By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III
When my classmates and I were in elementary school — and that was half a century ago — we were taught that Mindanao was called a “land of promise.”
Today, Mindanao remains a land of promise.
Do a Google search and one can find fairly recent articles that describe Mindanao as the “land of promise.”
It is an indisputable fact that Mindanao is rich in biodiversity; rich in agriculture, mining and other natural resources.
But it is also in Mindanao where one can find the highest incidence of poverty and hunger. Poverty and hunger, together with government neglect or what some Mindanao critics call Manila imperialism or national oppression, have led to the persistence of violent conflict. So goes the dominant narrative.
From this narrative flows the demand for more autonomy for the whole of Mindanao (and not just for Muslim Mindanao, which indeed has suffered much from prejudice and discrimination).
The push for Philippine federalism by President Rodrigo R. Duterte and other politicians from Mindanao draws from this belief that the whole of Mindanao is suffering from national government neglect.
But if we look closely at recent data and disaggregate them, what surfaces is a more complex picture of Mindanao.
It still goes without saying that the poorest, most backward regions and provinces are located in Mindanao.
But within Mindanao, development is uneven.
Some places are growing at a faster clip than others. In fact, some Mindanao regions are among the recent top national performers.
Let us review the 2016 economic data for the 17 Philippine regions. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, all regions registered domestic product growth between 2015 and 2016.
It might be surprising to find Eastern Visayas having the fastest growth at 12.4%. But then, the Eastern Visayas output had a low base, particularly in the aftermath of the destructive Typhoon Yolanda. The massive rehabilitation effort funded by the national government budget and foreign aid was the big economic boost for Eastern Visayas.
Perhaps surprising — especially for those who believe that Mindanao is lagging — is that among the top economic performers are two regions in Mindanao, namely: Davao and Northern Mindanao, with growth rates of 9.4% and 7.6% in 2016, respectively. The growth rates of Davao and Northern Mindanao surpassed the Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) rate of 6.9% for the same period. Further, Northern Mindanao and Davao performed better than the National Capital Region, which posted a growth rate of 7.5% and Calabarzon (also known as the highly urbanized Southern Tagalog), which had a sub-par performance of 4.8% growth.
It is also worth mentioning that another Mindanao region, Soccsksargen (for South Cotabato, Cotabato City, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos City), performed creditably. Its growth rate in 2016 was five percent.
In other words, some parts of Mindanao have become high-growth performers, but others like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which grew by only 0.3%, continue to suffer from anemic growth.
Relate the above 2016 growth performance with the regional share to Philippine GDP. The combined output of the National Capital Region, Calbarzon and Central Luzon accounts for almost 63% of GDP. Mindanao contributed 15% of GDP. Mindanao’s share was pulled down mainly by the backwardness in ARMM and Caraga (Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, and Dinagat Islands).
Note that ARMM and Caraga are likewise the areas of intensified violent conflict in Mindanao. The various factions of Moro revolutionaries — particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and their splinter groups, as well as newly formed fundamentalist-terrorist bands — are based in ARMM.
Meanwhile, the New People’s Army (NPA) of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has strong presence in Caraga.
The challenge therefore for Mindanao is how to spur growth, income and employment in the poor and violence-ridden regions. In turn, this will further accelerate the growth in regions like Davao and Northern Mindanao that have already been performing well.
The focus thus is on promoting peace through political settlements with both the MILF and the MNLF towards addressing the so-called Moro question and with the CPP-NPA.
Side by side with this is the all-round development of Mindanao, especially the poorest provinces.
But again, this is contingent on peace.
It must be pointed out that the national government has shown seriousness in developing Mindanao. For example, it has been pouring budgetary resources to Mindanao. This is expected from the administration of Mr. Duterte, himself a Mindanaoan.
But even during the term of Benigno S. Aquino III, Mindanao benefited significantly from budgetary allocations.
To illustrate, Mindanao got the biggest share of the government’s infrastructure spending during the Aquino presidency. In 2015, close to 30% of the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highway (DPWH) went to the various regions of Mindanao. The 2015 DPWH budget for Mindanao was also 39.3% more than what was allocated in the preceding year.
Further, the Aquino administration channeled approximately P10 billion for peace-building efforts in ARMM in 2015 alone.
The point in sharing the above data or information is to show that first, the land of promise that is Mindanao is actually enjoying relatively high economic growth in some regions; and second, the national government, even before the Duterte administration, has been devoting additional resources to Mindanao.
This belies the accusation that the central government neglects Mindanao.
This has a bearing on the approach to further advancing the interests of the people of Mindanao.
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM
The biggest problem of Mindanao is armed conflict. A peaceful, political settlement of the armed conflicts will not only boost the development in the war-torn areas but will also result in positive spillovers for the rest of Mindanao.
Greater autonomy, even if it means having a “sub-national state” for ARMM, is the key to the political settlement and to the neutralization of extremist elements. Complementing this is a peaceful settlement with the CPP-NPA. But the appropriateness of autonomous governance is confined to ARMM, which is not in any way equivalent to a federal Philippines.
Yet, as International Alert has emphasized, the peace approach to ensuring development in Mindanao is linked to transforming the island’s entrenched informal economy into one that is governed by formal institutions.
But guns and violence, drugs, kidnapping and other criminal activities are prominent features of Mindanao’s informal economy. Again, the approach to move Mindanao’s economic actors away from such nefarious activities is developmental and principally non-violent. Relying on state violence begets more violence.
We have seen from Mindanao’s history, even the contemporary one, that the military approach cannot succeed.
Securing the land of promise has to pursue the peaceful path of development.
The writer is coordinator of the Action for Economic Reforms and a BusinessWorld columnist.