No Free Lunch

A positive perspective on Mindanao

I recently wrote about Mindanao’s uncertain future given the way the Bangsamoro Basic Law is shaping up. But as I find myself crisscrossing Mindanao again on current work I’m involved with, I get the same upbeat feeling I got when I visited all the Mindanao regions eight years ago. I was leading the formulation of the Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan for the Mindanao Development Authority then. Following that, my work focused on assisting the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to attract stronger interest from internal and external investors.

“Mindanao is the future of the Philippines,” one of my daughters spontaneously remarked back then, when I brought my family for a short vacation in the Davao region. She marveled at the futuristic new city hall still under construction in Tagum City then (“looks like Singapore,” she said), the wide highways we passed to get there, and the natural wealth visible in the lush agricultural crops around. She had been to Bukidnon several years before at the invitation of a friend, and had been impressed at how well-endowed the island is, as any first-time visitor to Mindanao is bound to feel.


The looming dynamism of the Mindanao economy that provoked those upbeat feelings eight years ago has largely been played out. I’m writing this in Butuan City after having made a seven-hour road trip from Davao City with my study team, on highways with beautiful stretches that many people from Luzon would drool at—and some members of our party in fact did. With the six-lane non-toll highway already linking Davao City with Tagum City and beyond, the planned railway link connecting the same cities—a major new project under the “Build, build, build” (BBB) program—would seem superfluous.

But then Mindanao is doing things differently. It is being proactive and anticipatory about infrastructure development—perhaps heeding the hard-learned lessons in Metro Manila and Luzon, where facilities have for too long lagged far behind growing needs, now felt in serious and costly congestion.


Two weeks ago, we were in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato and Sarangani, passing through similarly impressive roads that have doubled from two to four lanes since I last traversed the route. I had difficulty recognizing some areas because of structures that have risen all over the place. Shopping malls have sprouted and continue to rise all over, a seeming testament to growing purchasing power in the island, enough to warrant such investments from the mall magnates. There is palpable energy in the local economies we’ve visited so far, including in Cotabato City that is the seat of the ARMM regional government. The weeks ahead will bring my group to the rest of the Mindanao regions, and I can’t wait to witness the same dynamism there, first-hand.

This dynamism is already reflected in the numbers. Last year, the Davao region posted a zooming GDP growth of 10.9 percent, Soccsksargen 8.2 percent, and ARMM 7.3 percent—all well exceeding the overall economy’s 6.7 percent expansion. The other Mindanao regions are likewise growing respectably, and those growing more slowly (like the Caraga and Zamboanga regions) are getting a further boost via deliberately greater shares in the government’s BBB public investment portfolio.

All these give the various government and nongovernment stakeholders we are meeting with an underlying and expressed optimism on their future economic outlook, even in the face of uncertainties on the final shape of the BBL, and the communist insurgency. The latter remains a challenge, particularly for Caraga, where lingering acts of sabotage by insurgents turn away job-creating investments.

Indeed, there is much pent-up energy in the regional and local economies in Mindanao, much of which is lately being unleashed. This so-called Land of Promise has already reaped a partial peace dividend from the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014. So much more can be achieved once it is institutionalized via a widely accepted BBL, and more so if an agreement can be similarly reached with the forces behind the communist insurgency.

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TAGS: ARMM, Bangsamoro Basic Law, local government, Mindanao
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