FROM a do-nothing scenario, Mindanao can reach its high development potential through envisioning alternative futures. In the next six years under the Duterte administration, we have the chance to develop it into a model for cultural assimilation and diversity, and sustainable smart cities that emerging countries and economies can follow.
For the past decades, we have always looked up to Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and countries in Europe and the Americas. And whenever we try to copy the best practices of these countries, many people think it’s impossible, “di naman tayo Singapore”. What these people forget is that since the 1970s countries like South Korea and Thailand have sent their people to train here, to learn from the brilliant minds of the Philippines. We trained their engineers, their agriculturists, even helped them adapt new technologies.
In 1977, the ruler of Dubai hired me as the only Southeast Asian architect to help plan and transform Dubai from a Third World into a First World country. in 15 years. And one of the inspirations of Dubai was the MMETROPLAN Manila 1975-1977 (where I was the senior planner) which planned eight LRT lines in 10 years, bus rapid transit systems, human settlement resiliency, and airports. In 1982, we had the most modern LRT in Asia, and it was my Singaporean friends who reminded me.
Our vision has always been fixated in becoming like one of these countries. No, Mindanao will not be the next Singapore or the next South Korea. It has the chance to go beyond, because we have the chance to learn from their best practices and from their mistakes. We should stop applying principles that were the model 40 years ago, like the car-centric Los Angeles model or even the gated subdivision design of Spanish Intramuros.
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.
The urban future of Mindanao
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 Southeast Asia and Oceania.
Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea are within geographical proximity. Tawi-tawi and Zamboanga can focus on becoming the gateway to Southeast Asia, to the Philippines, and the Davao Gulf region has the opportunity to become the gateway to both Oceania and Southeast Asia.
Zamboanga and Tawi-tawi are so rich in culture and diversity that is unique and cannot be found elsewhere in the country. Davao on the other hand, is fast becoming one of the most critical trading hubs of the country. I think more than half of the people in Metro Manila have not visited Mindanao. Tawi-tawi and Zamboanga have the opportunity to attract more local tourists, and Davao should attract more tourists from the Oceania countries.
With these gateway cities in mind, with economic and trade hubs, it is important to develop primary, supplementary, and complementary production hubs, such as food production, raw-material processing, and education, that will expand the value chain of businesses.
Central Mindanao can become one of the models for the Agropolis (the farm in the city) where food production and city life are well integrated. We can adopt and enhance Japanese and Thai technology, and learn from the agricultural communities of Vietnam. What will make Mindanao agriculture standout is that we will learn from the technology and practices of our neighbors, but our species are naturally sweeter. We probably have one of the sweetest mangoes, bananas, and pineapples in the world. Whenever I talk to foreigners, one of the things about the Philippines they cannot forget besides Manila’s chaotic traffic is the fruits. China and Japan are some of our biggest fans. What farmers in Mindanao should develop is a sense of brand.
East and West Mindanao has the chance to adopt both Aerotropolis (airport-driven city) and Aquapolis (Seaport- and water transportation- driven city) models. In a value chain, the raw materials and processing of goods will be coming from central Mindanao, as well as research and technology centers for agricultural production. Then the edges become the central business districts, logistics and trade hubs, and major commercial centers.
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 has 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 roads. Another important crucial infrastructure that Mindanao should address is power, with a healthy mix of industrial and alternative energy, and potable water.
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.
I believe with visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance, Mindanao can develop into a region that is much better than Metro Manila and can learn from its mistakes. Mindanao should adopt the globally competitive practices of the best countries of the world.