FIELDS OF HOPE: MalMar Irrigation Project Phase 2 (Cultural Sensitivity)

I remember going to the secluded area in the interior of the Liguasan Marsh for the first time. I went there to talk to both the political and military leadership of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). I remember the first meeting with the MILF political officer. I asked him three questions.  First, I asked him whether they accept government projects in their communities.  The MILF commander said, “Yes, of course, as long as these projects don’t destroy our communities.” 

Second I asked him whether they would like to help us in monitoring the projects.  And he said “yes” they are willing.  The third, I asked him if they could secure my safety.  Few months before that, a foreign missionary priest was kidnapped in Marawi. The ‘kumander’ said, “Yes, as long as you coordinate with us when you come.”  I remember as we were talking to each other, there was a .45 caliber pistol on top of the table. 

The next time I went there, the nature of our conversation became more casual and it was done over a cup of coffee.  The .45 caliber pistol was no longer there.

At least 98 million pesos were poured in by the government to rehabilitate those affected communities.  In fact, I was still monitoring the construction of the high school building in Rajahmuda when the all-out-war happened in 2000.  Many of the projects that the government implemented there were, in fact, destroyed by that war. 

To some extent, in remote barangays in (Southwestern Mindanao), there are different structures of governance and each possesses power and influence.  This is undeniable.  This is the reason why I took that initiative talking to MILF leadership in the Liguasan Marsh.  I thought that they could become partners even in government projects since the projects would benefit their own communities anyway.

Nowadays, this is even easier because of a strong ceasefire mechanism and the existence of the Bangsamoro Development Authority or BDA.  The BDA is an interim agreement between the GRP and the MILF.  It is tasked to lead, implement and manage rehabilitation and development projects in conflict-affected communities.

I am always with the conviction that before any project, big or small, is implemented in the area, that people must first be consulted whether they want that project or not.  In my own experience of doing rehabilitation projects in Pikit, the most important thing and the key to the sustainability of the project is that people must have a sense of ownership of the project itself.

Since the local inhabitants are recognized as part of the project, they would feel that the project is also theirs. In effect, they would also feel responsible for the project.  They would maintain it and preserve it. In my own experience, they are even sometimes willing to contribute their labor as what the people of Nalapaan Space for Peace community in Pikit have done with the solar dryers project of PDAP (Philippine Development Assistance Project) in 2002.

Initiated by their sitio leader, ten farmers were assigned to work one day and another ten on another day and so forth and so on while the women prepared their food.  It is called in many traditional communities as ‘Bayanihan” which means working together voluntarily.

A group of women decided that the first set of goats be given first to a cluster of women because of limited resources.  Then, the offsprings were distributed to another cluster of women.  It was a case of Muslims giving goats to Christians and Christians giving goats to Muslims.  It was more than just a project.  It was about helping one another.

My reflection is that, any project that is just imposed on the community without them having a sense of ownership of it runs the risk of encountering a lot of difficulties from virtual rejection to sometimes physical destruction. It is important, therefore, that people in the community need to understand what good this project will bring to their community.  It can be done at a barangay level in coordination with barangay officials.

Some traditional communities have their own understanding of what development is.  What is development for some may not necessarily be development for others.  But sometimes the reason for people’s resistance to a particular project is not because the project is bad in itself but that the people are not properly informed about the benefits of the project to their community and the wider community.

MALMAR project is not just a development project.  It is also a peace-building project that aims at addressing one of the root causes of rebellion in the countryside.  Hence, a careful look at the way the project and its various components are implemented should be given proper attention.  Development does not automatically mean peace even though how good the project is. 

There is one thing in development work that I learned. It is called the INI or the inadvertent negative impact of any project.  These are the negative impacts of the project to the community which may not necessarily be intentional on the part of the project implementer. Even in relief and rehabilitation work, this could happen if the implementer is not conscious. What happens is, because of the project, the local residents have begun quarreling among themselves, getting jealous of one another, etc, etc. and nothing is being done about it. If it goes this way, then, the project has become a source of conflict rather than a source of peace.

This situation happens especially when the process is taken for granted.  I found out that in any political, social or economic endeavors, the process is just as important as the content.    

I have seen how government projects are implemented in Pikit.  I have seen how local and international NGOs, both humanitarian and development NGOs, implemented their projects in Pikit.  I have seen which projects succeeded and which projects did not succeed.  I have seen too which projects created unnecessary negative impacts in the community.  Some projects even created more problems and conflicts in the community, this time not anymore fought in the battlefields by combatants but triggered by NGOs and fought in a different manner by the civilians right in their own communities. 

My own impression of the phase two of the MalMar project is that there is ample time being given to the process and it takes substantial importance of the role of the community and other stakeholders.  The social component and other integral components of the project are certainly very important and are valuable ingredients that will definitely contribute to the success of the project, God willing.

Having said this, I would like now to share a few concrete social and cultural aspects that you may want to consider.  For many traditional communities, central to their community life is the harmonious relationship between and among the local residents.  The project, therefore, should not only build an irrigation project but it should also aim at building a community.

Along this line, activities that enhance community building such as values formation, Culture of Peace and Inter-religious Dialogue could be developed. In the Culture of Peace seminar for example, the local residents are introduced to the different forms of biases and are taught how to handle them. They are also taught how to resolve local conflicts in their own communities using negotiation and mediation skills.

The barangay development council is a body that can serve as a partner in the implementation of the project as in the case of the Space for Peace communities in Pikit. However, there are problems in the community that the elders and religious leaders can help solve using traditional approaches in resolving conflicts.

Right now, it’s possible that there are still unresolved land conflicts in the area that may be triggered by this new project. It’s important, therefore, that attention must be given on how to resolve some of these local land conflicts before the actual implementation of the project begins. 

As I understand it, the actual implementation of the project will take at least six years to complete.  Strangers will go in and out of these communities.  Depending on how they behave, they may be received by the local residents with a welcoming hand or even offer their home hospitality.  But they could also face rejection by the community. 

I think it is common sense that strangers going to a particular community should respect that community and its people.  Especially in traditional communities, people have established certain codes of life that govern their day to day living.  In some of these communities, there are do’s and don’t’s.  The land for some is sacred and exhibition of vices in public places such as drinking, gambling, etc are prohibited and may be perceived as desecration of the place and insult to the religion of its people.

Non-Muslims who may be employed in this project should be aware that relating to Muslim women has certain limitations.  Taking a bath virtually naked in public may be doomed scandalous and should be avoided by outsiders especially by non-Muslims.  

For Muslim workers, there are religious duties and festivities that they observe to fulfill their religious obligations. It may be good to be sensitive on this matter. 

The phase two of the MalMar Irrigation project may well be the future of Pikit and its neighboring towns.  Depending on how it is implemented and how it is accepted by the community, it can usher in a new life for the people of these localities who have been living in extreme poverty and have experienced repeated displacements because of armed conflicts.  I wish this project a success. 

(“Fields of Hope”  is Fr. Roberto C. Layson’s column for MindaViews,  the opinion section of MindaNews. Father  Layson is former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato and presently the coordinator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculates' Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the 2004 Ninoy Aquino Fellow for public service. He