SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao—The hills and plains that once saw bloody skirmishes between soldiers and Moro rebel forces in the last decade are potential huge agriculture production areas that could fuel socioeconomic development for the poor Bangsamoro communities, President Aquino said on Monday.


The MILF is the last of two major Moro guerrilla organizations that waged a bloody war against the government in the 1970s. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) agreed to a peace agreement in September 1996 in exchange for the establishment of a zone of development and the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It also wrung a concession to have 7,500 of its fighting men absorbed by the National Police and the Army.


“These untapped areas could become productive if we have peace and it could be at par with the other productive areas in the country,” the President said in a speech.


“Maybe, when our time to rest comes, [MILF Chairman Mohammad Al haj] Murad [Ebrahim] would invite me for snacks and say we are now tourists here because it’s so peaceful now,” he said.


There is no official estimate of the size of the scattered military camps in MILF strongholds, although the guerrilla warfare the MILF had waged against the government turned a large part of the rural areas into idle lands.


Many of the MILF strongholds and suspected positions were located in and around the Ligawasan Marsh (formerly Liguasan Marsh), Asia’s largest wetlands at 50,000 hectares, where initial studies and exploration had indicated possible oil and gas deposits. But the marsh is still the source of rice and freshwater fishes, earning for the Cotabato plains the distinction of being the country’s rice bowl.


As fighting ebbed in the last decade, large tracts of these idle lands have since become plantations for banana and oil palm. A recent Philippine Development Forum in Davao City attended by the government’s international funding and lending partners showed that many were interested in developing more lands there for investment ventures.


In their respective presentations during the launching of the Sajahatra Bangsamoro project, seven national government agencies announced their respective programs for the MILF communities.


The Philippine Health Insurance Corp. said it would widen its coverage of the health insurance to include the families inside the MILF guerrilla zones, although it disclosed that it has active coverage in many Moro communities. The Department of Education (DepEd) said Secretary Armin Luistro has issued Department Order 6-2013 extending financial assistance to the madrasah schools. The DepEd would also seek to improve the equity of basic madrasah education and increase access to them.


The Technical Education and Skills Development Administration (Tesda) would also extend training and enhance skills in vocation and technical education, while the Commission on Higher Education would endorse qualified poor students for state-funded higher education.


Agriculture would help farming and livelihood-raising skills as well as provide basic implements.


“All of these would be shouldered by the national government,” said Secretary Teresita Deles, chief of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.


She said quick programs like cash-for-work and conditional-cash transfer would be handed out to the identified beneficiaries to be worked out with the MILF “while we immediately undertake a needs assessment in the areas to determine what are the actual projects that we have to put up so that people could have immediate employment.”


She said the delivery of these economic programs would be undertaken in the next 18 months. “In due time, long programs would determine what investments would have to take place.”


“Our goal is to accelerate the transition of MILF communities steeped in armed struggle to a productive citizenry that buys into the national agenda, and contributes to our shared goal of equitable progress,” Mr. Aquino said.


He said that “when once they [the MILF fighters and supporters] treated themselves with herbs from the jungle, soon they will have health insurance, and will be cared for by trained doctors and nurses in state-funded health centers.”


“When once children were taught merely the histories of suffering inside their madaris [Arabic-language schools], soon they will also learn that peace can triumph—so long as we open our hearts and allow ourselves to trust our fellow men. And when once they felt oppressed under the cloud of conflict, soon they will feel empowered, illumined by the daylight of peace,” the President said. -- Manuel T. Cayon/Business Mirror