Reeling from decades of rebel extortion and violence, the banana industry in Mindanao is agog over ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the leftist National Democratric Front (NDF).
President Rodrigo R. Duterte, acknowledged for the first time that the banana industry is hampered by the continuous harassment of lawless groups in Mindanao.
The banana industry has blamed the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the NDF, for the extortion and raids carried out against banana plantations.
“The greatest challenge of the banana growers in the Philippines is really the law and order. Until and unless you can put together a country that’s bereft of any revolutionary tax, extortion and everything, sinusunog ang property, it’s all because of the taxation. If it’s not taxation of the communists, it’s extortion of the roving bandits in Mindanao,” Duterte said during the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Banana Congress held in Davao City last week.
Duterte hit the ground running to make peace with the communist rebels to end the 40-year old insurgency that is active in many parts of Mindanao.
Vowing to end the insurgency during his term, Duterte promised a final peace agreement with the NDF could be hammered out in a year’s time.
Panels of the government and the NDF are now facing off in the negotiation table in Oslo.
Earlier on before Duterte was overwhelmingly elected as President in the May 2016 election, ang as NPA rebels carried out a series of attacks on the plantations, Stephen Antig, president of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), sought help of the government to to stop the violence against one of the major export-earning industry in the country.
Antig expressed worry that the rebel attacks are driving away investors from Mindanao.
Duterte’s statement at the Congress was met with elation by banana industry players.
Organized for government policy makers, business leaders, technocrats, farmers and other stakeholders of the banana industry, the two-day Congress served as a venue for the participants to share information on best practices in pests and disease management, value chain development, technology updates, maximizing benefits from trade and tariff agreements and market standards compliance.
Some of the industry stakeholders, particularly big banana plantations, have been seeking government support in fighting extortionists from the NPA who are demanding revolutionary taxes.
A multinational company – Dole-Stanfilco – recently shutdown its plantation and packing plants in the northern part of Mindanao after the rebels torch container trucks early this year because the company refused to pay the revolutionary taxes.
Duterte said Mindanao is the key to driving developments in Philippine agriculture. While mining industries and export processing zones can sprout “everywhere,” Duterte said, “what would make the industry valuable is actually [agriculture in] Mindanao, and only in Mindanao.”
He added that he is bullish about agriculture in the country, and sees that the sector will “make it big…in the span of the next 30 years,” provided the country is able to iron out law and order, and stop extortion attempts of bandits on farm owners.
Shipping lines carrying agricultural exports from Mindanao indicated that banana exports account for more than 60% of the total volume of agricultural products shipped out of Mindanao.
“So, at first, even before I took my oath of office I tried to reach out to the communists. And right at the start of my administration we’re also starting the talks, I’m very happy. Now we are freed of the countryside vis-a-vis itong communist party of the Philippines, NDF, NPA,” Duterte told hundreds of delegates to the Banana Congress.
Incessant attacks from Philippine rebels have prompted Dole-Stanfilco to close two of its banana operations in the province of Surigao del Sur. The NPAs are believed to have carried out the attacks.
The rebels have torched 19 of Dole’s container trucks since 2010. The trucks are used to transport bananas from the Surigao del Sur plantations to Davao City. The closure affected over 1,500 workers.
The most affected sector of the insurgency in Mindanao is the hundreds of thousands of farm workers in the plantations—not the multinational companies and their executives. The farmers have appealed to the government to do something about them.
The banana plantations in Mindanao cover about 85,000 hectares and estimated to employ more than 330,000 workers supporting a total of two million people.
The insurgency problem affects almost all industries in Mindanao. It has been a major problem in the last five decades caused by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).
Their atrocities involve arson, extortion, harassment, black propaganda, infiltration of labor unions, meddling with agribusiness venture agreements, etc. There are 52 communist fronts nationwide, 24 are in Eastern Mindanao or 46% while the remaining 28 fronts (54%) are scattered in the rest of the country.
Most of the big industries in the countryside are located near rebel bases. They are vulnerable to CNN-initiated violent and non-violent attacks. Rebels also harass smaller businesses in the areas where they operate.
Last year, the NPAs attacked Mindanao plantations almost on a monthly basis beginning in January until November. The NPAs burned heavy equipment, container vans and cargo trucks loaded with bananas in various parts of Mindanao, such as T’boli and Surallah in South Cotabato; Barobo and Lianga in Surigao del Sur; Quezon, Bukidnon; Maco, Compostela Valley; and Maasim, Sarangani Province.
After a lull in December because of the annual ceasefire, the NPAs have stepped up their violent activities against the plantations starting late January up to last June. The attacks covering the period January 22 to March 15, 2016, have already surpassed the number of attacks for the whole of 2015.
The turbulent situation in Mindanao could stop further expansion of the plantations, at the very least, but it could worsen when industries start packing up and leaving for other countries eyeing to grab the lucrative fruits export market in Asia and the Middle East from Mindanao exporters.
Duterte said “Mindanao remains to be a valuable agricultural land.” If the revolutionary tax will be remove, “we would be alright.”
“I’m saying this because you are into expansion. If you are into banana and you plant bananas in 20 hectares in 10 years, ay huminto ka nalang. Malulugi ka na lang kung ganon. In banana, in plantations and any other business you have to expand. If you do not expand, babagsak ka!”
“So it’s either we succeed on the talks or we don’t move at all. Because limitado, there cannot be full use of the land until we have the peace that we all desire.
“Having said that, we are open to all issues that you might want to, the government to intervene,” he said.