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(Special Report) Interfaith dialogue with generous dosage for gainful employment spells peaceful living in Maguindanao

DATU PAGLAS, Maguindanao, Feb. 26 — From the width and make of their portion of the national highway and the view of their fringes from a traversing car’s windows, the superficial contrast is inarguably clear between Mindanao’s vivacious queen city of Christian-majority Davao and its neighbor 100 miles to the southwest — the fifth-class township of Muslim clan-ruled Datu Paglas.

But to insist on such superficialities is unfair indeed, even former Mayor Datu Abubakar “Toy” Paglas, now chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Paglas Group of Companies (Pagcor), admits.

For one, Pagcor’s banana-producing partner-company headquarters, the La Frutera Incorporated (LFI), which is located in Datu Paglas’s boundary with the Mangudadatu clan town of Buluan, is no measure against Davao-headquartered industry giants such as Dole Philippines.

“Davao is old and we are young,” the amiable Datu Toy jokes, in apparent reference to Davao’s well-settled niche in Mindanao as a business and governance hub, among others.

In La Frutera Incorporated, Datu Toy, as he is fondly known to all, prides in the coup that his late brother and clan patriarch, Datu Ibrahim “Toto” Paglas III, brought to town and to beleaguered central Mindanao: the vision of a peaceful land where Filipinos of many faiths respect each other and are gainfully employed together without elbowing each other out.

That work dignifies a person is LFI’s mission and vision. Founder Datu Toto, a nephew of the late Chairman Salamat Hashim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and a grandson of the late respected Senator Salipada K. Pendatun, meant it: He so hated lazy, impervious constituents that when he was the town chieftain in the late 1980s (he was then in his mid-20s), he warned laggards they’d be thrown down fire anthills if they insist on being lazybones.

LFI was established in 1987, planting only the internationally-known “chiquita” banana variety on a 1,000-hectare area which it supplies to an exporting company for markets in Japan, China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, among others. It paid P200-million in taxes to Datu Paglas town in 2008.

So far, LFI has no plans to go beyond bananas, for as Datu Toy himself said, his land is perfect for bananas and its Israeli-taught technology (drip irrigation) practical and affordable for the company.

Much has been written in foreign media and organizations about LFI and its founder’s pioneering spirit in interfaith communications, Datu Toy intimated with the Philippines News Agency (PNA) during a recent visit at the plantation in the heart of Datu Paglas. It is a dusty, sleepy town of mostly thatched houses, peopled by about 25,000 of mostly Islam adherents.

The plantation stands out not only because of the jobs and satisfaction it has provided but also because of the residents’ pride that LFI is the biggest and most successful enterprise in a Muslim community in the Philippines.

Datu Paglas is also the only Muslim town with its own bank, thanks to LFI: the Datu Paglas Bank.

Foreign visitors and institutions, including Harvard University, praise LFI as an authentic model for interfaith dialogue and social development among Christians and Muslims, even at a time of conflict, and even beyond, for allowing Israeli farming technology and equipment to back up the project.

LFI Chairman Senen Bacani, a former Agriculture secretary, who put scientific management into the enterprise, puts it most succinctly: there is deep self-dignity among its 1,800 gainfully employed personnel who are not focused on “differences” but on being professional workers trying to earn a living and supporting a decent family.

“Only outsiders keep on harping on so-called differences (between Muslims and Christians),” he stressed during an interview in the midst of a management meeting at LFI. Mindanaoans have been used to being together, working and eating together, talking to each other and it’s the same in LFI, he elucidated.

“It’s not that we require them to so behave. At best, we are all sensitive to the other’s culture and practices,” he volunteered. “The Muslims can pray whenever they needed to and the non-Muslims see that as a natural thing in the workplace; no hassle there,” Bacani added.

However, out of respect for the Muslim practice of using the afternoon for worship at the nearby mosque, Friday is a day-off for all. Saturdays and Sundays — the latter being a flexible schedule for Christians — are official workdays, according to Bacani, who commutes to work from Davao City and insists that the road to headquarters and the plantation and beyond is peaceful.

