Extreme Poverty Remains King in Mindanao

Photo Credit: Philippine News Agency

By Lois Ramilo
Staff Writer

Heading into 2023, the Philippines was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with the expectation that it will continue to increase at a rapid rate. However, despite the positive economic forecasts, it’s become apparent one year later that not everyone is able to reap the benefits of the prophecy. Within the second-largest island of Mindanao resides one of the largest communities of religious and ethnic Muslims in the Philippines, making up almost a quarter of the entire nation’s population in a country that is strongly Catholic. Even though the Muslims in Mindanao have long been inhabitants of the region and still make up a respectable part of the Mindaonaon population, biased discrimination against the minority Muslim population has long plagued the region with tensions regarding their faith even sparking numerous conflicts. Considering the historical abandonment of Mindanao and its people by both colonizers and the Philippine government, it comes as no surprise that the region lags in economic development and is hindered by high rates of intergenerational poverty. 

The issue of inequality and poverty in Mindanao is anything but new. From the days of Spanish colonization in the 1500s to American imperial rule after the Spanish-American war, many “Moros,” the main term used to describe these ethnic minorities, were pressured to convert to Catholicism or Christianity. Those who refused were forcefully displaced from their traditional territories in Mindanao and were looked down upon by both the Americans and the Christians who relocated to the region. The continual oppression provoked the creation of several Moro separatist movements throughout the 20th and 21st centuries against the Philippine government, resulting in many stretches of violence, political unrest, and a huge displacement of people from their homes, with the most recent instance being an attempted siege of the city of Marawi in 2017 that lasted five months, displacing 100,000 people and killing hundreds. Due to the unresolved tension, an uneasiness between Christians and Muslims still remains. Stigmas against Muslims have barred them from reaping societal benefits, like getting a stable job or even being seen as equal citizens

The lack of political stability has also severely impacted the region’s economy and overall development, as the numerous turmoils have left it one of the poorest areas in the country. Mindanao has “long been a conspicuous outlier” with an overall poverty rate of 62% while the Muslim minorities living there hold the “highest levels of within-group inequality and the lowest socio-economic scores,” despite accounting for approximately a quarter of the total population. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM)– the autonomous region transferred to Muslim separatist groups by the government that was also the main hotspot for violent skirmishes– held one of the highest rates of poverty in the Philippines at around 30% in 2021. However, a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station in 2022 revealed that almost 59% of Mindanaoans consider themselves poor. The disparities they experience largely stem from colonially-rooted religious discrimination that has culminated into the current inequality, preventing them from experiencing free and fair opportunities and upward social mobility. 

The disparity between government reports and how those living in Mindanao view their own wealth shows firsthand how out of touch the Philippine government is in truly understanding how concerning poverty is among Muslims in Mindanao. Since the island lies far away from the bustling capital of Manila and Muslims are a minority in the dominantly-Catholic nation, Mindanao remains at the bottom of the government’s to-do list. The long-standing tensions between the two religious groups only further decrease the level of urgency among government officials to properly address poverty in Mindanao. The impending poverty and economic stalemate in the second-largest island of the Philippines combined with the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic only proves how urgently both the Philippine government and the international community need to act to develop the region. 

As a planned course of action, economics and experts alike recommend reinvestment in Muslim communities and local industries. Despite the damages made to the infrastructure by prolonged violence, Mindanao holds many intriguing resources that can lead to profitable markets with both domestic and international investors. For instance, valuable mineral resources, particularly gold, can help grow the economy, and agricultural resources, like corn, can aid in food insecurity issues. The Philippine government can set the foundation for long-term trade and investment with other countries and tap into the untouched growth potential by creating incentives to invest and fostering business connections in these areas through effective policymaking. Partnerships with local and regional development efforts are integral in order to further gain insight into what policies would also be most effective for the communities. Regional committees, such as the Bangsamoro Planning and Development Authority (BPDA), have achieved some levels of encouraging progress in overseeing the redevelopment progress but report a lack of cooperation from the local government, impacting the speed and efficiency of support. A simple willingness to work together with BARMM officials, along with political support from the president, would signal promises for the future of Mindanao.

Another proposed course of action would be for Mindanao, and especially BARMM, to further seek the support of international organizations. Both the UN and the World Bank have developed and enacted plans specifically for Mindanao and its economic development. Both organizations have successful track records with other developing nations in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. To ensure long-term economic and political stability, both the international organizations and the Philippines must continue partnering together to further invest in basic needs and infrastructure for Mindanaoans.

Mindanao’s long history of poverty and ostracization from the national agenda has greatly contributed to its current myriad state. If leaders of BARMM and the Philippine government are able to partner in permanent peacemaking, it would become a golden opportunity for investors to pour into Mindanao and its Muslim communities once again. Simply put, the scars of history need to be healed in order for the seeds of the future to be properly planted.

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