U.S. investors exploring Mindanao

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — American businesses are in the country to explore investment opportunities in the Philippines, especially Mindanao.

“It's really challenging times around the world, but the Philippines is one of the growth stories and one of the great new stories,” said Alexander Feldman, who chairs the business council between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“Our companies are thinking about how they can expand what they're doing in the Philippines, how they can serve greater markets in the ASEAN through the ASEAN Economic Community, as well as beyond,” Feldman said in a forum on Thursday.

It is an opportune time for the delegation to visit, Philippines-U.S. Business Council Chair Jose Cuisia, Jr. said, as the Duterte administration begins its six-year term.

If President Rodrigo Duterte had one overarching plan for the economy, it’s to bring development to the regions, he explained. It’s a plan that aims both to decongest Metro Manila, as well as spread around the benefits of growth.

The focus on Mindanao, especially, is long overdue, local business leaders told the prospective investors.

Mindanao is the second-largest island in the Philippines, with more than 10 million hectares. There are vast tracts of land that can accommodate locators. The region also has the resources, particularly for the agriculture, energy and tourism industries, they cited.

The Mindanao Business Council (MinBC) already has a growth plan for the region that investors can use as a guide.

According to MinBC Chair Vicente Lao, South-Central Mindanao acts as the food basket, accounting for about half of the region’s agricultural production. Its biodiversity also makes it an ideal place for eco-tourism.

Northern Mindanao hosts heavy and large industries. It acts as a gateway for those who need to trade in the domestic markets.

Meanwhile, Western Mindanao specializes in fisheries. It’s also a good jump-off point for exporters, given its proximity to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

The US-ASEAN delegation raised longstanding concerns about Mindanao: its transport infrastructure is lacking and its trade links with the rest of the country, weak.

Lao admitted it was often cheaper to ship to other countries from Mindanao. This benefits exporters, like banana growers, but it makes things difficult for those that only have raw materials that need further processing in Luzon or Visayas.

Amendments to the Cabotage Law should help bring down freight rates, he said. Airport, seaport and railway projects are also in the pipeline to better connect Mindanao.

Optimistic about security

Chief among investor concerns, of course, was peace and order. The rogue Abu Sayyaf group carried out a string of kidnappings and beheadings in the last year. Duterte himself warned of a growing ISIS presence there as well.

However, Cuisia was optimistic security would improve soon.

“With no less than the President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate President all hailing from Mindanao… all committed to attaining lasting peace with legitimate armed groups, I see no reason as to why situation the will not significantly improve in next six years,” Cuisia said.

Despite these concerns, Lao said talks were progressing well. He was tight-lipped, but he hinted a deal could be wrapped up soon in the agriculture and poultry business.

“We’re willing to hand-hold any business who wants to invest in Mindanao but is not sure yet. We need more corporate farms in Mindanao,” Lao said.

Moving forward, Feldman said the US-ASEAN Business Council hopes to be back in the Philippines in November. If things go according to plan, a high-level group comprised of Asia-Pacific presidents of multinational companies will visit Davao and tour Mindanao.