Sustainable future for Mindanao

Sustainable future for Mindanao


Prof. Dr. Cameron Richards
SUSTiP Research Group
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia

A proposed initiative to develop Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, represents an exemplary case study of the challenges and opportunities of trying to balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. How can geospatial technologies contribute?

The resource-rich province of Mindanao, also the second largest island in the Philippines, has long remained relatively undeveloped because of political tensions, armed conflicts, and associated displacements of a significant proportion of the population. However the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (ratified in January 2014) has given an in-principle agreement to not only significant local autonomy in the future but various associated partnerships for future development. The government commitment to this has encouraged renewed interest in the related challenge of harnessing the natural and human resource potential of the island for ‘sustainable futures’.

Apart from the large Christian and Muslim populations, there are also eighteen local Filipino tribal groups in Mindanao still attached in varying degrees to a traditional or at least rural way of life typically viewed in modern urban terms as merely economic subsistence. Much of the island, especially the lowlands of the South, has already been deforested over the decades since the Marcos regime. Yet, Mindanao still contains relatively large areas of tropical rainforest in the mountainous areas of the North.

Tropical rainforest in Mindanao (Copyright:

The RainTrust initiative

The proposed RainTrust initiative in Mindanao represents an exemplary case study of the challenges and opportunities of trying to balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. With the support of the Philippines Government, RainTrust is aiming to link up transnational corporations as well as Filipino investors in ways that aim to benefit local communities and involve an integrated land management plan also preserving existing wilderness areas as well as rural communities.

The first tier for the RainTrust initiative involves effective ‘rental’ of suitable and approved lands for shared profits with the local tribes and rural communities – and an associated global-local industry partnership model of local capacity-building. As well as palm oil crops there are also plans to plant and harvest Napier grass (‘Raincanes’), a fast-growing crop able to last many years with multiple harvests each year. This would be part of a ‘green plan’ to not only provide inexpensive feedstock but also power electricity stations in Mindanao to replace expensive imports of coal from Indonesia with renewable biomass alternatives. RainTrust aims to build state of the art mills to generate energy from the biomass by-products and also recycle waste effluent from the processing of palm oil, wood pellets and Napier grass.

Rice harvesting in Mindanao (Copyright:

The second tier of the initiative relates to associated activities of land-use and community development as well as environmental management and preservation which RainTrust plans to support in its integrated plans. As well as preserving and also rehabilitating key wilderness areas, this includes promotion of Integrated Forest Management Agreements (IFMAs) sponsored by the national Department for Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) which typically involve the Presidential decree formula of ‘cutting 5 and replacing 6 trees’. As well as plans to involve local peoples in various industrial agriculture activities, there are related plans to promote a range of smaller-scale activities to provide diversity and balance in relation to the ‘mono-cultural’ tendencies of the main cash crops. RainTrust mediates as well as promotes industry stakeholder agreements which will ensure local profits will be directed for community capacity-building involving also education, health-care, housing and community facilities on one hand, and on the other micro financing of local enterprises and initiatives.

In many areas of Mindanao, both tiers will also need to be reconciled with existing food crop farming. Several large transnational companies have reportedly shown interest in RainTrust’s Mindanao initiative including the Cargill group. The RainTrust Mindanao initiative proposal represents an opportunity for corporate international investers to (a) apply a deep practical rather than merely superficial application of CSR principles and rhetoric and (b) also take a leadership role in the kind of convergence of different and often conflicting interests needed for future sustainability.

Support by geospatial technologies

As part of its strategy to promote a ‘middle way’ to future sustainability in Mindanao – that is, to promote long-term economic development and social as well as environmental sustainability – RainTrust has conceived an innovative use of ‘digital earth’ technologies and associated models of evaluation (geospatial technologies, geographic information systems and digital mapping, etc.). This part of its operations is called the RainTrust Global Net. RainTrust also aims to fully develop and converge this support strategy in relation to its associated plans (currently being negotiated) to operate a boutique internet television site (RainStorming) devoted to this.

Further, RainTrust is attempting to achieve an innovative convergence for optimal geospatial monitoring and mapping through the exemplary possibilities of Whirl Wind Java (WWJ) as well as the use of a fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or RainCopter" drones. WWJ is open source software developed in partnership with NASA. Designed to run on personal computers with 3D acceleration, WWJ has several functions which make it exemplary and also award-winner software by NASA. It allows powerful visual animations to be transposed on topographic maps, aerial photography, and satellite imagery – a stunning convergence of reality, virtual and mapping functions. But its exemplary aspect is to allow users to ‘zoom-in’ from satellite altitude to any local context on the planet. Exemplified by its representations of NASA’s ‘blue marble’ true-colour image of the entire planet, it does this using high resolution data from satellite databases such as Landsat 7 and SRTM.

Linking global interdependence and local self-sufficiency

Such an approach provides an exemplary use of digital earth technologies for purposes of modeling, supporting and planning sustainability strategies and practices. This is a model of how global interdependence and local self-sufficiency are not only complementary but can be dramatically linked together in terms of how both local and global partners can use new digital technologies for also linking virtual networks of communication with mapping specific areas of local environment.

This suggests the potential for collective versions of the so-called ‘overview effect’ (a cognitive shift in awareness) reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight when viewing the planet for the first time. Conversely this model also provides a focus for local peoples to not only digitally monitor their land and the activities of others on it but also to likewise to link to global telecommunications and support the planned community telecentres to be financed by associated agreements.

This adaptation derives from a paper presented by the author to the 8th International Symposium on Digital Earth (ISDE8) and published in the selected proceedings at IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science ( C.Richards, “Thinking globally and acting locally in Mindanao? Supporting the delicate balance of future sustainability in South-East Asian wilderness as well as rural areas”.