The next time you go to the market or grocery to look for fruit, start asking if they're selling mangosteens, lansones, durian, or what-have-you from Basilan, Sulu or any other area in Mindanao where there is conflict. If the sales clerk or vendor informs you that it is from one of these areas and if there's any reason to believe this is true, buy the fruit -- buy a dozen or a dozen kilos. Buy a whole truckload if you can and give it away. There'll be a very good chance that by just filling your need for fruit you will also find yourself literally investing in peace.
Around two weeks ago, Senator Richard Gordon visited the provinces of Basilan and Sulu. This was just after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that there would be no let up in the government's fight against terrorism as the country mourned the deaths of the 14 soldiers beheaded in Basilan. Gordon, as Chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, went to these provinces on a mission to provide humanitarian aid to those whose lives may be negatively affected by the armed conflict that would ensue -- soldiers, muslim extremists, and ordinary people.
He came back to Manila after his visit and fired away a privilege speech which in its essence called for the entire country to begin changing its approach towards resolving armed conflict in conflict ridden areas all over the country. It is an approach which I think speaks both of daring and compassion.
Here is an excerpt of that privilege speech which I think captures a couple of key ideas:
"In the towns of Indanan and Patikul, we found high school and college students bottling sardines, mangosteen and durian. Everywhere we went, we were being offered bananas, lanzones and other fruits. These produce are very cheap in the province. Mangosteen was selling for 5 to 7 pesos per kilo. And this struck us because we knew that in Metro Manila, mangosteen sells for P100 to P120 per kilo. Imagine if the DTI could help the people of Basilan and Sulu in marketing these products at better prices. This will do so much to provide livelihood and jobs to the two communities and the entire ARMM area..
"One move that could really help the regional economy is for the government to finish the circumferential road in Isabela City in Basilan and other road projects. General Juancho Saban, the marine brigade commander in Basilan, told me that the completion of the circumferential road will have far-reaching impact on provincial life and commerce because people, goods and relief effort can move more quickly from Isabela to isolated towns.This will pave the way for local prosperity because of the increase in the number of rubber trees and the abundant production of lanzones.
"Another program that the people of Basilan and Sulu would greatly welcome is a move by the government to develop the tourism potential of their provinces. There are small islands there that would be attractive for tourism. Initially, this will serve domestic tourism; but eventually when peace is fully established they can serve foreign tourists as well. Signals are very important in tourism and investment promotion.. Under your administration, we never stopped tourism promotion despite the Dos Palmas hostage-taking in Palawan, the bombings in Davao City and Zamboasnga City in order to maintain confidence in our country and our tourism industry. Look at where tourism is now. We are hitting new records in tourist arrivals. This is similar to what Sri Lanka did in the face of rebel attacks that damaged even their main international airport. They did not wait for peace before moving to strengthen and promote their tourism industry. This is exactly what we should be doing now in Basilan and Sulu, two islands that have attractions all their own."
What Gordon is saying is actually the opposite of what has been done over several decades. All these years, places in Mindanao have been referred to as warzones and the tendency was to avoid these areas. As the characterization of these areas as zones of war took root, the people in these areas suffered as a result and that suffering in turn compelled not a few to take up arms against the governemnt. The message from Gordon, if we are really interested in peace, is to begin channeling investments to these areas of conflict and if we are really, really interested in peace, we ought to give it a try – we can begin by buying fruit.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict but the presence of justice, of opportunities, and of hope for a better future.