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Swords to Plowshares: Toto Paglas, and the Dawning of Peace in Mindanao

Who is Toto Paglas? And why is he the Party’s bet for the ARMM governorship?

Here is Toto’s story, intertwined with the story of his hometown’s journey from swords to plowshares, clearly a reflection of the person and character of the Liberal’s only alternative in finally bringing prosperity and peace to that part of the country.

The Municipality of Datu Paglas in the Province of Maguindanao of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) used to follow the archetype of communities in the war-and-poverty-ravaged region. In fact, there was a time when the place was a haven for rebels and bandits alike, and nearly became a ghost town due to lack of opportunities for its residents and the near-constant threat of violence.

But today, Datu Paglas is a showcase of a different sort: that of peace and prosperity, of cooperation and unity among the people of two cultures. It is the site where the Caravan of Peace of Gawad Kalinga started, and because of the positive impact of Gawad Kalinga in Datu Paglas, other communities in the area, even in Liguasan Marsh, have begun their own Gawad Kalinga projects, promoting peace, cooperation and unity among the members of these communities.

Datu Paglas is also the nerve center for the biggest foreign-investment business in Mindanao, a 1,300-hectare banana plantation that employs more than a thousand workers. There is a rural bank that provides financial assistance and advice to the community. And Datu Paglas has a zero crime rate, a truly monumental achievement given the municipality’s proximity to a host of armed groups.

Much of the credit for this renaissance goes to Ibrahim “Toto” Paglas III. The former three-term mayor of Datu Paglas now presides over the Paglas Corporation, which provides the backbone for its “twin” company, La Frutera, Inc. that oversees operations in the banana plantation. He was the person noted for making Gawad Kalinga’s Caravan of Peace possible in Datu Paglas.

Through Toto’s efforts, peace, unity and prosperity today do not seem so far-fetched in this little corner of conflict-torn Mindanao.

“It may not be an extraordinary story,” Toto says of Datu Paglas, “but it changed the lives of thousands of people who in the past were in a state of hopelessness.”

How did he do it?

In not so complicated a manner, he explains before participants to a seminar on economic development as an approach to peace-building held in February this year at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila.

“I sum them basically as leadership, plus of course, the realization that the life of my people must change for the better,” Toto says.

Toto considers himself a “bridging” leader, bringing in private investments to Datu Paglas, an effort that he believes is the sustainable way to economic development.

He also learned, he says, that in fulfilling his mission to bridge the economic, social, and political divide among the tri-peoples in Mindanao (Muslims, Christians, and Highlanders), he knew he had to change the “rules of the game.”

“I encouraged dialogue and consensus among local folks. By doing do, we share the accountability to make things work for us,” he says. Toto believes that the government, the military, the religious people, the workers, the rebels and even the lawless elements have something to say that is of great value.

Toto also challenged the convention that guns and goons define a man’s status in the society. “At first, I was not comfortable to go around town without my bodyguards, because it was ‘not the normal thing.’ But I decided to put an end to that fashion because the old ways were not working for the others and for me either.” His personal campaign took a toll on him. He lost his father and three brothers due to violence and lawlessness before he could demonstrate to the rest that “we don’t need guns.” “Other traditional and political leaders are still relentless, but I keep faith that in due time they will change.”

One of the first tasks Toto set on upon becoming mayor of the town the first time around was to restore a semblance of peace and security in his locale. Perhaps it was his personal experience of having lost his father and several siblings to violent confrontation that prodded him to do this.

The common cultural response in the region to such devastation was to retaliate in kind, but Toto refused to take this road. Instead, he made it clear that any criminal or terrorist activity would not be tolerated in his town. Being a scion – the latest Datu, in fact – of an old and respected family, he used his filial ties to secure assurances from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders, even from the late MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat himself, that the war would not spill over to Datu Paglas.

Road to economic prosperity

By 1990, the peace and order situation in the town had improved enough for Toto to begin looking for investors. As a start, he committed substantial portions of his own family lands for lease, and persuaded a consortium of other landowners in the region to do the same.

Eventually, his efforts bore fruit, so to speak, with the establishment of La Frutera, Inc., which handles the day-to-day management of the banana plantation. La Frutera is an entity whose investors come from Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United States (Chiquita Brands International), while Israeli technology was used to improve the agricultural potential of the land, which was high in the first place.

In four years of operation, La Frutera has produced 7.3 million tons of bananas, much of which has been exported to China, Korea and the Middle East, and recently broke the world record for the heaviest bunch of bananas. La Frutera employs 300 staff, while Paglas Corporation directly employs 700, with a further 400 in contract workers and suppliers. Toto Paglas has also made it a point of policy to ensure that each family in the town has at least one member employed in the plantation or servicing companies.

The establishment of a Rural Bank in Datu Paglas was a direct consequence of the growth of the plantation. Put up in 1998 with seed funding from Toto Paglas himself, the bank has a small business expert and credit investigator and has helped put up more than fifty small enterprises in the last two years. The bank also services more than 3,000 customers, and enjoys a 90% repayment rate for both commercial and private loans.

The growth and success of La Frutera seems to defeat the common thinking that, in order for development to happen in Mindanao, peace has to happen first. The peace being referred to here is the substantial, if not total, reduction in the armed conflict that has plagued the region since the dawn of Philippine history.

