Datu Paglas banana plantation gets a new lease on life, says Piñol

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews /27 June) — The total closure of the banana industry in Datu Paglas town, Maguindanao — the Philippines’ “arms-to-farms” success story in the late 1990s showcased locally and abroad – has been averted with the parties reaching an agreement to revive the venture,  Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, chair of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), said.

Piñol said he was instructed by President Rodrigo Duterte to settle the problem involving the closure of La Frutera, Inc, which displaced 2,000 workers, mostly former members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The plantation is “set to start rehabilitation soon,” Piñol announced in a statement last week, a little over a month after Duterte issued the order.

La Frutera, Inc.’s headquarters in Barangay Digal, Buluan, Maguindanao on 19 May 2021. The plantation straddles the towns of Datu Paglas, Buluan and Pandag in Maguindanao. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

In a special report published on May 24, MindaNews reported that, unknown to the public, La Frutera had stopped operations for almost two years already. Since the firm started operations in 1997, at least 1,200 hectares of land had been developed for the production of table-dish Cavendish bananas for the export market.

Haji Mohamad “Tong” Paglas, Sr., chair of Paglas Corp., La Frutera’s ancillary service provider and local partner, confirmed the closure in an exclusive interview at his office at the municipal hall on May 19. Paglas is also the vice mayor of Datu Paglas town.

Paglas said La Frutera stopped operations due to its failure to access a bank loan to finance its operations and expansion plans.

He expressed concern over a possible return of the bloody past if the problem of unemployment is not addressed. On May 8, some 100 armed members of the Islamic State-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) briefly occupied the Datu Paglas public market.

Before La Frutera started operations in 1997 in Datu Paglas and nearby Buluan, the capital of Maguindanao, travelers would dread pass the highway due to security issues. The Moro rebellion was raging, unemployment was on the rise and poverty forced many to go into banditry. Ambush incidents were common.

Paglas said the displaced workers and their family members can become vulnerable to recruitment by the BIFF, by preying on their disgruntlement and poverty, if they remain unemployed.

Pinol said that after a series of consultations and negotiations with the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), La Frutera and Paglas Corp., an agreement had been reached recently that could lead to the rehabilitation and reopening of the banana industry in Datu Paglas.

The banana plantation established by La Frutera, Inc. has not been maintained and left to the mercy of nature in this photo taken on 19 May 2021 in Barangay Kayaga, Pandag, Maguindanao. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Present during the meeting in Datu Paglas town on June 10 were Piñol and his staff, DBP Director Rogelio Garcia, DBP – Southern Mindanao Vice President Annie Veloso, members of the Paglas family and Alberto Bacani, president of Unifrutti Philippines, Inc.

It was agreed that the Paglas family, which owns at least 500 hectare of the banana plantation, will take over the operation of their area through Paglas Corp. and acquire the assets of Unifrutti Group Philippines, which is owned by John Perinne, Piñol disclosed.

Unifrutti agreed to provide technical and management assistance to Paglas Corp. in rehabilitating the plantation and make it productive in one year, he added.

Piñol said that DBP agreed to finance the rehabilitation and operation of the plantation under Paglas Corp., with the total loan amount to be based on the assets of the corporation.

Unifrutti will provide Paglas Corp. a marketing agreement, which would ensure the repayment of the loan acquired from DBP, he said.

Since the area to be reopened is only one-third of the original area which employed about 2,000 workers, many of whom are former rebel combatants, MinDA recommended to Paglas Corp. the implementation of a work rotation schedule so that all workers could be accommodated.

Mohamad “Tong” Paglas, Sr. (Al Haj), Datu Paglas Corp. chair and Vice Mayor of Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, talks about fears of continued closure of the banana firm and efforts to revive the industry in his town in a sit-down interview with MindaNews on 19 May 2021. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

In a text message,  the chair of Paglas Corporation told MindaNews they formed a technical working group to work out the requirements needed by DBP.

“There are a lot of requirements that we need to comply with before DBP can approve our loan,” he said.

Pinol noted that with the settlement of the problem in the Datu Paglas banana plantation, MinDA will now focus on the resolution of a similar problem that led to the closure of another banana plantation operated by Al-Sahar Agri-Ventures, Inc in Talayan, Maguindanao, which also employed former rebel combatants. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)