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Philippine peace deal

The dusty road stretched for 15 kilometres before reaching the palm oil tree plantation in the southern Philippines where workers toiled under a punishing noon-time sun. Efren Cordero, 54, was among the workers digging shallow pits to plant straight rows of seedlings of a Costa Rican variety of palm oil tree.

"We need to make sure they are planted correctly so we get the most out of the trees," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "This is a new plantation and we must start right." The father of four said the farm began operating in Datu Abdullah Sangki town in Maguindanao province, 960 kilometres south of Manila, just as he had stopped working at a nearby corn plantation.

"Without these farms, we won't have any jobs," he said. "This is the only work we know." The new plantation was set up by Joey Peneza, a former seaman who decided to invest for his retirement in his native southern region with the hope of helping boost development.

"I have travelled the world and it was time to settle down, and I was thinking why not invest in Mindanao since I was born here," he said. "This way, I'm also helping people by giving them jobs and I'm contributing to the economy by paying taxes." Peneza, a 38-year-old father of two daughters, is bullish about Mindanao's economic prospects after the government and largest Muslim rebel group signed a peace deal aimed at ending more than 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.

"Mindanao's potential is huge," he said, discussing his plans to expand. "If there are jobs for people, there will be a lot of improvement and people will not create trouble." Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo agreed that Mindanao has much to offer to investors, especially after the October 15 framework peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

It calls for the establishment of a new autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro, or Muslim nation, which would have financial independence and its own police force by 2016. But a breakaway rebel faction has vowed to continue fighting, and an al Qaeda-linked group that has been blamed for some of the worst attacks in the Philippines is not part of the deal.

"We have to demonstrate within the next 6 to 12 months that there is significant improvement in the peace and order situation and once we demonstrate that, investors will be rushing in because Mindanao has so much natural resources," Domingo said. Investments "in the hundreds of millions of dollars" are already in the pipeline and would be poured into Mindanao in the next 12 to 18 months, he added.

The trade secretary envisioned strong investment opportunities in agriculture, electricity, mining and manufacturing. Mindanao already supplies more than 40 per cent of the country's food requirements, and contributes more than 30 per cent to agricultural exports. It is also the major producing region of rubber, pineapples, bananas and coffee.

Its mineral deposits are valued at 312 billion dollars, or about 40 per cent of the country's total mineral reserves of 840 billion dollars, according to the National Economic Development Authority. Despite its resources, the region's share in the total output of the local economy remains low at 18 per cent compared to the northern region of Luzon's contribution of 65 per cent to the gross domestic product, the agency said.

The country's poorest provinces are also in Mindanao, where the poverty rate is more than 40 per cent, compared with the national average of 26.5 per cent in 2009. John Forbes, a senior adviser with the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, said he foresees a gradual influx of new investment in Mindanao while the government and rebels iron out details of the peace agreement.

"I think investors would like to know answers to some issues with regards to the Bangsamoro," he said. "That's very much a minority but it doesn't take very many people that want to blow up themselves to find targets," he said. "So that will continue to be a concern for investors."

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2012


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