‘Farms for arms’

Government starts the rehabilitation of banana plantations in volatile Maguindanao, provides jobs for ex-Moro combatants

DAVAO CITY—Rehabilitating the banana farms in the south central Mindanao province of Maguindanao is like resuscitating the fragile peace on the island, or buoying up hopes for a better alternative to war and conflict.

This could be the impetus for government intervention, to bring back to productive life one of the most productive banana plantations in central Mindanao, a place where the major banana export industry players are salivating to expand or transfer their operations to because of its fertile lands.

Aerial view of La Fruttera plantation

In the last two years, banana production has stopped at the La Fruttera, already a globally known plantation brand of the Paglas family, due to financial difficulty, and any flickering hope to revive soon was further dampened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The standstill of plantation work since 2019 also brought to an abrupt halt the only means of livelihood of former Moro guerrilla combatants who have already adapted to civilian productive life and have imbibed the plantation, and Paglas family’s motto of
Bawal ang Tamad.”

The motto has been painted and printed on tarpaulin banners in conspicuous places in the sprawling 1,500-hectare plantation, and across town named after the family’s forebear, Datu Paglas.

Rush to rehabilitate

NO less than Malacañang has asked the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), the government’s socioeconomic planning unit for Mindanao, to rush over to Datu Paglas town to see how it could tweak and settle the problems that led to the closure of two huge banana farms, mainly La Fruttera, in the province, and have them revived back to production.

Stakeholders of La Fruttera plantation

MinDA chief, former Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, reported shortly that an agreement was reached last week with a government bank, the owners of the land, and the corporation, which used to operate the plantation.

“Last week, I and the MinDA staff joined officials of the Development Bank of the Philippines [DBP] led by Director Rogelio Garcia and Southern Mindanao Vice President Annie Veloso in meeting with members of the Paglas family, which owns 500 hectares of the plantation, and Unifrutti President Alberto Bacani in the plantation site,” Piñol said.

He bared the following consensus: the Paglas family, which owns 500 hectares of the plantation,  would take over the operation of its area under the Paglas Corp. and acquire the assets of UGP Corp. owned by Filipino-American John Perrine. Unifrutti Philippines agreed to provide technical and management assistance to Paglas Corp. in rehabilitating the plantation and make it productive in one year.

Both UGP Corp. and Unifrutti have stakes in the plantation.

Piñol said the DBP agreed to finance the rehabilitation and operation of the plantation and the total loan amount to be based on the assets of the corporation and for Unifrutti to provide Paglas Corp. a marketing agreement that would ensure the repayment of the loan acquired from the DBP.

The agreement may signal the likely start of the operation of the plantation, and another lease on life to the livelihood of plantation workers.

Coordination

ALTHOUGH the area to be reopened—the 500 hectares owned by the Paglas family—is only a third of the original area, MinDA has recommended to Paglas Corp. a work rotation schedule so that all the 2,000 workers, many of them former Moro guerrilla fighters, could be accommodated and earn for their families.

He said the MinDA would work out an assistance plan with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Office of Civil Defense for the displaced workers until work has restarted.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) has warned that the continued economic difficulties faced by the displaced workers may have serious implications on the peace and security of Maguindanao province.

“The banana plantations, owned by Filipino-American John Perrine, are the Al Sahar and La Fruttera banana farms in Talayan and Datu Paglas towns, respectively, and all considered critical areas because of the presence of ISIS-inspired armed groups,” Piñol said,

Only in May this year, units of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters launched an attack against military outposts and the civilian population in Datu Paglas town. The BIFF used to be a unit of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but broke away in 2008 to protest the government’s rejection of an agreement on ancestral domain. It has closed its doors to any return to the MILF, which agreed to a final peace agreement in 2014. The BIFF has since affiliated itself with the Islamic State.

Part of President Duterte’s instruction to Piñol was to coordinate with other agencies, such as the DSWD, “to ensure that the displaced farm workers are given food assistance until they are back to work,” Piñol said.

Back on their feet

PIÑOL said food has been distributed to the former combatants while awaiting news of their return to plantation work. Meanwhile, the MinDA disclosed that it has identified a new investor to take over the two plantations from the Perrine Group.

Initial meetings have been scheduled with the new investor and other stakeholders “to finally resolve the minor issues,” according to Piñol.

He said MinDA will later submit a final report and recommendation to the Office of the President.

Image courtesy of MINDA
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