The brutal murder of Canadian mining executive John Ridsdel in the Philippines this week is yet another sobering reminder that Southeast Asia’s most literate country (over 95% literacy), with a population of over a hundred million has many challenges ahead. As a major election approaches, this tragedy will likely strengthen the case of hard-line politicians who want to crack down further on militants. One of the leading candidates is Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, a city across the bay from the resort island where Mr. Ridsdel and his associates were kidnapped in September 2015. The mayor has gained prominence for his tough tactics on criminals and also notoriety for his crass jokes about violence in the country. Yet he remains the leading candidate as Filipinos consider his candor as a welcome departure from the entrenched business aristocracy that has wielded power in the country for much of its democratic history.
In November 2014, I visited Davao City, which is also the capital of the vast, ethnically diverse and restive island of Mindanao that has been the locus of much of the Islamist violence in the country. The island is also rich in minerals and has one of Asia’s largest untapped copper-gold deposits called Tampakan, which has been in abeyance for over two decades due to community conflicts. The purpose of my visit was to facilitate a workshop between various stakeholders who have opposed mining in the country and government officials as well as industrial development interests. The opposition to mining surprisingly comprises a collective of Catholic, Muslim and Communist groups, who find common cause in their disdain for economic inequality. There is a perception that the benefits of industrial mining are accruing for the elite while ecological costs mount for the peasant populations.
With the help of local partners at Mindanao State University’s Iligan Institute of Technology and The University of Southeastern Philippines, we convened a diverse group of activists from ethnic and religious denominations to consider the role of minerals in fueling the conflict in the region. We also considered how well-managed mining projects could be part of the solution to the country’s socioeconomic woes and hence mitigate regional conflicts. Apart from large scale mining, there is a deeply pervasive informal artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector in Mindanao as well. While providing livelihoods for many impoverished forest-dwellers, such mining is also a cause of serious environmental and human rights concerns. The US Department of Labor has recently launched a program on reducing child labor in this sector.
Our workshop in Davao considered how the peace process in Mindanao, that had led to a historic agreement between many of the Islamic rebels and the government in 2012, could be sustained through diversified economic development, including mining. Indeed, the creation of the Bangsamoro independent region and the signing of the Framework Agreement for its creation in October 2012 was considered a major breakthrough and exemplar that negotiated peace may be possible with Islamists. Yet, the process moving forward since then has been fraught with challenges, despite being an important learning case for conflict management in complex ethno-religious contexts. Regardless of numerous setbacks, a comprehensive economic development plan for Mindanao and Bangsamoro is the only way forward for peaceful progress in this region.
A major challenge to realizing peace in Mindanao is the complex ecology of the Philippines archipelago which allows for recalcitrant militant factions to retain control of some territories. Mr. Ridsel’s kidnappers kept him hostage on the distant island of Jolo that remains a somewhat lawless hinterland. Until there is a clear economic development path and better governance outreach in all parts of the Philippines, a lasting peace will remain elusive. Mindanao is caught in a vicious cycle whereby lack of investment breads economic exclusion and provides fertile ground for absolutist movements. At the same time such violence further deters foreign investment and leads to even greater isolation. While a military response may be in order to grapple with the hard-line elements of Abu Sayaf Islamist rebels, the Bangsamoro peace agreement must move forward with full authorization from all the other parties to the accord. Delays in its implementation will only perpetuate extremism as there will be a “fatigue factor” of waiting for such an accord to be realized. Interestingly enough, a Conservative Muslim political party has given support to Mr. Duterte’s candidacy to be president. This shows that there is willingness from the Muslim population to also be tough with criminals who are hampering peace. Victims of terrorism, such as Mr. Ridsdel, deserve to be remembered for their brave willingness to take risks and invest in conflict zones. Their tragic passing should not be used as an excuse to undermine peace efforts.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks on research support to Dr. Carmelita Martinez, Prof. Emmanuel Manlapig, Prof. Nimfa Bracamonte, Dr. Teresa Igancio, Prof. David Brereton and Dr. Glen Corder. The workshop and research noted in this article was supported by the Australian Government’s International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC). The detailed report of our engagement in developing a shared agenda for mining in the Philippines was synthesized by Prof. Nimfa Bracamonte, and is downloadable from this link.