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In war-torn Mindanao, Fruits of Peace

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DIGAL BULUAN, Philippines The first Muslim guerrillas to come in from the jungle-covered mountains surrounding this village on the southern island of Mindanao were initially reluctant to give up their guns for farm tools.

Offered jobs on a banana plantation in return for abandoning armed struggle, the guerrillas - apparently fearing that the shooting was not over, or just too accustomed to toting weapons - turned up for interviews with rifles slung over their shoulders or wearing pistols holstered at their sides.

Then, in a region long wracked by violence, they carried their guns with them as they went to work each day planting and harvesting in the thick groves of banana trees.

The sight of so many guns in the plantation made overseers feel nervous. They complained to the plantation management and asked that the workers leave their guns at home.

Ibrahim "Toto" Paglas, the local leader who helped found the plantation with a group of U.S.-led foreign investors, replied that disarming men who had carried a gun for most of their lives would not be easy. "It's their way of life. They cannot leave home without their guns," he said.

But after a meeting was called, a compromise of sorts was reached. The workers started turning up to cut, clean and pack bananas with their wives and children, who would hold the guns while the men labored. Eventually, tedium set in and the wives went back to their own work and the children went to school.

The guns left the plantation.

It was a small but important victory in a region of the Philippines that has been plagued by bouts of ferocious violence from Islamic and communist insurgencies, personal vendettas, local political rivalries played out with the help of private militia forces and adventurism by the military and police.

It is widely estimated that 120,000 people have been killed in the past three decades, mostly as a result of fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels.

In the midst of this troubled history, the banana plantation has become a shining example of the potential for jobs and a little economic prosperity to change the dynamics of conflict.

Since the plantation started hiring workers from among Muslim rebel forces about eight years ago, violence, both criminal and political, has sharply declined in surrounding areas.

"At one o'clock in the afternoon you could be kidnapped or robbed because of the poverty of the people," Paglas recalled of the time before the plantation. "I could not go around here without a body guard. The solution to stopping the violence in this area is to push through economic activity and give jobs and education to the people."

La Frutera, the company that controls the venture, has given the local community a stake in peace. Former guerrillas no longer sleep under the stars and now speak with a sense of pride about being able to send their children to school. The plantation employs about 2,000 workers, and at least 70 percent of them are current or former members of either the Moro National Liberation Front or a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

"Moro" is the name the Spanish gave to Muslims of the region during the time of colonial rule.

The undoubted success of La Frutera in bringing guerrillas in from the jungle has particular significance as the government and the rebels edge toward a permanent settlement of what has been one Southeast Asia's bloodiest and longest running guerrilla struggles. In the fog of this conflict, the region has become a safe haven and training ground for notorious terrorists, U.S. and other Western official have claimed.

Both the Philippines government and the MILF believe that the peace can only last if there is sufficient private investment to create jobs for demobilized fighters.

Past experience suggests foreign aid programs and government infrastructure projects have been ineffective at creating sustainable employment.

The MNLF laid down its arms in 1996 in exchange for promises, since largely unmet, of greater autonomy and economic prosperity. But disappointment over the outcome of that agreement and earlier offers of autonomy have kept the rebellion alive among the MILF. Successive cease-fires have broken down amid bitter fighting that has claimed hundreds of casualties.

The latest cease-fire, reached with the government in 2003, has held despite small incidents. The MILF, estimated by the government to have about 8,000 combatants, is now negotiating what is hoped will be a final settlement to the conflict after having abandoned demands for independence. The two sides say they could sign by early next year.

This time the government is offering to areas in Mindanao where there is a majority of Muslim residents a far greater degree of political and economic freedom than it has in the past. Silvestre Afable, the chief government negotiator with the MILF, said the agreement would cede the new Moro administrative region a better share of resource wealth and powers over such matters as customs arrangements and foreign economic representation.

"They will be given substantial economic powers over external trade relations, for instance, similar to what Hong Kong enjoys," he said in an interview.

