MANILA, Philippines – The country's most prominent businessmen and business groups flocked to Malacañang Palace on Monday, December 19, for the benefit of a small, embattled province in the southern Philippines: Sulu.
Tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan, SM's Tessie Sy-Coson, taipan Lucio Tan and his son Michael Tan were among the businessmen present at the "Negosyo Para Sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu: Christmas Town Hall with the President."
In the same hall as the country's billionaires were small agribusiness entrepreneurs from Sulu, Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto, local government executives, and Cabinet secretaries.
The guest speaker for the event was none other than President Rodrigo Duterte who, according to Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, kickstarted the Save Sulu project by ordering Piñol to visit Sulu last September and see what could be done to help improve the lives of farmers and fishermen there.
Photo from PPD
Piñol quickly got in touch with Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez and Presidential Adviser on Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion who thought of promoting entrepreneurship and linking Sulu farmers and fishermen to big businesses.
The idea snowballed with more and more business groups pledging support in various ways.
Below is the list of pledges made:
San Miguel Corporation
Bounty Fresh Food Incorporated
Lucio Tan Group, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Incorporated (FFCCCII), and Representive Arthur Yap
KAPATID Agri Group
Aside from the commitments above, trade chief Lopez said the government wants to partner with top retailers to help Sulu farmers and fishermen earn more income.
His department has asked big companies like SM, Robinsons, Adobo Dragon Group, Rustan's Group, and Puregold "to allocate a specific space in their malls for free" to make products of small Sulu agri-entrepreneurs, farmers, and fishermen accessible to more buyers, said Lopez.
Screenshot from RTVM
These "GO Local" stores are intended to "provide a sustainable market for the agri sector, especially for our poor farmers," he added.
Duterte is also giving direct assistance to the initiative with his contribution of P1 billion from the Office of the President's budget to be used for loans for micro and small entrepreneurs.
P50 million of this will be just for Sulu projects and entrepreneurs.
"For the Sulu projects, we are happy to allocate P50 million for the Sulu farmers and all our projects that we will do for Sulu to jumpstart the economy in Sulu... If we do well, we can do another P50 million for that area," said Lopez.
Agriculture chief Piñol, meanwhile, said his department is giving tractors and farming implements to farmers for free and providing them with training.
Former Sulu governor Abdusakur Mihail Tan thanked the government and private sector for their help for his province, a group of islands unfortunately more famous for being a stronghold of terrorists and kidnap-for-ransom groups than for its rich natural resources and beauty.
Tan said he regrets the 67% poverty incidence rate in Sulu which is way above the national average of 21%.
"We need education. Even the criminals would like to see their children have medical attention, to have livelihood, to have homes, to have roofs over their heads, to have food on their tables. So we have been saying that war alone can never solve the problem. We need to address poverty," said Tan.
FFCCCII president Angel Yu agreed that Sulu has "so much potential" for business and tourism but that the security situation has "hindered" its growth. (READ: Risk and relaxation: What it's like to tour Sulu)
Duterte, in his speech, repeated his firm belief that "no progress or development can come to a country if there is no law and order."
Will the Duterte administration bring peace and prosperity to Sulu?
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.