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Southern Philippines climbs out of war
From arms to farms with FAO-Japan help
Bunao, Mindanao, Philippines – Scores of former rebels who handed in their guns and bent their backs to farming are thriving thanks to receiving the right help at the right time. Their success is attributed not only to their hard work but also to well-coordinated assistance from UN agencies and well-targeted funding from donor countries like Japan.

"We were hungry when we first came back to the village. Some people went for whole days without eating, others ate only bananas," recalls Arsad Landasan, former rebel commander and now president of the community agricultural co-operative. "In the beginning people lived in shanties – their houses were gone. I had to live in a shelter I built out of coconut fronds."

The village was one of the first to be designated a "peace and development community" under the 1996 peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front, an armed Muslim independence movement, that ended three decades of war. Although breakaway rebel groups continue to fight even now elsewhere in Mindanao, an island the size of South Korea, Bunao has remained an oasis of calm.

Here is how Bunao came back to life.

Japan helps the Philippines both “bilaterally” and “multilaterally”. It provides bilateral – or direct – assistance to improve rice cultivation and irrigation. At the same time, it works “multilaterally” – through UN agencies such as FAO – on bird flu preparedness and emergency relief and rehabilitation. It also works through the World Food Programme to get food relief to vulnerable families. Japan says it wants to support the peace process in Mindanao, and that means targeting rural areas.

"We emphasize rural development since usually the poor live in rural areas,” says Mitsuhiro Ito, First Secretary for Agriculture at the Japanese Embassy in Manila. “Specifically, we try to help make agriculture more productive."

Why is Japan channelling US$1.85 million through FAO for an emergency agricultural rehabilitation project to assist 7 000 beneficiaries in villages like Bunao? "We recognize that FAO is the special agency for food security and is good at implementing this type of project in conflict-affected areas," says Mr Ito. "FAO has been supporting this country for many years [since 1957] and has a lot of partners in Mindanao such as local NGOs and local government people."

Helping hands

One of 112 communities assisted by the Japan-funded project, Bunao has the good luck to be near a main road, and near land that co-op members recently discovered is ideal for cassava. Cutting up the dense cassava root into chips for animal feed instead of selling it whole almost quadruples its value. But it takes six people one month to hand-chop 60 tonnes of cassava, the output of one hectare of land. The project bought the co-op a motorized chipping machine.

Meanwhile, Habitat, the UN Human Settlements Programme, provided low-cost mortgages so at least some ex-fighters could build concrete-block houses. And when a New Zealand Embassy official visited the area on a fact-finding mission, co-op chief Landasan had the presence of mind to approach the man and explain how the group needed its own transportation to haul cassava to the feed mill. After investigating the co-op's track record, New Zealand donated a five-tonne truck to the cause.

Slowly but surely, the community is climbing out of poverty.

The next improvement, also provided by the FAO-Japan project, is a drying platform for the cassava chips, on land legally donated to the co-op by a community member. The co-op recently negotiated a lease on 50 hectares of land for cassava. The new chipper can easily handle the 3 000 tonnes of roots members hope to pull from the fields. And the feed mill, supplying a booming livestock sector, will buy all they can deliver.

If things go well, will the co-op pay out all the profit to members in dividends? Not at all, says Mr Landasan. "We're thinking of helping other Muslim families in the area to improve their own houses. Twenty of our members only have bamboo- and-thatch homes. Then we want to expand the co-op to help others."

Government input

Shoulder-to-shoulder with donors, implementing agencies and the communities themselves, stand different levels of Philippine government. In the 112 project sites, FAO is careful not to duplicate assistance already being delivered or planned by local extension services. One example of good local-international synergy is in the village of Nalapaan, where Susan Uy, the local agricultural technologist, has been advising farmers for the past 16 years. When the village became a battleground in 2003 and villagers had to evacuate to town for six months, Ms Uy even visited her farmers at the evacuation centre.

"Fortunately, many UN agencies helped this village. NGOs helped too, but in a piecemeal fashion, perhaps with some farm implements," she says. "FAO gives a package with all the necessary inputs and training." In fact, the project sponsored a Farmer Field School, in which facilitators used weekly sessions to help farmers observe the ecology of their rice and maize fields, and learn when pesticide and fertilizer were really necessary. For her part, Ms Uy is promoting crop diversification – growing bananas to supply the town market, a short drive away on a good road.

Finally, in Manila, Department of Agriculture officials place the Mindanao peace and development work in perspective.

"I can assure you that the Japanese funds for Mindanao are very much appreciated," says Jesus Emmanuel Paras, Undersecretary for Field Operations. "Most beneficiaries are women, who would not have any other source of income other than agriculture. Their basic need is to make their daily living."

17 November 2006


Peter Lowrey
FAO Information Officer
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 52762


A motorized chipping machine helps a farmers' co-op quadruple the value of their cassava crop. [Photo gallery]


Listen to Arsad Landasan, a former rebel commander who now heads a 50-member cassava-growing co-op in Mindanao. (mp3)

For Jaime Montesur, agronomist and project site coordinator, strategic planning is the community's strength. (mp3)


Farmers in East Marahan, Mindanao gather during a weekly field school, sponsored by the FAO-Japan project to promote eco-friendly farming.

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Southern Philippines climbs out of war
From arms to farms with FAO-Japan help
Rural communities in Mindanao, Philippines, are coming back to life after decades of conflict with help from an FAO project funded by the Government of Japan.
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