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Maria Luz Go: Building a Legacy of Peace through Enterprise Development in Mindanao

Posted: 2015-06-17

Maria Luz Go joined the Mindanao Bridging Leaders Program (MBLP) of the AIM TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Leadership in 2011. Go has a degree in Management Engineering from Ateneo de Davao University. It is her mission to apply her technical expertise and the discipline of management in her work for peace development in Mindanao.

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Maria Luz Go was born and raised in Mindanao, a land populated by Muslims, Indigenous Peoples (original settlers of the land) and Christian Filipinos whose ancestors had emigrated from Luzon and Visayas and founded communities in Mindanao. Though they lived in the same land, there was general distrust among the tri-people which stemmed from a long history of conflict and injustice. 

Go, growing up in General Santos City1, observed that at the root of the injustice is discrimination enthused by the kanya-kanya or “each-to-his-own” mentality. Mindanao is a land rich with natural resources, but as the population grew and migrants poured in, resources with which the people sustained themselves and from which they earned their living became limited. Indigenous groups had portions of their ancestral lands taken away from them. Ironically, the original settlers who used to get enough nourishment from the land they owned fell into poverty, while the migrants who had the capacity to transform the plantations into livelihood, prospered. 

“The Muslims and IPs were saying that the abundant plantations now owned by the huge corporations used to be theirs; the corporations are now earning so much, yet the original settlers remained poor and were relegated to the sidelines. It is but natural for them to wonder and ask, ‘How come they did not include us in their economic development?’”

“I could not stand it whenever people say they are almost always hungry, especially the Blaans,” she says. Despite the challenges brought about by deeply-rooted conflicts, Go was passionate about bridging this divide and achieving peace in Mindanao. When asked why, she replied that she was doing this for her children. 

“My personal desire is to leave a peaceful Mindanao as a legacy to my children. I realized that everything that my parents accumulated in terms of wealth and land resource has not translated into real economic gain because of peace and order disruptions. Aside from that, the sister of my husband was kidnapped during the heights of unrest, and as a family member, I participated in the consultation with the government rescue task force. I witnessed how difficult an ordeal it was for the family; the same thing might happen with my children if I don’t take action.”

A VINEGAR-MAKING ENTERPRISE FOR PEACE

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When Go joined the Mindanao Bridging Leaders Program (MBLP) of the AIM TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Leadership (AIMTEC) in 2011, she was the Chairperson of the Mindanao Tri-People Consultancy Services Cooperative (MinTriCo) and the SOCSARGEN2 Peace Network, Inc.

Wanting to address the divide among the tri-people in Mindanao, Go initiated the project entitled Kapatid Kong Blaan, Kasama Ka sa Kaunlaran (We Progress Together, My Brother Blaan). It was a vinegar industry development project implemented in Barangay Saravia (in Koronadal City in the province of South Cotabato) where most residents were involved in coconut farming, and the production and selling of vinegar.

Vinegar-making has been a traditional livelihood among the families who knew the formulation. Even before Go came to Barangay Saravia, a vinegar association has already been formed through the assistance of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). However, the different sectors of the vinegar industry were not well-represented as the association was mostly composed of vinegar vendors only. Go thus observed an inequitable sharing of income which favored the vinegar vendors. Inevitably, distrust formed among the different actors in Barangay Saravia’s vinegar industry. Go explained,

“The vendor earns two- to three-folds higher than the coconut farmer or tapper on every 20 liter-container of vinegar. For instance, purchased vinegar from tappers cost 120 pesos; after repackaging the vinegar into one gallon jugs, the price increases to 280 pesos net. When processed into spicy vinegar, the vendor’s gain is tripled. Though everyone belongs to the same vinegar industry, how come one sector earns more than the other? We have poverty and shortage of food in the rural area because producers of raw materials do not have equitable economic share. It is this issue that the project aims to address – people have to start being concerned of others, especially those who belong to the same industry.” blnews-photo03_maria-luz-go.jpg

Go wanted other groups to be part of the association, and saw that the vinegar industry could be a good venue for the tri-people to try working together and thus build trust among one another. She saw the opportunity of developing an enterprise that will allow the tri-people to increase their productivity and their income, and the Blaans to improve on their self-esteem.

