Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fruits grow as harbingers of peace in Mindanao

Fruits grow as harbingers of peace in Mindanao
By Tarra Quismundo
Last updated 09:55pm (Mla time)

MANILA, Philippines -- Bearing tons of produce and a payload of hope, a military cargo plane landed in Manila Monday from Mindanao hoping to kick start an initiative aimed at defeating the war in the south with an offensive of peace and livelihood.

The enticing sweet smell of fresh fruit filled the warm afternoon air at Villamor Air Base at 1 p.m. after a Philippine Air Force C-130 swung open its rear ramp to reveal crate upon crate of mangosteen and lanzones from Sulu.

It was the initial shipment of goods from the province that would kick off the “Fruit of Hope Program,” a peace-building initiative of the Philippine National Red Cross, the Sulu provincial government, the PAF, the nongovernment organization Asia America Initiative and Metro Manila supermarkets.

“This is a symbolic gesture, that all the fruits of Sulu, which has been a zone of war [although] it is really not a zone of war, that people are harvesting their products and we want them to get a better price for their products here in Metro Manila,” said Senator Richard Gordon, PNRC chair, who was on the two-hour flight from Mindanao.

“What happens is the products are just left there without being sold. It’s time to show that we are helping our friends there ... because Mindanao really is not a zone of war, it’s a zone of peace,” Gordon told reporters.

Bought from Sulu farmers at P20 per kilo, or four times the local price of P5, the four tons of mangosteen and two tons of lanzones are to be delivered to branches of two major Metro Manila supermarkets. The entire shipment was worth around P120,000.

Traders from Manila, who were introduced to Sulu produce through the initiative, found the fruits from the province to be competitive in quality and price. Manila supermarkets sell fruits grown mainly in southern Luzon provinces.

The produce was put together by a cooperative organized by the PNRC and the Sulu provincial government to oversee its sale and take in the revenue, said PNRC assistant secretary general Gwen Pang.

“A cooperative is being formed to take charge of quality control, to segregate fruits ... but it is owned by the people, by farmers from Jolo, Cotabato, Basilan, areas of armed conflict. Through the cooperative, what is earned would be distributed as dividends to farmers and to purchase machines to improve their processing technology,” Pang said.

The Air Force will make room for the produce whenever its C-130s fly to Manila from Sulu, PAF chief Lieutenant General Horacio Tolentino said in a recent press briefing.

The PAF’s three operating cargo planes, which fly almost daily to the Visayas and Mindanao, burn P300,000 worth of aviation fuel per hour of flight. A one-way trip from Sulu to Manila takes around two hours.

“This will be a continuing job for the PAF. For as long as we have fruits to be transported from Mindanao, the Air Force will be willing to provide aircraft,” said PAF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Epifanio Panzo Jr.

Gordon said future shipments could also be transported by sea. To this end, he called on the Department of Transportation and Communication to “nudge” shipping companies into using the Sulu port.

“I was told the Sulu port is perfect. All we need is a shipping company willing to use it, even if the government has to subsidize shipping. It’s cheaper to provide subsidies for shipping rather than go to war,” Gordon said.

“And it’s safer. No one will be killed, no one injured, and livelihood will be more progressive,” he added.

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