But analysts say the image of Mindanao as a lawless and violent region has discouraged domestic and foreign investors and could continue to undermine prospects of economic recovery even after the signing of a peace agreement with the MILF. In the neighboring Sulu archipelago, there is a mounting body count as the Philippine military, backed by U.S. forces, vigorously pursues members of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah as well as the Abu Sayyaf group, Muslim insurgents blamed for acts of criminality and terrorism. Both groups have been linked to Al Qaeda.

The peace negotiations also have some way to go. The latest round of talks ended inconclusively in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 7 because of disagreement over the amount of territory to be included in the new Moro administrative area. Speaking before the talks, Afable, the government negotiator, said Manila was prepared to carry out a census to determine which areas have a majority of Muslim inhabitants. Disarmament is not even on the agenda of the peace talks.

The government hopes that a peace agreement with the MILF will strengthen its hand in overcoming the other threats.

Astrid Tuminez, senior research associate with the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has worked on a State Department- funded project on Mindanao, said that without substantial private sector investment the granting of greater governing rights to the Moros will mean little. Many of Mindanao's Muslims are placing their hopes for the economy on vague expectations of a windfall from natural resources. It is widely believed the Liguasan Marsh, on the island's southern coast, is rich in oil and natural gas.

Tuminez, who has closely observed La Frutera's progress, said the obvious starting point for consolidating peace should not be natural resources - which might take many years and money to develop - but agriculture, in a region blessed with a good climate and fertile soil.

"La Frutera shows that it can be done," she said. "The benefit there is that you can create small economies where there was nothing before and you really do change behavioral incentives on the ground."

La Frutera is not without its critics. There are concerns that the foreign investors, including Chiquita Brands International, based in Cincinnati, paid too little to lease the plantation land and that chemical fertilizers could be damaging the environment.

Paglas said that when he had started negotiating with investors in 1996 to establish the plantation his highest priority had been to win their trust and prove the investment could work, even if it meant leasing out the land cheaply.

"We think that if we develop first the peace will follow," he said. The 44-year- old district leader knows the price of conflict well. His father and three brothers were killed in local feuding and political struggles.

And according to Tuminez, the example that La Frutera provided of "de facto demobilization and demilitarization" is important because former guerrillas remain armed and could resume fighting. "Nobody wants to give away their gun," she said.

Abbie Puas, a wiry and energetic former battalion commander with the MILF, is typical of that defiant spirit. As he rides his motorbike around the plantation and passes military checkpoints wearing a black bandanna and mirror sunglasses, Commander Spider, as he was known by his men, has a Colt .45 hand gun stuck in his waistband.

"We came out on the understanding that we were not surrendering, we were just changing our lives to get work," he said. "That was why we left the jungle and came to the flat land." Puas, 47, gave up life in the insurgency to work as a security overseer on the plantation. He can proudly pull from his wallet a license issued by the military for his pistol. And he is prouder still that he is earning enough to send his six children to school.

Yet during a previous breakdown in the cease-fire in 2003 men working at La Frutera brought out their guns from hiding and started cleaning them in the event they were called back to fight. About 50 went back to the jungle.

Whatever peace is signed by the MILF and the government will only endure if men like Puas, and those remaining in active service, can quickly see the economic benefits of peace.

After a long history of broken cease- fires, guerrillas do not have much trust in Manila's sincerity.

The peace negotiations also have some way to go. At the moment, they are stuck on the issue of the amount of territory to be included in the new Moro administrative area.

When talks resume this month, Afable, the government negotiator, said Manila would put forward a proposal to carry out a census to determine which areas have a majority of Muslim inhabitants. Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the MILF, said disarmament will be "the last thing" discussed, and it will only come once the peace settlement is reached to create what local people call Bangsamoro, meaning "Moro nation."

"There is still such fear among the Bangsamoro people," he said. "We have been the victims of civil all-out war launched by the armed forces of the Philippines and had it not been for these arms in our hands they could have pulverized us."