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The Initiatives of Private Sector in the Reintegration Process


To the reader of this Message, a sharing of my own experience that is very relevant to the subject of this seminar, let me convey to you the universal greetings of peace: Shalom, Assalamu Alaikum, Peace to everyone, or as you may say it in Colombia, Pas A Todos Ustedes (hope I got it right)!

It is both a privilege and happiness for me, to contribute the story of how my little town in Muslim Mindanao had transformed from being a war zone, a no-man’s land, a war zone in the not-so-distant past, torn in violence due to criminality, tribal wars and family vengeance killings, centuries of rebellion.

Today, it is showcased in the world as a zone of progress, a lasting peace thru sustainable economic development. Today, warring groups and families have been reconciled to each other in a spirit of forgiveness and hope for a better future, where former lawless persons and members of the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front have returned to normal life, gainfully employed or engaged in productive livelihood undertaking, due to the opportunities brought to them by the state of the art, world-class banana plantation of the foreign investors led by Chiquita.


More than 20 years ago, the secluded town of Datu Paglas (population of around 30,000 and a land area of around 32,000 hectares) was considered a “no-man’s land”. This general description of my little town, was reflective of most of the undeveloped towns of Muslim Mindanao. At the young age of 24, I became the Mayor of this town, named after my great grandfather. The people of my town chose me as the successor of my father was then the Mayor, then when my father died a violent death, he was succeeded, by my mother under whose term the violence and lawlessness even worsened. So extreme was the violent situation, that my own three brothers were also killed, the first one was in 1991.

When the 1991 killing of my brother happened 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. But I decided not to resort to violence, I did the same when my two other younger brothers died in the short years that followed.

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? And despite the fact that I, together with my relatives who have all the arms we would have needed, many of them members or supporters or sympathizers of the rebel group?

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 pattern would never end. I thought this ‘culture of vengeance’ has to stop. I simply cannot go on like this. I decided to forgive those who caused the death of my dear father and 3 young brothers, I left justice for them to the authorities.

I was also focused on my desire to change the lives of my people for the better – to bring economic development and better health services. Of course, there is a special emphasis on providing education for our children. Because as the saying of the Wise goes, “we did not simply inherit this world from our parents, the better truth is that: we merely borrowed this world from our children.”


Today, Paglas is a bustling banana plantation with more than 2,000 workers, majority of them, if I may emphasize again, are former lawless individuals or rebels. It is a highly unusual business venture that brings together Italian and Saudi traders, Israeli farming experts, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International and top Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders. Mind you, I even had to ask permission from my Uncle, then MILF Chairman, the late Hashim Salamat, to allow Israeli participation in this business venture. It may surprise you as it did to me, he readily gave his blessings and even expressed appreciation that the Israeli’s were teaching the local Muslims advance technology in agriculture, adding in a positive manner, that the Israeli’s were “chosen people”;

The question I always had in mind was: “even if warring clans have been reconciled in peace, how should the people have livelihood, in order that they do not go back to their violent inclinations, and the rebels in the mountains can return to normal life”. ONLY ONE ANSWER was very clear in my mind: MEN (and also women) MUST RETURN TO THEIR FAMILIES, their families must be fed well, their children must be sent to school. Again, only jobs and livelihood could provide the solution. To have this, we have to have economic development. I must have investors in my town.

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, United States and yes, even Israel and Iran, wave outside my company’s compound. Our bananas are in heavy demand in Japan, China and the Middle East.

More than a successful business venture, however, 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 who did not even finish school, 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.” Even the USAid had linked up with the Knowledge Channel Foundation in the Philippines, to bring quality satellite television based education to school children in the remote villages of the island.


The banana plantation in my town is a joint venture between the local landowners represented by myself, and the above-mentioned foreign investors who, together with their local partners, have provided the investment capital, the professional, technical, and administrative management expertise, and the marketing access (export to Japan, Middle East primarily). I also provide the security, local community linkages, the field labor.

I now consider myself as a “graduate”. From being a traditional Muslim leader who in the past knew practically nothing about business, who only knew about dispensing power and authority when in came to dealing with violence and wars, I now consider myself a BUSINESSMAN, an advocate of economic development.

WHAT LESSON DID I LEARN? it takes a change in mindset and a change of heart for positive changes to truly happen. I had also learned that foreign investments are very VITAL for economic development, because it is they who have the discipline to make business sustainable, it is they who have better access to capital, it is they who have better access to market.

And, in the case of the global company Chiquita, their name being representative of a global brand, they are a very responsible investor. As a public company based in the USA, they are very strict about corporate social responsibility, they care so much about the environment, not just the natural sense of land and water and air, but also the people. Their making sure that the banana plantation in Datu Paglas is certified by Rainforest Alliance (I understand they do this with all their other plantations), which prescribes very stringent regulations and practices, all beneficial to my town.

Since my transformation in 1991 when the first of my three dear brothers 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 Peace Agreement 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.” A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page feature of Datu Paglas wherein they referred to it as the only Muslim town where Jews and Muslim rebels are working together for bananas.

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, or, in your case here in Colombia, peace and reintegration into normal life is possible. It is time for us to move beyond our comfort zones. Now is the time for us to be instruments of peace and development.

Let me conclude by saying that not only everyone has a role to play, but also, and more importantly, everyone has a stake in peace and development not so much for us but for our children and their succeeding generations. With vision and commitment, and by the grace and will of God, Insh’Allah, nothing is impossible.

May this humble sharing be of benefit to you and many thanks again for taking interest in my story, to be discussed in this wonderful occasion. In closing, may I pay tribute to our One and Only God by saying, Allahu-akbar, which means God is great! YES, GOD IS GREAT INDEED. Alhamdullilah, Praise the Lord God Almighty, only to Him be the Honor and Glory. And as I thank the Almighty, let me join those who wish for the same success for your efforts in Colombia.

Wassalamu Alaikum, which means May God bless all of us, Good day to all of you, may you have a successful seminar.