MANILA, Philippines - Somewhere in the Southern Philippines is an island called Mindanao, a place where people can while the time watching the setting of the sun and where children can play freely until the moon shines on the dry earth. It is a place where people dance barefoot to their own music, blind seers belt out songs on the karaoke and children carve out images from their dreams on the pristine white sand of the beaches in the island.
A lot of people, however, don't know about this. The Mindanao that is read on the pages of international newspapers and local dailies is just one part of the place that is called the Land of Promise.
Stories about the Philippines's second largest island are usually always about killings, kidnappings and terrorism. Mindanao is portrayed as a war zone of never ending conflict.
In the end, the real stories on the roots of the Mindanao problem are muddled with news of gore and blood, of terrorist groups and beheadings of priests and kidnap victims and of massacres and lawlessness.
Filipino photojournalist Jes Aznar, who has done extensive work in Mindanao, laments the fact that news on the island are usually commodified.
"The problem is that stories on Mindanao are commodified. Mindanao has become a source of stories that will cater internationally and can play nationally. These are stories depicting terrorism and stories linking local groups to (the global terrorist network) Al Qaeda. For journalists, that is how it works. The more stories you file, the more you earn," Aznar says in an interview with this blogger.
What happens is that journalists tend to filter the stories and choose which ones are attractive to the international and national audience.
In real life, Aznar says, Mindanao is not like that at all.
Ultimately, the real story of Mindanao is the lack of genuine development due mainly to the plunder of resources by those in power, he says.
"What's happening in Mindanao can represent what's happening in the Philippines. What is happening in the Philippines, you will see it in Mindanao, ten folds. It's a microcosm of the Philippines. Everything is happening in front of your eyes. There's the issue of land. There's the issue of corruption. There's the issue of poverty. There, anything goes. It's like the wild, wild West. Everything that is happening is happening in front of your eyes," Aznar says.
For him, he says, the biggest issues are the culture of impunity that is prevalent in the island and rampant corruption.
"It's a remote island. It's far from the seat of power so if you're the government, you can do anything you want with the resources," Aznar explains.
Indeed, Mindanao is a place of bountiful resources with major crops such as rubber, banana and pineapple. Fruits such as the exotic durian abound, too. It's also rich in metallic deposits. According to the Mindanao Economic Development Council, an agency under the Office of the President, gold mined in Mindanao accounts for nearly half of the national gold reserves in the country.
As a photojournalist, Aznar always tries to work independently. "I don't choose what stories I do. I wouldn't consider myself an authority in Mindanao so everything is for discovery. I'm surprised indeed that there are a lot of stories in Mindanao. I was surprised with the stories I discovered. The biggest is the culture of impunity and rampant corruption," he notes.
He says journalists should scratch beneath the surface and look beyond the stories on terrorism. For his part, Aznar has done stories on the lives of internally displaced persons caught in the conflict in Mindanao, warlordism and rido or feuding among families and clans.
But for as long as the newspaper, wires and television reporters and photographers continue to focus merely on the blood and gore and all other stories on war in Mindanao, the real stories of people's struggle for genuine sustainable development would never be heard. The small voices of children who long to go to school and their parents who need to survive with proper employment, food and healthcare will fade in the background, drowned by the sounds of guns and bullets and the victorious laughter of corrupt government and military officials counting money shared from ransom payoffs.