While Mindanao in the Philippines boasts of rich natural resources, its minority Muslim population continue to languish in poverty and maldevelopment, and to struggle for self-determination.

By Jun Anave

June 2000

Manila: The Bangsamoro regard it as their ‘historical homeland’. Non-Muslims believe that it is the ‘land of promise’.

Indeed, Mindanao boasts of a very rich history, a history anchored largely on the centuries-old struggle of its Muslim inhabitants. And it sure is promising: its 94,227 sq km land area abounds with mineral, forest, agricultural and fishery resources.

But while the Bangsamoro should be taking pleasure in its natural wealth, they continue to languish in poverty and maldevelopment. The Muslim population, now comprising only about 18% of the estimated 18 million people in Mindanao, is still struggling for self-determination.

During the Spanish colonisation, the predominantly-Muslim Mindanao was successful in defying the colonisers through wars financed by its economic surplus. The Muslims, however, were not as successful against the Americans. Through the Bates Treaty signed in 1899, the US effectively put the Bangsamoro - as the Muslims now call themselves - under its control.

The American colonial period witnessed the promulgation of several land laws that encouraged emigration to Mindanao. According to a study by Dr Samuel K Tan of the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP-CIDS), these land laws did not only  quell anti-American sentiments,  but also deprived the Moros and  the natives or lumads of the lands they regard as ancestral.

The Moro population in Mindanao dwindled subsequently when Christians from Luzon and the Visayas began moving in. In the 1918 census, the Moros and lumads still made up 78% of the Mindanao population while the Christians comprised the remaining 22%. However, the 1970 census revealed a big reversal when the Christians had outnumbered the natives, 3 to 1.

At present, Moros dominate only five provinces in Mindanao. These are Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan. The first four constitute the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Alongside the massive migration of Christians was the entry of American firms that capitalised on the region’s economic potential. Dr Tan reveals that between 1900 and 1920, about 46 US firms were established in Zamboanga and Sulu. Agricultural colonies were also said to have been established in Cotabato, Davao, Lanao and Agusan by 1930.

Despite efforts to spur development such as the creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) and the Southern Philippines Development Authority (SPDA), poverty still pervades in Mindanao, exacerbated further by the ongoing hostilities between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Based on the 1997 Poverty Statistics from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), Mindanao records the highest poverty incidence among the island groups, with half of its population mired in poverty. Of the country’s 27 million poor population, Mindanao accounts for 32% of the figure.

ARMM has the highest poverty incidence among the country’s 15 regions, with 62.5% of its population considered poor. It also has the lowest per capita gross regional domestic product in the country and the second lowest average annual family income.

Moro-dominated areas still have untapped cradles of rich natural resources, raw materials and cheap labour. In a public statement, the Davao chapter of the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) contends that these areas, especially those where camps of the MILF are situated, are ‘overflowing wells for super profit’ and ‘veritably an investor’s haven’.

Moro activists see this as among the reasons for the military’s aggression.

‘The present administration is on a mad rampage to hold, consolidate and clear the Moro-occupied lands to make early the rolling of the red carpet for foreign capitalists,’ adds the BAYAN-Davao statement.

Around 19 corporations are currently operating in the Moro provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Maguindanao. These include transnationals American Rubber Corporation and Sime Darby Tires.

Also, the Moroland Sugar Corporation (MSC), established as part of the previous administration’s reconciliation bid with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), is eyeing some 25,000 hectares of land in Maguindanao as the site of its milling facility. Maguindanao was chosen supposedly because of its vast tracts of land, abundant labour, absence of strikes and its typhoon-free weather.

It can be remembered that in early 1999, the military clashed with the MILF troops manning the contested lands.

The government has reportedly begun implementing the Liguasan Marsh Development Project through the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC). The project, which involves extraction of natural gas, will operate on the Liguasan marshland largely occupied by Moro communities.

But while local and foreign capitalists continue to extract profits from Moro lands, Moros are still being denied their right to economic benefits and resources and their right to self-determination. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Jun Anave is a contributor to IBON Features, in which the above article first appeared (Volume 5 No. 19, 15 May 2000).