“We cannot keep waiting for peace to come first,” says La Frutera, Inc., Chairman Senen Bacani. “If there is no livelihood, people can do anything as there is nothing to lose on their end.” Bacani adds. He points out that, because the townsfolk of Datu Paglas are gainfully employed, the people’s way of thinking has shifted dramatically. “They do not even want to lose a few days’ wages,” Bacani says.

Even the late MILF Chairman, Hashim Salamat, believed in what the plantation symbolized for Mindanao. “We can have no peace without development. The success of this plantation is critical to the peaceful future of Muslim Mindanao,” Salamat was quoted as saying when he issued an order to all MILF units that no personnel, equipment or transport vehicle of La Frutera or Paglas Corporation were to be harmed, and that the municipality would be a “no-go zone” for MILF combatants.

More investors

Other groups have come into the picture, further increasing the viability of the enterprise in Datu Paglas. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has funded a local governance capacity-building program. NGOs have worked on small-scale enterprise development, health and literacy programs in the area. The United Nations Development Plan (UNDP) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) are investing in a program of La Frutera’s Foundation to train wives of plantation workers in dress-making, and in particular to produce overalls which will be used in the plantation packing warehouse. The plan is that eventually they will be producing clothes for export companies.

The wage system in the ARMM is market-related which makes it an attractive investment when compared to other areas of the Philippines, where politicized wage boards act as a deterrent. La Frutera’s Foundation has focused on livelihood and literacy programs and there are also plans to train families in backyard vegetable gardening to help supplement diets.

Toto worked to turn La Frutera and Paglas Corporation into vehicles not just of prosperity but also of peace. In order to train former MILF troops – the bulk of those to be employed in the plantation – Toto recruited Christian plantation workers from General Santos, Cotabato and the surrounding regions to train and supervise the would-be workers. In order to assure them their safety, Toto gave them his personal protection and even housed them near his own home.

Side by side

Now, Christians and Muslims work side-by-side at the plantation. The Community Relations Unit of La Frutera’s Human Resources Department organizes workshops and seminars that increase understanding between the two cultures. An example of increased sensitivity and respect to their fellow’s religious beliefs, Christian workers in either corporation say they avoid eating pork in front of their Muslim colleagues at lunchtime.

“We all worship the same God, we just call him different names,” Toto said. He also points out that children from both Muslim and Christian communities in the municipality attend the local school, which has seen its enrollment increase between 50% to 70% each year.

The impact of Toto’s efforts started increasing in reach after two workers of the Gawad Kalinga project approached him when he was still Mayor about setting up the special program of community development that is at the core of Gawad Kalinga. This was a daring decision, even given the successes of Gawad Kalinga in more than 200 communities nationwide, as there was a whole new dynamic facing the program in conflict-ridden Mindanao.

But perhaps Toto was the right man to approach after all. By the time Gawad Kalinga had approached the then-mayor with their idea to make Datu Paglas as the pilot community in Mindanao, the municipality was being literally overrun with refugees fleeing the resumption of the war in Mindanao, since Datu Paglas was a No-Go Zone for the MILF. This created many problems for the community, especially since the refugees refused to return to their original homes.

Gawad Kalinga probably appeared to Toto as the solution to his problem on how to properly house the refugees of his community that were living in poor conditions. The program’s most visible output was the replacement of dilapidated housing for new, decent and colorful homes, with the view that this is the start of building new lives. These houses were not free, but required no monetary payment, since the cost to put one house up had been provided for by many donors. The “payment” target communities give for a Gawad Kalinga home was called “sweat equity”, where one puts in a certain amount of work for the construction of a new home.

Twenty-five houses were built on Poblacion, Datu Paglas. And because of the success of the “build” – the Gawad Kalinga term for its projects – there is a seeming avalanche of support for the project in neighboring areas. This success has prompted Gawad Kalinga to hold the Caravan for Peace, starting in now-historic Datu Paglas.

Change in Mindanao’s image

Toto says there is a need to change the image of Mindanao. The perception of the region, he says, has always been about a conflict between Muslims and Christians. But the truth, he points out, is that it is a war between the government and a separatist rebellion. The civilians are merely trapped in between. His efforts in his own municipality and in the twin companies of La Frutera and the Paglas Corporation have shown the good that can happen if the elements of conflict are removed and the people are turned into stakeholders in the continued prosperity and development of their communities.

His success in these endeavors have not only given him recognition here and abroad – he is one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in 1999 – but has also given notice to other like-minded leaders in the area that peace and prosperity can be achieved in Mindanao.

Today, Datu Paglas is a truly model community. It has become the showpiece of what the region can be if cooperation, unity, understanding and determination are present. And if its leaders would have the vision and dedication necessary to spearhead the movement to better the lives of their people.

In studies conducted on the La Frutera enterprise, it was a common pronouncement that it was the character of Toto– strong and inspiring, commanding the respect and loyalty of his people – that convinced La Frutera’s investors to take a risk and start a business in a veritable war zone.

The dreams and hungers and judgments of one man – Datu Toto Paglas III– made all the difference, not just in bringing peace and prosperity even to a small area of conflict-ridden Mindanao, but in shining a ray of hope amidst its darkened tableau of sorrow, loss and unrealized dreams.

Toto was able to turn swords into plowshares, and proved that even in soil soaked with blood and tears, the seeds of peace and prosperity will not only grow but, prosper, given that people would be willing to work for it, to realize their dream of a better, more prosperous Mindanao.