Building peace is just like clearing land mines.
Or so said Harriet Lamb, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the UK-based International Alert, one of the world’s leading peace-building organizations.
“You’re literally on your hands and knees and you dig inch by inch and see if there’s a mine,” she said, referring to the manual process of demining, a dangerous, painstaking, and time-consuming process that involves unearthing undetonated explosives, especially in conflict areas.
“Peace building is like that — but you’re working with hearts and minds,” she added.
Ms. Lamb was prompted to offer the metaphor in an interview during her first visit to Manila in early February, if only to recognize the difficulty of establishing long-term peace in Mindanao, an island that has known bloodshed for more than a generation.
Besides recognizing the complexity in passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law, she also reiterated International Alert’s continued support for the peace process between the government and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The proposed law, which would have helped establish a potentially bigger autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao, was derailed by a police mission to hunt down several terrorists in January last year in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Although the operation met its goals — that is, it neutralized terrorists — it nevertheless resulted in the deaths of more than 60, including 44 officers and 18 Moro rebels.
The incident fanned anti-Muslim sentiments, forcing otherwise reasonable politicians to oppose the proposed law, which is currently pending at both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Despite these setbacks, Ms. Lamb was optimistic that the lawmakers and other officials would bring negotiations back on the table as soon as the next Congress opens.
“[The passage of the Bangsamoro law] was quite close,” she said. “It just needs everybody now to hold their nerve after the elections, get back to the table, and see if the basic law can be passed and meanwhile see if investment can really start to go to Mindanao to build the underpinning peace.”
And this was where her visit came into play.
Besides raising the profile of International Alert’s Philippine office — the organization’s second-largest next to the Democratic Republic of Congo, she said — Ms. Lamb’s visit allowed her to confer with local and foreign business groups which fully support the Bangsamoro Law. These events — which included meetings with the Makati Business Club and the Mindanao Business Council — could help facilitate business initiatives and further build on what has already been accomplished so far in the peace process.
Several companies — including banana growers and palm oil companies — have already considered moving into various areas in the proposed Bangsamoro region since these are not only peaceful, they are “free from revolutionary taxation,” usually levied by leftist insurgents.
This terrain — the collaboration between small business, big corporations, and local communities — is not exactly new to Ms. Lamb.
After all, up until November last year, Ms. Lamb was the CEO of Fairtrade International, a group that provides better trade terms for food producers, especially in developing countries.
“We can help solve some of those problems by working with companies and helping them engage with local people,” she said.
To further boost International Alert’s peace efforts in Mindanao, Ms. Lamb also promoted the organization’s Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System (BCMS) (www.bcms-philippines.info), a Web site that tracks violent incidents and their causes in the proposed areas of the Bangsamoro.
Not only does it monitor conflicts between state and rebels, the system also checks on all kinds of clashes, including those that take place between rebel commanders themselves, Francisco “Pancho” J. Lara, Jr., International Alert’s Philippine country manager said during the same interview.
The system is one of the first such Web-based solutions to map the conflict, allowing its users to “stand back and look at the trends and the different clans and the fighting with the state and rebels,” Ms. Lamb said.
Since these incidents are tagged on what is called a heat map (where data is graphically represented and its values are indicated as colors), the system’s users — which include government agencies and multinationals — can identify areas prone to violence and formulate policies regarding the deployment of resources, military or otherwise.
“If the system tells you that a road is prone to more violence during a certain time of the year, you can advise traders to take another road, possibly another road that runs parallel to it, for a safer trip,” Mr. Lara explained. “Moreover, the government can also release funds during [an agriculturally lean] season to make sure that the effects of hunger and poverty are not so intense and therefore helping cut violent incidents.”
Since its launch in 2013, the system, which already has five years worth of data, has attracted a wide audience, he said.
Obviously enough, these include the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, as well as private firms, risk management agencies, international and local nongovernment organizations, and bilateral and multilateral organizations. BCMS registered users make an average of 7,000 site visits on the average every month.
Through the BCMS, and all its other efforts, International Alert is “calling on all parties, especially business, to invest more in Mindanao despite recent stumbles,” Ms. Lamb said.
“It’s a long and slow progress and it’s hard to track but you absolutely have to make sure that wherever’s the conflict you go on, whatever the odds and work to find peace,” she added.