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Filipinos swap guns for rakes

US-funded seaweed farms offer a model of economic revival for militant regions.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2002


They used to call him the Singing Commander for the guitar he'd exchange for his M-16 after a hard day on patrol in the jungles of the southern Philippines. But Haji Abdullah Usman says "Seaweed King" better suits him now.

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His transformation from Muslim rebel commander to manager of a thriving seaweed cooperative may point the way forward for the softer side of the Bush administration's war on terror: The effort to use aid to bring peace and order to the places that are currently breeding grounds for extremism.

Mr. Usman says that when he led his men out of the jungle following the Moro National Liberation Front's (MNLF) 1996 peace agreement with the Philippines, it was a joyous moment, but also a terrifying one: What, he wondered, are my men and I going to do now? The MNLF's 40,000-member army had been fighting since 1972 to create an independent state on Mindanao, the island home of most of the country's Muslim minority.

As an MNLF leader, he had received an education at Libya's Al-Fatah University in the mid-1970s. But thousands of his comrades had been fighting in the jungles of Mindanao since they were teenagers.

Their skills were confined to warfare, and Usman worried they might be driven to banditry if peace didn't provide them with tangible returns. He watched them grow restless as the status and relevance they once felt as warriors diminished.

"We came out of the jungle because we wanted our children to go to school, get married, have the lives that we didn't. But none of that happens without jobs." In 1998 the jobs came, thanks to grants and technical assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

US officials say they recognized that the 1996 peace agreement signed between the Philippines government and the MNLF wouldn't hold unless the former fighters found an economic stake in keeping the peace. After all, it was a peace agreement, not a surrender, and most of the MNLF fighters retained their weapons. "Heavily armed and unemployed is never a good combination,'' says one US official.

The USAID grants, now called the Livelihood Enhancement and Peace Program (LEAP), helped Usman and 800 of his fighters learn the seaweed trade. Today, the Taluk Sangay Seaweed Cooperative is flourishing in the gentle waters of the Sulu Sea off Mindanao's southern coast.

The cooperative sells seaweed to Japanese processors, who turn it into additives for items such as candy bars and ice cream.

Alih Amsani, a rebel-turned-seaweed farmer with a wisp of a mustache, breaks into a gap-toothed smile when asked about the benefits of working rather than fighting.

He points to his two children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, both of whom go to school - something he never had a chance to do. "Before we had to carry guns in the jungle, no money, and never knowing where we'd be. Now I'm making a living and own a house,'' he says, pointing out that he now makes about $2,000 a year. That's enough to buy his most prized possession - a 5.5 horsepower Honda outboard motor that he stores in his kitchen when he is not using it to check on his seaweed.

Poverty is far from the sole cause of extremism. But the absence of economic alternatives in places like the Southern Philippines, say experts, creates lawlessness and hopelessness - fertile conditions for terrorism.