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BAYANIHAN: Bring in Jobs, Not Guns, Please!

Rows of banana trees line the highway of near Datu Paglas, Maguindanao. A few years ago, the landscape was almost bare except for a few sporadic rice fields and small farms. Today, a 1,000 hectare banana plantation with 1,400 workers flourishes here. Twenty million cases of bananas are exported annually to the Middle East, Korea, Japan, and China. There is even a talk of expansion.

To may of Datu Paglas’ 16,000 residents, the plantation is a sign of changing times in Muslim Mindanao.

The municipality’s success in attracting foreign investment for plantation is cited as an example of how effective local leadership, in an environment of peace and stability, can bring development to a region. CIDA’s Local Government Support Program (LGSP) of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has played a role in turning things around.

The transition, however, didn’t occur overnight.

Municipal Budget Officer Arcadio Duruin recalls how the armed and insurgency and criminal elements stunted the municipality’s growth in the 1970’s and 1980’s

“Taxes weren’t collected. Infrastructure suffered. People settled differences with guns. It took a dynamic leader who challenged the people to do better”, said Duruin.

The former mayor, Datu Ibrahim “Toto” Paglas, took office in 1988. In Muslim communities, political power is often wielded by influential “Datus” or family leaders. Ibrahim Paglas assumed power from his mother, who stepped into the position after her husband’s mayoral term had expired. Today, Toto’s brother, Abubukar Paglas, is mayor, carrying his brother’s vision.

When Ibrahim Paglas took office, he served notice that things would change. He successfully lobbied for an irrigation system and established a community radio system to improve communication in areas that were targets for crime and unrest. He installed billboards and signs” “No lazy people in Datu Paglas”. He managed to woo foreign investment for sugar mill and, later for the La Frutera banana plantation.

Datu Ibrahim Paglas remembers how, as mayor, he improved relations with about 3,000 members of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as members of other rebel groups.

“Many of the mujaheedeen (rebels) and their families now work at the banana plantation. If we can bring in jobs and not tanks and cannons, we’ll have solved the peace and order situation”, says Paglas.

After he took over, the Datu needed support to ensure long-term development.

In 1996, the CIDA-funded Local Government Support Program (LGSP) stepped in with its focus on building confidence and skills. Local officials learned how to provide services to the community. The mayor and other officials participated in a Canadian study tour on local governance, tax collection techniques, and creating means for generating revenue.

As a result of CIDA’s assistance, Datu Paglas adopted an information technology system for its tax collection. Real property tax assessment was computerized and billing and collection targets by 679 percent in 1997 and its ranking as municipality improved from a 6th class to a 4th class municipality.

LGSP ARMM’s regional manager Merlinda Hussein and her staff provided the motivation to make changes.

“The style of governance is different in Muslim culture. People aren’t always used to solving problems through dialogue. Datu Paglas is unique because the local government was committed to change and understood development-oriented policies”, said Hussein.

Hussein, a Muslim, opened the doors to dialogue among other municipalities. The experience of Datu Paglas demonstrates to less-developed Muslim communities that positive changes can happen.

LGSP helped launch a regional alliance of five municipalities: the Todo Unlad Cluster for Sustainable Development. These clusters bring leaders to discuss common problems.

Participants find that alliances, aimed at protecting the environment and charting development routes for municipalities, also promote peace and cooperation.

“At first, people were hesitant to come together: Some leaders used to settle boundary disputes with guns. We’re trying to focus attention on responsibility and the delivery of services”, said LGSP planning officer, Sangcala Gampong.

Personnel Department Manager at La Frutera banana plantation, Eleonor Relales, says people want to keep the peace because they see they can earn a better learning.

“People are building new homes. A public marketplace is going up. The school going population is increasing. Peace and leadership have brought in economic alternatives for people who lived a poor existence during instability”, says Relales