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Wednesday, May 17, 2000

A journey to the highlands of Mindanao


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

He knows that I know it's a scam, but we go through the motions anyway.

Arkin Manlangat hands the photocopies over, talking in his pidgin English all the while as if by distracting me I might yet fall for it.

We are sitting on a rough-sawn bench outside a two-room hut built on stilts into the side of a steep valley, the patches of cultivated land below us doing their level best to fend off the ever-encroaching jungle.

Mindanao is the bread-basket of the Philippines. The fertility of its soil is only matched by the ingeniousness and diligence its people to separating the rare visitor to the mountainous interior from his or her money.

"They're genuine," Arkin says, his hands palms-up as if to show that he has nothing to hide.

I handle the photocopies gently. Arkin has clearly spent a lot of money -- by local standards -- forging these six pages of what purport to be bearer bonds for 13 million pesos. That's about 32 million yen, and a lot of money in any currency. But he's going to do me a deal; because I'm a friend of a friend, he'll let me have them for 6 million pesos. That's less than half price, he helpfully points out.

The official bank seals are quite impressive, but there is a spelling mistake in the first sentence and I don't bother reading any further. I break it to him gently; I tell him I'll have to think about it.

"Don't think too long, man," he tells me. "There's people lining up to buy them."

We shake hands and there are no hard feelings. He knows that he only has to con one person and he can stop trying to eke out a living from repairing the engines of battered tricycles, selling cans of tepid Coke by the roadside, planting rice or whatever else he has to do for a living.

While the highlands of Agusan del Sur Province might be spectacular on the eye, they must break the backs of the people who live here.

An afternoon downpour has covered the streets of Prosperidad, the capital of the province, with a layer of watery mud. People are stepping carefully over the pools where it collects. The only way out of Prosperidad is north to Butuan or south to Davao, along the national route that links the opposite ends of the second-largest island in the Philippine archipelago.

Leaving the coastal city of Butuan had been something of a relief; the recent rains had not eased the humidity and the blue smoke put-putting from the exhausts of too many motorbikes, jeepneys and buses seemed to have congregated to form a dome over the city.

As we started the climb into the highlands, the air cleared and the predominant color changed to green. It was a school day and the tiny shacks selling candy and drinks were besieged by children just out of class in each village we passed through.

Miraculously, each and every child wore a pristine uniform, the white shirts and blouses in stark contrast to the patched and fraying attire of the rest of the population.

In one village that we passed through (which had no signs to indicate that it even had a name) my driver jerked his thumb at a group of youths as they drilled on a makeshift school parade ground with wooden rifles.

They shuffled to an approximation of attention before tucking their "weapons" under their arms and sauntering off. The Moro National Liberation Front is almost unheard of this far east on Mindanao, but it seems that village elders are taking no chances.

The MNLF's struggle for an autonomous Muslim state has dragged on for more than 25 years, and a peace treaty signed in 1996 only served to polarize opinion on both sides and led to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front splintering away to carry on the fight.

The police and the Philippine Army frequently place roadblocks across major routes, overlooked by sandbagged gun emplacements protected by coils of barbed wire. Every so often there are reports of skirmishes between the rebels and the government side, but the Muslim areas are primarily on the Zamboanga Peninsula to the west and no one I met in Agusan del Sur could remember any confrontation here.

My ears pop as the altitude increases and soon the only break in the forest to either side of us is when we cross a river. Clouds inhabit the damp valleys. Pigs and chickens grudgingly make way each time we pass through a hamlet.

Boy (my driver's actual name) grins an apology to me as we hit a particularly deep rut in the road, which has apparently been patched up time and time again but is still cursed with potholes that can cause serious damage to anything slung lower than a four-wheel drive.

Beyond Prosperidad the land flattens and the hills become more rolling, punctuated by marshland and offshoots of the Agusan River. Once in a while a panner working one of these creeks strikes it lucky and comes up with a few grains of gold, triggering a miniature gold rush and raising the hopes of the local people that they too might get rich.

Alternatively, they could follow the road south -- as more and more youngsters are doing -- all the way to Davao City and the promise that the fastest-growing city in the Philippines holds.

The banana, pineapple and coffee plantations peter out and the traffic picks up as we near the outskirts of the metropolis, which sprawls over more than 2,400 sq. km and is home to 900,000 people. Motorized tricycles and jeepneys again compete for passengers.

Burly men in bulletproof vests and mirror sunglasses hold pump-action shotguns across their chests outside banks, more proof -- not that it was needed -- that the highlands are a long way away.

Davao is set out on a grid alongside the river that bears the city's name as it enters the Pacific. The modern St. Peter's Cathedral dominates the center of the city, but where once it looked down on market stalls selling fruit, vegetables and cuts of meat it is now surrounded by electronics stores, fast-food outlets and Internet cafes busy with schoolchildren.

Boy is a country boy at heart and wrinkles his nose at the air in the city. He takes me to a restaurant where he goes each time he has to come to Davao. It is on the coast to the south and the sea breezes keep the smog at bay.

The place is little more than a shack, but it serves drinks and meals at wobbly tables beside the Gulf of Davao. Our view is obscured, however, by a large fishing boat washed ashore in a recent storm and now resting on the sand at an angle. Local kids have made it their playground.

The first San Miguel beer gets the dust out of my throat, the second tastes better. By the time the food arrives -- Boy ordered the bangus, a lightly grilled fish, and a pork dish that uses lots of tiny red peppers -- I'm on my third beer.

The children playing on the stranded boat eventually decide I'm worth having a look at too, so I give them my pen and they take it in turns to write their names. They want me to take photos of them and they pose beside their improvised playground.

In the distance to the west, rising above the curve in the beach, is Mount Apo, at nearly 3,000 meters the highest peak in the Philippines. Trekkers can make the three-day journey to the crater at the top of this active volcano, but the San Miguel is cold and I have had my taste of the highlands.



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