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Philippine peace pact offers economic hope following decades of devastation

DATU ABDULLAH SANGKI, Philippines -- Joey Peneza plants palm trees on his farm in the southern Philippines with fresh optimism, buoyed by a peace pact he hopes will finally see the violence-plagued region prosper.

Peneza spent the past two decades working abroad as a sailor, safe from the Muslim separatist rebellion that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left large tracts of the country's south mired in deep poverty and corruption.

But he returned to the Mindanao region recently to establish a small palm oil farm, hoping that an imminent peace deal between the government and the rebels would finally allow him to make a living at home.

“I am taking a big risk here,” Peneza, 38 and a father-of-two, told AFP on a recent visit to his farm.

“But I'm hoping to get a return on my investment soon.”

The peace deal that helped to lure Peneza home was signed on Oct. 15 in Manila at a nationally televised ceremony overseen by President Benigno Aquino and Murad Ebrahim, the chief of 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The front has been fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country's Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.

The peace pact spells out broad details on how to end the rebellion by 2016, chiefly the creation of an autonomous Muslim homeland on parts of Mindanao.

It also outlines plans to disarm the guerrillas and make them partners in unlocking Mindanao's vast economic potential.

The government has been quick to claim the new deal will draw foreign investors into Mindanao even before a final peace is achieved.

Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo boasted last week of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in planned investments for Mindanao over the next 12 to 18 months.

He said diplomats from Japan, Malaysia, India and France had also approached the government inquiring about investing in the mining, power, manufacturing and agribusiness sectors.

Mindanao is believed to have a large chunk of the nation's estimated US$840 billion in gold, copper and other mineral reserves.

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In this photo taken Oct. 11, a farmer plants palm oil tree seedlings in a farm in Datu Abdullah Sangki, southern Philippines. (AFP)

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