Island Trading in the Philippines

Women traders in the Philippines province of Sulu met in the island’s capital, Jolo, on 28 February, to discuss legalising their trade.

Sulu women traders in the Philippines
Sulu women traders in the Philippines. Photo © Jorge Golle

The women make their living by selling Malaysian-made goods without government permits. The province’s proximity to what is now Malaysia’s northernmost state, Sabah, has facilitated an age-old trade between traders from the two communities.

Traders from Sulu and the neighbouring island province of Tawi-Tawi buy staples such as rice, sugar and cooking oil in Sabah, rather than in the Mindanao mainland, and sell these in local markets. The trade routes were unhampered in centuries past, but with the border drawn between Malaysia and the Philippines, local traders’ activities have become illicit and the goods they regularly buy in Sabah are now deemed as smuggled.

The conference, organised by Alert’s partner the Lupah Sug Bangsamoro Women Association Inc., was the first in what will be a series of events on this topic. “The activity was the start of a conversation that could lead to the formulation of policy,” said Fatmawati Salapuddin, founder of the Lupah Sug. A meeting with Tawi-Tawi’s women traders is also planned.

The meetings are part of a three-year project funded by the Australian government that seeks to institutionalise a regulatory framework for the Sulu Peninsula’s women traders.

At the meeting, Sulu’s women traders said they are willing to pay taxes, which would be passed on to consumers anyway, rather than continually pay bribes so government officials won’t seize their goods. These bribes result in fluctuations in the price of goods and confiscations occur despite the payment of these illegal fees. This has created food insecurity among Sulu’s residents, said the traders.

Fatmawati said the project is the first ever to target the transition of the traders from the informal to the formal economy, adding that Lupah Sug will study models that will suit the traders’ situation. One of these is the Mindanao–North Sulawesi (Davao–General Santos–Tahuna–Bitung) sea route, which allows goods to bypass Jakarta, bringing down prices while invigorating trade between this part of Mindanao and North Sulawesi, a province of Indonesia. The Batam Island (in Indonesia) and Myanmar free trade zones will also be examined.

The project also aims to formalise Muslim Mindanao’s informal land markets and stem the proliferation of illegal firearms. Activities on these two areas of work are expected to start in March.

The project has been dubbed ‘Build-up’, short for ‘Building legitimate institutions for a durable peace: Minimising conflict risks and maximising peace dividends in the Bangsamoro’. Its objective is to mitigate violent conflicts in Muslim Mindanao’s shadow economies (specifically cross-border trade, informal land markets and illegal guns) while the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front engage in peace negotiations.

Find out more about our work in the Philippines.