm oil plantation project last year. 

Donors galore

In order to complement the policy environment to enhance private sector participation in economic development, government has consistently adopted a liberal policy towards multilateral assistance.

Just this month, the World Bank announced that it has set aside up to $1.41 billion in assistance for the Philippines from 2018-2019, a significant portion of which will be earmarked for agricultural and educational initiatives in Mindanao.

Early this year, barely a dozen months after the elections, Malacañang has managed to lasso almost P1 trillion in official development assistance (ODA) pledges. Finance officials said in a statement that the amount only represents the contributions “from China and Japan, and there’s more ODA that we have received but haven’t counted in from various countries.”

At around that time, the Land Bank of the Philippines and the government of Japan signed a historic 5 billion yen loan agreement that would facilitate agribusiness projects in Muslim Mindanao and other conflict-affected areas.

Tokyo and Manila were clearly on a roll during the first quarter of this year, with the former poised to commit some P15 million to fund socio-economic projects under a program called Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD)*2. The projects involve self-help enterprises in public health, education, and agriculture.

By April,  government was putting the spadework together to construct drug rehabilitation facilities across the country, a massive enterprise to be funded by a RMB 50-million yuan grant from China. The grant, equivalent to US$7.5 million, represents only half of the contribution that Beijing had earlier pledged to the Philippines in October last year.

Also in April, the Asian Development Bank said its proposed 2017-2022 country partnership strategy for the Philippines would “focus on infrastructure buildup in the Visayas and the South Central Mindanao Growth Corridor,” reports said.

Three months later, the Chinese government served notice that it was plunking in PHP15 million to help rehabilitate terror-ridden Marawi City.

The unheralded

But it isn’t all manna from abroad. 

Doesn’t a Mindanao-wide train system “to boost tourism, industry, and overall economic development by connecting growth centers” merit any headline treatment in the broadsheets, considering how the island-economy has languished in official neglect for too long? An 830 km. Mindanao railway system finally looms in the horizon, with the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) giving the go-ahead for the project’s 102.28 km. Tagum-Davao-Digos (MRP-TDD) commuter segment. Hardly any sustained Page 1 story on that. 

We’ve been exporting, not just producing, organic rice for sometime. Does anyone in the peanut gallery care enough? In July, the North Cotabato-based Don Bosco Multipurpose Cooperative shipped 13.5 metric tons (MT) of organic rice to Dubai and the United States. Don Bosco officials said the trade move, the latest in a string of bold export initiatives, was expected to benefit the rice farmers from the Soccsksargen (South Cotabato, Cotabato City, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos City) region.

From London recently, Davao’s very own Malagos Chocolate brought home two bronze awards for its sweetened bars at the 2017 Academy of Chocolate. Malagos Chocolate has been a consistent winner in international gourmet competitions since 2013.

Inside government’s pipeline of intentions that have long-term implications on Mindanao’s low-income residents include the following:

Health officials have revealed that P1 billion in unpaid taxes, particularly the money to be had from suing erring giants like Mighty Corp., “could finance the maintenance medicines, laboratory tests and medical care of around 70,000 poor Filipinos.”

People with a monthly income of P21,000, like call center agents, will no longer need to pay the personal income tax, should the finance department's sweeping tax reform proposals hurdle Congress.

Over the next six years, LandBank will expand lending to small farmers and fisherfolk to the tune of P115 billion, up from P37.9 billion, in keeping with the administration’s thrust of promoting inclusive growth.

In defending the fuel excise tax hike under the proposed tax reform bill, Rep. Dakila Carlo Cua said that about 10 million poor households will stand to benefit in the long term. This could run up to a total of P36 billion in the form of one-time unconditional cash grants.

Minding the Message

The foregoing fact-based developments unfold everyday. And to say that it is incumbent upon the government to blow its own horn is simply the height of haughtiness, given that each Filipino has a stake in how the future eventually unfurls for everyone. 

If the "dog" of our national narrative continues to be wagged by the “tail” of destabilization, nothing will ultimately matter except the incessant “news” feeds on Mocha Uson’s apparel inside a mosque, fake bank accounts, EJKs and other whodunnits, and the inviolable human rights of rapists. And at the rate we are going, not so much with mainstream media but with Facebook and other online platforms, it appears we are more transfixed about a tattoo than we are willing to put in our share in bringing down our people’s poverty level within six years.

Because, yes, that is the no-nonsense agendum today. And from there springs the devastating honesty of the Mindanao message: “We’re getting there. Stop quarrelling. Do your part.”  

Gulliver did a better job back then, opting to liberate himself from the Lilliputian strings that wore him down, instead of succumbing to a fate of perennial inaction and libertarian daydreams.

I hope the 2x2 slides that we may still be producing today, or the memes we craft for our Facebook pages, will convey a more upbeat Mindanao, whose people are at long last fulfilling—not undermining—her once-elusive promise.