articles > speeches

Bridging Leadership: The Datu Paglas Experience


Consul General Cecille Rebong, Deputy Consul General Melita Sta-Maria. Maria-Thomeczek (pronounced as To-ma-check), distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, leaders of the Filipino-American community, officers and staff of the Philippine Consulate General New York, friends, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.

Shalom, Assalamu Alaikum, Greetings of Peace to everyone!

It is both an honor and a privilege to be finally here, with a quite a long standing invitation from ConGen Cecille to visit New York since 2004. This is my second visit to New York, the capital of the world!

Several days ago, I addressed a workshop dubbed “Collaboration Fest” in Monterey California which focused on “exploring innovative collaboration opportunities to improve the future of the peoples of Southeast Asia.”

A product of a feudal culture in which a handful of dominant families historically have owned land, my family’s bloodlines can be traced back hundreds of years to a series of Islamic monarchs who ruled the Mindanao islands. Suffice it to say that my family is used to being “served”.

It was, therefore, a good opportunity for me to have joined the recently concluded Monterey workshop which brought together people from various persuasions and backgrounds but sharing a common vision – to help improve the lives of others. And it is my pleasure to share with you this afternoon the Datu Paglas Experience, a story of serving the cause of peace and development.

Fruits of Peace: The Datu Paglas Experience

More than 20 years ago, the secluded town of Datu Paglas (population 30,000 plus) in Maguindanao Philippines, was considered a “no-man’s land”. I was a Mayor of this town, named after my family. Paglas was a town that has been plagued by violence from Islamic and communist insurgencies, personal vendettas and local political rivalries.

Assassins and bandits gunned down my father, who was a former mayor of the town, and three brothers as a result of bitter power struggles. In 1991, when one of my brothers was killed, many of my relatives and friends expected that I would launch a retaliatory war against the clans whom we thought were responsible for my brother’s death. Normally in our culture, I could have taken the road of “an eye for an eye.” But why did I not do it, despite the rage and the pain I felt at that time?

I could only attribute it to the guidance of our Almighty. I believe it was God who spoke to my heart and urged me to stop the cycle of violence. I realized that this cycle of violence would never end. I thought this ‘culture of death’ has to stop. We cannot go on living like this.

I was also focused on my desire to change the lives of my people for the better – to bring economic development, education, better health services and a better life to my people. In my town in those days, one could get kidnapped or robbed at one o’clock in the afternoon because of extreme poverty of the people and one could not go around in my town without a body guard. I was really bent to stop the violence in my town, push through with economic activities and give jobs and education to our people in Paglas.

So in 1996, I started negotiating with investors to establish a banana plantation in Paglas. Many of the lands in Mindanao are fertile and the region is blessed with good climate being outside the notorious “typhoon belt”. Investor confidence in Mindanao, however, was very low due its image of lawlessness and violence. My top priority then was to earn the trust of and prove to the investors that investment in Paglas could work.

Today, Paglas is a bustling banana plantation with more than 2,000 workers. It is a highly unusual business venture that bring together Saudi traders, Israeli farming experts, Chiquita Brands International Inc. and top Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders. Mind you, I even asked permission from my Uncle, then MILF Chairman, the late Hashim Salamat, to allow Israeli participation in this business venture.

Currently, La Frutera, Inc. is the largest foreign investment project in the Philippines’ Muslim autonomous region. I call La Frutera the “United Nations of Bananas” as flags from the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and yes, even Iran, wave outside my company’s compound. Our bananas are in heavy demand in Japan, China and the Middle East.

More than a business venture, my company has given the local community a stake in peace. Former guerillas or military combatants no longer sleep under the stars and now speak with a sense of pride about being able to send their children to school. I still remember what one of my most able plantation supervisors, Abbie Puas, a.k.a. Commander Spider, told me several years ago: “Datu Toto, I don’t want to go back to the hills…I can now send my children to school.”

The “no man’s land” is no more. Paglas is a now developing area with a mini-mall, a rural bank, a trucking, security and gas station companies, and another foreign investor – this time, a Korean-financed plastics plant.

And I am pleased to inform you that my investors have expanded the company from Paglas to the areas of Wao and Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur, Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

What are then are the Lessons Learned in the Datu Paglas Story?

La Frutera succeeded because crime and violence were cracked down, allowing investments to sink in.

Even the World Bank considers the Paglas experience as one of the Muslim South’s rare economic success stories. Rare, indeed, but not impossible.

The Asian Institute of Management (AIM) calls this story one of “Bridging Leadership” – a combination of political will, social entrepreneurship and a commitment to peace and development to make an impact in a conflict area’s socio-politico-economic landscape.

I call it a “Business and Peace” paradigm, bringing all stakeholders for peace and development. Since my ‘epiphany’ in 1991 when my brother died, I strongly believe that one can never, meaningfully, change things through the barrel of a gun.

Likewise, the success of La Frutera has particular significance as the Philippine Government and the MILF are negotiating toward a permanent and peaceful settlement of what has been Southeast Asia’s bloodiest and longest running guerrilla struggles.


The Datu Paglas story has become, as cited by the International Herald Tribune in its article dated 11 September 2006, “a shining example of the potential for jobs and a little economic prosperity to change the dynamics of conflict.”

What this story proves is that it is incumbent upon all of us to help improve the lives of others – whether in community development, diplomacy, or business; whether one is from Paglas or Philadelphia, Nueva Ecija or New York.

Not only everyone has a role to play, but also, and more importantly, everyone has a stake in peace and development. With vision and commitment, and by the grace of God, nothing is impossible.

May this humble sharing be of benefit to you, my dear friends, ladies and gentlemen.

Wassalamu Alaikum, May God bless all of us.
Allahu-akbar, God is great.

Good afternoon.