Mindanao, despite its legacy as a strife-ridden region, is still known to us as the “Land of Promise.” Gagandilan Mindanao Women, Inc.—Gagandilan Women for short—is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to peace, development, and women’s empowerment in Muslim Mindanao. The name “Gagandilan”—courageous warrior in the local Tausug language—pays tribute to all Bangsamoro women who have worked so tirelessly for peace.

I founded the organization in Zamboanga City after the infamous 2013 clash between government soldiers and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front that became known as the Zamboanga Siege. Our members are Moros, the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, and we focus our efforts on mobilizing our community for small-scale projects to foster peace and build a foundation for stability in the region’s most vulnerable areas.

Today we run local programs such as orientations on gender-based violence and the role of women in preventing conflict. Our program Women Against Violent Extremism, or WAVE, was a coalition-style movement to prevent violent extremism. Our organization is led mostly by women, and the majority of our field researchers are women as well. In keeping with our commitment to gender equality, however, our researchers on the ground always include men. We focus on the provinces of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi—fondly referred to together as Zambasulta—all on the southwestern tip of the Philippines.

The sea borders to the west of Zambasulta are shared with the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, and Zambasulta has been a maritime trading region since precolonial times in the Philippines. Today, much of this trade takes the form of so-called “barter” that skirts tax and customs enforcement, yet the barter trade brings basic necessities to Zambasulta and has, in some ways, contributed to the stability of the area.

In late 2018, The Asia Foundation invited Gagandilan Women to work on a study of the informal barter marketplace. An initiative of the X-Border Local Research Network, which studies conflict in border regions, the new research project examines the nuances of the barter marketplace and the policy regimes that have both sought to suppress it and allowed it to thrive. We conducted interviews and gathered data from traders, boat operators, port authorities, and other people and institutions that contribute to informal trade in Zambasulta. We wanted to know what people were trading, how much they were earning, and how they were able to slip across international borders.

For a prosperous trading region, Zambasulta has earned a notorious reputation for its decades of violent conflict due to lawless elements like Abu Sayyaf, kidnap-for-ransom gangs, clashing political groups, and the episodic clan violence known as rido. Gagandilan Women hoped the X-Border project would be an opportunity to show the world a Mindanao beyond the conflict, and a Zambasulta that is home to the diverse cultures of several indigenous groups, including the Samal, Tausug, and Yakan peoples. We also saw a chance to grow as an organization by committing our time, resources, and network to a project that was larger than our previous undertakings.

The Asia Foundation encouraged us to take the lead in developing local data-gathering strategies, and they incorporated many of our ideas and insights into the research design. The Foundation provided training on interview and data-collection procedures and created a rigorous safety protocol, an important consideration given the sensitive nature of our inquiry and the volatile areas where we would be working. This was driven home for us by a kidnapping in Sulu, where some of our interviews were to take place. The incident caused us to reevaluate our approach to interviews and to plan our local movements strategically and with the utmost caution.

In 2020, we continue to work with the X-Border Local Research Network, focusing on rice, the primary commodity traded from Sabah, Malaysia. The informal rice trade in Zambasulta has come to a crossroads, with a new semi-autonomous regional government looking to support the local economy while the domestic market is flooded with imported rice, and we’ve set out to see how barter traders and the public are being affected.

In the midst of our fieldwork in Sulu, a serious fire broke out in the capital city of Jolo in February. Thousands of people were affected by the conflagration, including several of our intended respondents. One pillar of Gagandilan Women as an organization is humanitarian engagement, and we changed gears to provide assistance to victims of the Jolo fire, working with various partners such as local government agencies, student organizations, and other civil society organizations to organize clothing donations. In the end we were still able to complete our intended interviews through local contacts.

We have completed the first round of research on the rice trade, and despite the temporary restrictions on movement caused by Covid-19, our work with the X-Border Network in Zambasulta will go on. In the meantime, we have been helping local governments distribute masks and pandemic information. Ultimately, we hope our research will help the Philippine national government and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao bring lasting peace and security to the Land of Promise.