KNOWN as the “Land of Promise,” Mindanao is characterized by long coastlines and mountains that are filled with unique flora and fauna. A third of its land is devoted to agriculture and supplies 40 percent of food to the entire Philippines. Its land area is three times the size of Taiwan, 88 times bigger than Hong Kong, and 136 times larger than Singapore.
For a long time, it seemed that Mindanao was perceived as the backdoor to the Philippines. A closer look at the world map would show that Mindanao has a great opportunity to be the country’s frontdoor to Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Australia and New Zealand.
Mindanao is part of the East ASEAN Growth Area, a sub-regional cooperation initiative bringing together the neighboring areas of the ASEAN countries of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in the BIMP-EAGA, which was formally launched in 1994 in Davao City. The sub-regional cooperation initiative aims to utilize the strategic proximity of the cities and enhance key target areas such as agro-industries, trade and tourism. Aside from the benefits to be from cooperation, cities like Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, and Davao are experiencing significant economic growth, and are visibly becoming a destination of business investment and local tourism because of their emergence as the commercial and business centers of the south.
The Muslim provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-tawi also have great potential being in the center of trade for East Asia. But they would need more infrastructure development, especially in education, health and road infrastructure. Improvement in societal stability should also be addressed to attract more investors.
Prioritizing development projects in Mindanao
Under the Duterte administration, the allocated budget for both the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the Mindanao Development Authority increased significantly. Infrastructure projects are also already in the pipeline like the Mindanao Railway System that will total 2,000 kilometers in length. The proposed railway system will interconnect Butuan, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, General Santos, Surigao and Iligan. Other infrastructure projects in Mindanao will include upgrading and modernization of airports and seaports, as well as road networks that will improve access to tourism destinations and farm-to-market.
Last January 13, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao and pledged a trillion yen for infrastructure projects. The visit is seen to usher in more foreign investments, especially in Mindanao.
Just recently, Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture had the opportunity to help Zamboanga City in the preparation of its Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance.It consists of plans for transportation, tourism, disaster preparedness, and security by design, among others. The plan also advocates an “agropolitan” development for the City of Zamboanga, integrating agriculture and aquaculture production with the necessary urban amenities that will spur growth for the city.
In addition, the Philippines, through the City of Zamboanga can play a crucial role in strengthening trade links with BIMP-EAGA, the Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East. Along with the cities of General Santos, Cotabato and Davao, Zamboanga is identified to be among the selected urban centers in Mindanao for the BIMP-EAGA region. The Zamboanga Peninsula plays a critical role in realizing the medium and long-term goals of Mindanao and BIMP-EAGA which is to become a major location in ASEAN for high value-added agro-industry, natural resource-based manufacturing and high-end tourism that will eventually shift towards ensuring socio-economic, physical development, and a southern gateway to and from the Philippines.
Learning from Metro Manila
Indeed, Mindanao has a great opportunity for development, given the support from the Duterte administration. It would be important to prepare the island for the influx of investments through proper planning and development guidelines, so as not to repeat the mistakes of Metro Manila. At present, Davao City is already experiencing traffic congestion and is feeling the pressure to make necessary improvements to its mobility and transportation given the attention it is gaining from investors.
Comprehensive and collaborative planning is urgently needed as it is estimated that with the rapidly growing population and urbanization, there will be 35 million more Filipinos by 2050. Seventy to eighty percent of them will migrate to the cities. I estimate that with 150 million total population by 2050, the Philippines will need 100 more new cities. Moving forward, planning should not only be short-term and opportunistic, but also long-term and visionary.
I believe that the next six years give our country an opportunity for genuine reform and change. Mindanao is taking a major step in the right direction by prioritizing projects that will improve connectivity, convergence, context, corridors, and networks. Instead of putting up walls, the Philippines is building more bridges. Improving peace and order as well as promoting unity in diversity would also be crucial for growth to be inclusive. With this, bringing the Philippines well into the 21st century – a globally competitive country – will soon be in the horizon.