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Through the enterprise, Go wanted to ensure that economic development is mainstreamed in all groups, especially the Blaans. However, convincing the Blaans and the Maguindanons to join the venture was not easy. The continued discrimination was discouraging for the Blaans, while the Maguindanons disliked that the association was producing tuba3, believing that tuba is haram4 or sinful, thus prohibited.

Despite the difficulties, she pursued the vinegar-making joint venture for the tri-people believing that it offers an alternative approach to achieving peace in Mindanao. Go continued to talk to the groups to constantly push the point that “What we are trying to achieve (through the project) is a higher level of equitable share of wealth.” Going beyond income, however, the complementary business activities also provided opportunities for the tri-people to interact more often, resolve their longstanding conflict, and build new relationships among themselves.

BUILDING THE ENTERPRISE WITH OTHERS

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Go engaged various individuals and organizations in the process of building the enterprise. She identified the different actors in the community as well as their possible participation in the project and the resources they are capable of sharing. These involved leaders and officials from the barangay, the city government, various national government agencies, and external resource agencies. They met regularly and assisted in identifying market outlets, ensuring product quality, and increasing the morale of the members of the vinegar association.

From the academe and civil society, Go invited Dr. Fred Bidad and Czarina Saikol of the Mindanao State University (MSU); Danny Salino of the SOCSARGEN Peace Network; Antonio Marin, Jr., President of the Saravia Tri-People Rural Workers and Entrepreneurs Association (STRUWEA); and Fr. Angel B. Buenavides of the Church where she engages in volunteer work.

From the city government and the barangay, she involved the kagawad and the barangay captain of Barangay Saravia, and Dr. Peter Bascon Miguel, then mayor of Koronadal City. The Barangay Council gave their full support to the project and proved to be most helpful in organizing the communities and emphasizing the need to keep the Blaans engaged. Go also asked the assistance of the Barangay Captain and the village’s community organizer to help in encouraging other groups to be part of the association. Seminars were conducted to orient them about the objectives of the project. Later on, some Blaan families agreed to join, and the Maguindanons agreed to be suppliers of chili, an important ingredient of the sinamak (spicy vinegar). The association grew until all tri-people in the village were well-represented.

Go, together with the other leaders she has engaged, ensured community ownership of the project believing that “development cannot happen without the people acting as the prime mover – I only act as the facilitator.” Their leading collaborative action was to organize all the groups involved. They then formulated new policies, which the tri-people preferred to call “kasabutan,” or “agreement.” 

CO-CREATING A PEACEFUL FUTURE IN MINDANAO

blnews-photo05_maria-luz-go.jpgThe vinegar enterprise enabled many families to increase their monthly income by 50 percent (from PhP 1,500 to PhP 3,000 per month). More importantly, the families are now able to set aside a portion of their income as savings. 

Aside from being a solution to low productivity and insufficient income, the vinegar enterprise was a catalyst for peace and development. It became a venue for the tri-people to collaborate for a common purpose and work together towards common goals. For Go, the biggest success of the project was having been able to inspire a change in mindset among the tri-people from kanya-kanya to a more communal one. Further into the journey, it brought her profound joy to hear one of the members utter with conviction, “Hindi kami lalaki kung kami lang.” (We couldn’t grow our business on our own.)

All these became possible because she was able to establish a good working relationship not only with the Blaans but with the rest of the community. Through the MBLP, she harnessed her character as a leader who is “more proficient with the management of the project with the people.” Go used to believe that the vision depends on the leader, and leadership was shepherding others towards goals that have already been set. But then, she realized that the true meaning of leadership is “sharing the vision and influencing others to participate and to create a desired future together.”

 

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1 General Santos City (GenSan) is the southernmost city in the Philippines. It is considered part of the SOCCSKSARGEN region (officially designated as Region XII) located in Central Mindanao. GenSan is geographically in the province of South Cotabato but administered independent of it.

2 SocSarGen is an acronym that stands for the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani and General Santos City.

3 Tuba is a kind of local wine made from coconut.

Haram is an Arabic term meaning sinful. It is used to refer to any act that is forbidden in accordance to the Islamic commandments. If something is considered haram, it is considered prohibited, no matter the intention or the purpose.

*Maria Luz Go is a Bridging Leader from Mindanao and is one of the Fellows of the AIM Team Energy Center for Bridging Leadership. Her story is featured in the book One Purpose, Shared Future: Bridges of Peace in Mindanao, published by the Office of Research and Publications of the Asian Institute of Management.

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