Bacani himself and his management team, except for the Director of Human Resources, who is a college-educated, articulate Muslim woman, are Christians. There is a mix of female Islam practitioners and Christians in the factory, cleaning bananas and packing them for shipment. A few are from nearby towns such as Muslim Buluan and Christian Tulunan or Tacurong City.

On the other hand, most of the banana cutters and pickers are male Muslims, mostly former MILF rebels who are now admittedly contented to work with bananas rather than with arms and victimizing innocent civilians.

All they needed was a job that paid properly to get out of poverty and despair, Datu Toy explained. These men used to roam around the once-unproductive land in the nights strategizing against perceived enemies (government and Christians) but now they have returned to the fold of the law, the CEO noted, making a sweep of the green scenery with his hands.

At the LFI’s unpretentious cafeteria, where Datu Toy treated PNA to a lunch of steamed rice, breaded squid nuggets, fried chicken meat and juice (prepared “not so-formally halal,” according to Bacani), this reporter could overhear multi-lingual conversations going on at nearby tables. There were two females in the familiar Muslim head scarf known as “hijab” and a maxi-dress called “abaya” alternating between Filipino, Bisayan, English and Maguindanaon with two Bisayan-sounding females in Western-style office dress, who were also multi-lingual.

Also huddled at a separate table were three men, one wearing the familiar white skullcap worn by Muslims who have performed the hajj in Mecca. So he is a “hadji,” this reporter thought to herself and proceed to say “hello, pagari ko” (hello, my friend) to him and he smiled back in acknowledgment of this Mindanao-born Buddhist.

But behind this vision-pretty, serene scene, Paglas intimated, is the forlorn story of how a community struggled for its own place in Christian-majority Mindanao, for jobs and incomes to feed impoverished and illiterate families, for titles and ownership of lands inherited from forefathers, for the ability to pay real estate taxes, for dignity on their own Islamic terms.

The really disheartened, albeit disoriented and misdirected, joined the MILF to push their causes, their families and friends in conniving support.

Meanwhile, the power and authority of the ruling Paglas and other clans in the area began to diminish or were challenged even as the culture of “datuism” gave way to so-called “commanderism,” the latter referring to the rise of untitled Muslim men in the MILF movement who styled themselves as unit “commanders” (as in “Commander Bravo”).

The Paglas family itself was feeling the pinch and in the 1990s was in sure danger of losing their claimed 600-hectare property which has been largely unproductive since the Mindanao conflict of the 1960s and foreclosure by the bank for failure to pay taxes, among others. The same fate awaited other families living on 400-something hectares of similar wasteland.

But with the leadership of Datu Toto, described by many as one of the most visionary of Mindanao’s politicians, arrangements were soon made with the bank and government, paving the serendipitous birth of LFI.

In fact, the quality supervisor at the plantation, a 46-year-old Muslim woman named Anita Piang, comes from one of the families on the 400-hectare area. In the 10 years that she’s been a factory hand, at a monthly salary of more than P16,000 at present, Anita has acquired a certificate of title to the family estate, updated real estate taxes, and sent two children to college to earn professional nursing degrees.

One such daughter, who graduated from the elite Mindanao State University, has migrated to New Zealand and works as nurse. Anita claims her husband is working, tending to a private family business.

A domain of her own and a comfortable house surrounded by relatives, successful and educated children, an income of one’s own, bonuses — “what more can I ask?,” Anita tells this reporter as she examines the bananas for bruises and other undesirable marks that, she volunteers, the Saudi Arabian market is very much against. “They’re the strictest in the world but a good market for us,” she states.

As Datu Toy and his assistant toured us under the endless rows of banana trees, many with their inviting heart-shaped blossoms, telling us how the plants have to be taken care of and nurtured like peace and children — which he described as “a full-time procedure" — we get infected by the expanse of his hope and expectations about how someday peace will topple down all animosities in his home province of Maguindanao, at least.

As our car darted out of the leafy surrounding, he mentions that because there are no earthquakes and typhoons in his part of Mindanao, his plantation has not experienced being blown down or flooded.

“When there is no calamity, bananas stand tall and firm,” he states matter-of-factly, little realizing that I found the allegory impressive. (To be continued) (PNA Features) scs/GJB

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