Banana workers, including ex-rebels, appeal for help amid Maguindanao plant closure

Arianne Apatan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 01 2019 06:53 PM

Workers worry about what will happen to their children if the banana plantation they are working for in Talayan, Maguindanao stops operating. Arianne Apatan, ABS-CBN News


TALAYAN, Maguindanao - Over a thousand employees of a banana plantation, including more than 600 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have appealed for government's help as their company submitted a notice of cessation of business operations here. 

On Monday, employees of Al Sahar Ventures, Inc. gathered outside the packing area of the company with placards asking President Rodrigo Duterte's help. 

This, after the company submitted a notice of cessation of business operations before the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE) of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) on September 24.

Sangaban Datumanot, 53, worked as banana harvester in the plantation for 5 years. He hoped that the company would still resume its operations. Three of the 6 children of the former MILF combatant still has to go to school.

“Nakapag-aral ang mga anak ko dahil sa saging. Ang hiling ko sana ang mga saging matuloy para makapagtapos ang mga anak ko. Ang panawagan ko na ang saging at planta sana matuloy, hindi na mahinto," said Datumanot.

(I was able to send my children to school because of this work. I hope this continues so my children could finish school. My appeal is for the bananas and the plant to continue and not cease operations.)

Tabai Abid works in the packing area of the banana firm. This has been her family's main source of income for almost a year now.

"Kawawa kami na mga tao, paano ang mga anak, hindi na makakain, wala nang trabaho," said Abid, whose husband is also a former MILF combatant.

(What will happen to the people? What will happen to our children? We won’t be able to eat, there’s no more work.)

Al Sahar Ventures, Inc., was established in Talayan in 2014. The company has 2 more banana plantations in Datu Odin and Buldon, all in the province of Maguindanao, with a total of 1,039 employees.

"Gusto ng mga taong ito na manawagan kay President Duterte para ‘di tuluyang magsara ang company. Ayaw na nila ma-experience pa ng mga anak nila 'yung na-experience nila as rebelde. Dito nila kinukuha ang pang-aral sa mga anak nila," said Nathaniel Midtimbang, farm director and president of the Mananabang Corporation.

(These people are appealing to President Duterte so the company won’t close down. They do not want their children to experience what they went through as rebels. The job enables them to send their children to school.) 

The company’s cavendish bananas were being exported to the Middle East. Its stakeholders had poured an initial amount of P502 million for the project, anticipating financial support from the Bangsamoro Investment Facility, now called the Harvest Fund.

The Harvest Fund, supported by the Japanese government, was set up in anticipation of the establishment of the Bangsamoro government and designed to encourage investments into the region. 

The Harvest Fund, offered by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, was at $120 million in 2015. Later, it was decreased to $40 million.

BARMM spokesperson Naguib Sinarimbo said the amount funneled through the LandBank of the Philippines.

Last year, Al Sahar applied for a nearly P3-billion loan at the LandBank and the Development Bank of the Philippines, but the amount was not released. 

According to its owner John Perrine, the company was established to heed the call for private sector investment in labor-intensive, high impact agricultural projects in conflict areas.

Perrine said there was a sense of urgency to start these projects to provide what MILF Chairman and now Bangsamoro Government Interim Chief Al Hadj Murad Ebrahim called "beacons of hope"- for combatants to see that there were "dividends of peace."

The specific locations of the plantations were also near MILF base camps.

"Without the anticipated support of the LandBank or the DBP, despite the substantial equity we already invested and the workers, we have already exhausted our financial resources and now have no choice but to close the operations," said John Perrine in his letter addressed to MOLE-BARMM.

The Bangsamoro government is aware of the situation and said it would reach out to the LandBank. 

FIRM COULD NOT ACCESS HARVEST FUND

Sinarimbo said the corporation had access to capital, but they expanded the company’s plantation in anticipation of accessing the Harvest Fund.

“The HARVEST Fund is really designed for allowing corporations operating in the region to have access to capital. Ang naging problema hindi nila ma-access 'yung fund na 'yun, hindi pa natin alam kung saan 'yung problema (they could not access the fund, we don’t know yet where the problem lies),” Sinarimbo said.

Sinarimbo vowed to reach out to the LandBank and to the national government’s Department of Finance to better understand the matter. 

“May naka-access na banana plantation in Das, Maguindanao and Lamitan. Ang alam natin ay nasa LandBank ang pondo, ang fund na 'yan. Hindi natin alam kung saan ang problema doon sa pag-access, kulang ng documentation, may problema doon sa availability ng fund, hindi pa malinaw ‘yan,” he said. 

(A banana plantation in Das, Maguindanao and Lamitan were able to access it. We know that the fund is with the Land Bank. We still don’t know where the problem is… lack of documentation, availability of funds…it’s not clear yet.)

BARMM's Ministry of Interior and Local Government said it would meet with the region’s Ministry of Finance to discuss what possible assistance they could extend to affected employees.

The Bangsamoro government is certain the closure of the company won't lead to a security issue.

“It is a serious concern but I don't think it will pose a security threat," Sinarimbo said, adding that MILF members have discipline and follow the leadership. 

Sinarimbo, however, admitted that the banana plantation's halt in operations would have an effect on the investment climate in the region.