Flashback 2017. At the onset of Marawi siege, the war on terror targeting the Mautes displaced several thousands of urban residents and disrupted the economic livelihood within and outside the city. The ISIS-inspired insurgency group recruited mainly children and youth as ‘jihad’ fighters.
To stem the lure of violent extremist ideology among out-of-school youths, Peace Crops was conceived adopting Canada’s project “Drop Seeds, Not Bombs” and bannering agro-enterprise development aimed at reshaping vulnerable mindsets. Among those instrumental in providing a model towards agri-based community peacebuilding is Capt. Ron Villarosa who led a civic-military farming program in Basilan, a dreaded conflict-torn province in Mindanao ruled heavily by lawless elements and Abu Sayyaf terrorists.
In an earnest measure to help rehabilitate Marawi and her municipal neighbors, Peace Crops mirrors bayanihan tradition among youth farmers, volunteers, civilian and military supporters, a co-creative process driven by a common vision of peace and food security in Mindanao in this arm-to-farm approach.
Can a community agro-enterprise program be able to stem the lure of extremism in a province feared to be Southeast Asia’s laboratory for ISIS-inspired militant activities?
It’s a tough question to answer. But what is clear to Peace Crops is that they have taken fruitful baby steps to be able to link small farmer partners –out-of-school youths, women, and barangay leaders– to modern food consumer markets beyond the traditional local outlets that abound in their area. The agro-enterprise engagement hopes to inspire a shift in the mindset of young militants to drop their arms and engage in farms, as well as influence positive response to the longstanding issue of poverty and inequality that continue to fuel hardcore radicalization in some parts of the region.
Among its beneficiaries is Jalal, a commander of a MILF unit in Lanao del Sur. Jalal farms when he is not busy especially that his troop was just decommissioned under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its enabling law, RA 11054 or the Organic Act for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
This is the first time his cluster of farmers has gone into vegetable growing by the lakeside, inspired by the agro-enterprise activity of a neighboring group who introduced them to Peace Crops’ agricultural initiative in the province.
Last April, Commander Jalal led in the harvest of naturally-grown pechay, whose extraordinarily large, healthy green foliage amazed everyone despite being a few days short of the 35-day requirement for picking.
His farm by the lakeside is an innovation in itself brought by necessity: the lake waters have receded considerably due to the ill-effects of El Niño. What they did not anticipate at the outset was to discover how fertile this dried up tilapia farm would turn out to be, extravagantly nourishing the variety of crops presently being trialed in this area. In the days to come, creative lake farming practices would be introduced, and hopefully, place this farm lot in the map as a model for M’ranaos, the people of the lake, to emulate.
A core dissuading argument that douses high hopes for agricultural productivity to succeed in Lanao del Sur is the pervading cultural perception that, because the province is dominated by commercial traders (of which mental model is second skin commonly attached to the M’ranaos), its local inhabitants would shun from engaging in agriculture.
Aside from challenges on culture and perceptions, the irony with Lanao del Sur is that, while the second largest lake in the country lies at the heart of the province, local farmers in the area have difficulty accessing this huge body of water that kisses by its shore for their farming needs. Such is the dilemma of the farmers in Balindong, where a dried-up creek–painfully a case of “so close yet so far”–also runs next to their garden. Thankfully, nearby is a deep well that pumps out this much-needed resource for agricultural sustainability. Having heard of their struggle, donors partnered with Peace Crops providing a water pump, giving much relief to enable a community of farmers to pursue their activity, now secured in their thought for increased productivity.
After a year of service capacitating its farming community partners in Marantao and Balindong and other neighboring municipalities, Peace Crops was able to establish new theories on paradigm shift and social change. It managed to link some small farmers to non-conventional markets within and outside their localities, opening for them opportunities to capture more value on their farm products for improved income.
This agro-enterprise developmental approach has gained attention and recognition from other organizations (e.g., the provincial and barangay LGUs, NGOs, and other local farmer groups) who have expressed interest to adopt such model of community engagement particularly in conflict-affected areas.