TWO weeks ago, after several months of self-imposed grounding, I hit the road again due to several urgent matters and concerns that have to be settled with my clients in Mindanao.

I crammed some clothes into a canvas bag, synchronized my notebook files with my desktop PC and dumped stuff and a lot of “padala” at the back of my car and took the roll on-roll off ferry for Cagayan de Oro, my take-off point for Bukidnon, Davao, and Cotabato.

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As nature would have it, the ferry arrived in CDO at low tide and because the ramp was too steep to drive up, the car had to be unloaded by forklift -- a case of roll on-lift off. Nonetheless, after a few minutes of breathtaking suspense as the forklift maneuvered in the cramped loading deck, the car finally settled on terra firma, and I was on my way.

Cross-country driving has always been a panacea to my overtaxed psyche. To be sure, the 500-kilometer drive from Cagayan de Oro to General Santos recharges my mental batteries, drained by the stresses of urban life and market battles. The changing landscapes along the Mindanao stretch of the Pan-Philippine Highway relax my mind and provide just the right mood to devise many a corporate strategy and contemplate on a lot of things “from cabbages to kings”—to borrow from Lewis Carroll—from the mundane to the profound.

More significantly, interaction with people across the island gives one a glimpse and feel of the political and economic pulse of Southern Philippines. For instance, the recent shift of crops from rice and mangoes, to bananas in Davao del Sur and North Cotabato is an indication of changing commodity demands, not only in the domestic market, but also more importantly in the foreign setting. The rise of new shopping malls in the cities of Cagayan de Oro, Davao, and General Santos points to increased purchasing power and changing market behavior. Somehow, these indicators are a fascination for my economist mind.

On the other hand, the Mindanao political landscape can be puzzling in contrast to that of the rest of the country. Where most areas in Luzon and the Visayas tend to be very reliant on and subservient to the national government for their sustenance, Mindanao tends to be independent and decisive. No wonder, we see a procession of national political wannabes courting the Mindanaoan vote.

As in any other place, the politics of Mindanao is explained by the nature of its economy. Here is an island conveniently located outside the typhoon belt, blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and self-sufficient in food and energy. While the economy is still primarily agricultural, Mindanao is not dependent on the domestic market for its products; a large portion of its production is serves the global market.

Not a few people have the impression that Mindanao is a backward underdeveloped frontier with terrorists and bandits lurking at every turn and bend. In fact, many are surprised to know that one can go around the island on thousands of kilometers of first-class highways. Yes, many of Mindanao’s infrastructure projects are much better than that of say, Rizal province despite the latter’s proximity of Metro Manila.

It is not entirely an empty speculation, therefore, that should the island secede from the republic, it will be a nation several times richer than the rest of the archipelago. It is no surprise that there has been a continuing attempt by forces to break away and establish an independent state.

While Negros and Mindanao are agro-industrial economies, there is a chasm of difference in the economic, and thus, political structures of these islands. Most agricultural lands in Mindanao are owned by independent farmers who are in control of their means of livelihood. There are large plantations in the island, but these are not haciendas where laborers are entirely dependent on the owners of the means of production for their existence. More often than not these are corporate farms comprising leased lands and contract growers. Thus, while the hacienda system in Negros has the effect of controlled votes, there is virtually no such thing in Mindanao.

Indeed, long neglected by the state, a lot of Mindanaoans achieved what they have through self-reliance and arduous struggle. They are jealously protective of their independence and cannot care less about the stunts of “imperial envoys” from the central government in Manila. Their choice of leaders will not be influenced by celebrity endorsers, corny television commercials, or the color of dress and money.

One thing is certain. Elections will still be determined by Mindanao for some time to come.