Businessmen turn to talk of trade, not strife, in Basilan

By Ronnel Domingo

Last updated 06:31am (Mla time) 07/14/2007

MANILA, Philippines — Businessmen based in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Friday downplayed recent violence in Basilan province, saying such incidents were confined to remote areas and that the region was actually rife with business opportunities.


Members and officials of the ARMM Business Council and local business chambers gathered at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City to meet up with possible venture partners in Metro Manila, amid concerted efforts to woo investors.


The investment forum was organized with the help of the Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM), a program that is being supported by the US Agency for International Development.


ARMMBC chairman Haron Bandila said 40 members of the group came over to look for joint venture partners for planned investments worth a total of some P1 billion.


The project proposals varied from P1-million ventures like RL Enterprise’s modernization of its palm oil production facility in Tawi-Tawi province, to La Fruitera Inc.’s P800-million expansion of a cavendish banana plantation in Maguindanao province.


“What we achieved [on Thursday] were preliminary talks and matches,” Bandila explained. “We expect to have more concrete results when we convene the 6th ARMM Business Congress in September.”


Luis C. Go Jr., president of the Sulu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said investors should disregard the negative perception about peace and order in the region.


“This is beyond businessmen’s control and, with or without it, we should go on and push forward our enterprises toward growth,” Go said.


According to Sheryl B. Siao, managing head of the ARMM Board of Investments, the region has abundant natural resources, especially idle agricultural lands that offer “endless opportunities” that investors could verify by going there to see for themselves.


“Many sectors and resources are untapped, and there is very little competition so far,” Siao said. “The market is waiting.”


She also said projects that would be registered with the ARMM BoI would be granted incentives, like tax holidays of up to eight years and duty-free importation of capital goods.


ARMM Trade Secretary Ishak V. Mastura added that the region could even be considered a kind of tax haven for some foreign investors because of the tax holidays.


“I mean this in a positive sense,” Mastura said. “They do it as a form of tax avoidance and everything is legal.”


The ARMM is composed of the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.


The officials said ARMM had the competitive advantage in its “excellent agro-climatic conditions,” favorable for crops like corn, rice, abaca, coconut, nuts and root crops.


They also cited its nearness to foreign markets in Southeast Asia.


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