Malling in Basilan? | Inquirer Opinion
No Free Lunch

Malling in Basilan?

“It’s time the shopping mall magnates took a serious look at Basilan,” remarked Regional Board of Investments Chair Sakiran Hajan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), as he kindly accompanied me in a series of visits and meetings in his home province last week. Anyone not familiar enough with the island province, especially one coming from faraway Luzon, would have dismissed the statement as wishful thinking.  But after an enlightening visit to this much-dreaded (unduly, to my mind) part of our country, the statement does make sense to me. With a local economy that has all the signs of dynamism and growing purchasing power, the Sy, Gokongwei, Gaisano or Zobel families would do well to have a look for themselves.  They may yet be convinced that putting up a moderately sized shopping mall in Isabela City, the province’s capital, could be a missionary investment that would not only make money, but would also help hasten Basilan’s emergence out of its killing-fields image.

Several ferries and fast craft ply the Basilan Strait daily between Zamboanga City and Isabela City or Lamitan City. It takes about an hour to negotiate the 31-kilometer crossing (or half that time with the fast craft).  Counting trips and seating capacities, Hajan calculates that more than 2,000 Basileños make that trip across each way every day, many of them to spend a day of shopping and recreation in Zamboanga City.  Basilan had a population of half a million as of 2007; it would be much more by now.  It has a bustling agricultural economy, with rubber, coconut, coffee, cassava, fruits, fish and seaweeds providing a good source of income for its farmers.  The island is also home to an estimated 10,000 overseas Filipino workers sending back large sums of remittance income.

All these add up to ample purchasing power within Basilan. Indeed, if my hometown of Los Baños, Laguna, with a population one-fifth that of Basilan, can support a Robinson’s town mall (and two supermarkets as well), there seems no reason why Basilan can’t.  If it’s any indication, Basilan now boasts a Jollibee restaurant—for many, a sure sign that a place “has arrived”—and it has been there for six years.  On the other hand, the closest that nearby Sulu has had so far is a “McMickey” knock-off of the other popular fast-food chain in Jolo.


While coconut remains the single biggest crop planted, it is rubber that has made the Basilan economy, both historically and again more recently.  In the past, the island hosted large rubber plantations of familiar names in rubber—BF Goodrich, Sime Darby and Menzi, among others—making Basilan the country’s rubber capital, then and now.  The University of the Philippines also obtained a 4,000-hectare land grant on the island, planted mostly to rubber and coconut. All that made Basilan a first-class chartered city in the 1950s and 1960s, exporting copra, coconut oil, rubber and lumber to California via Guam and Hawaii.


But the onset of the Moro conflict in the 1970s ravaged the local economy, and subsequent passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in 1988 dissolved Basilan’s multinational plantations. The large companies abandoned their investments on the island, leaving the coconut and rubber plantations to agrarian reform beneficiaries who managed the farms as cooperatives.  The UP Land Grant turned into the Sta. Clara Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Integrated Development Cooperative, and the BF Goodrich and Sime Darby rubber plantations were merged and converted into the Latuan Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association Inc.  Vast tracts of the American-owned Yakan Plantation in Lamitan were initially acquired by then Defense Minister (now Senate President) Juan Ponce Enrile and turned into his Cocoland Plantation, but later redistributed as the Lamitan Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative.

A massive rubber replanting program embarked on by the provincial government in 2003 has since returned rubber to prominence.  As of now, there are 26,000 hectares of productive rubber farms, and another 10,000 hectares of still immature rubber trees that will become productive in a few years.  Meanwhile, observers note how rubber has brought new life back into the once war-ravaged economy of Basilan, and the economic energy is evident to any new visitor right upon alighting from the Zamboanga ferry at the Isabela City port.  Driving through the island into the city of Lamitan, one cannot help but appreciate the great natural wealth in the island’s fertile agricultural lands and lush vegetation.

Endowed with a rich watershed and even climate, the island has much hydropower potential that remains largely untapped.  We were told of one existing mini-hydro power facility, which helps lower the overall cost of power dominantly coming from expensive diesel-fired power barges.  The Basilan Electric Cooperative, while still among the worst performing in the country along with other ARMM electric cooperatives, nonetheless performs better than its similarly placed Sulu and Tawi-Tawi counterparts.  Power generation is in fact one promising investment area in Basilan; we learned that an outside investor will soon bring the island’s now deficient 7.5-megawatt capacity up to 11.5 megawatts.  With current requirement estimated at 8 megawatts, there should be room for even more given the rate at which the local economy is booming—and especially if one of those mall chains decides to come in.  And there are many more investment opportunities in this rich, fertile, and much misunderstood island that once upon a time was among the most progressive local economies in the country—and could very well be again.

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TAGS: Basilan, featured column, shopping mall

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