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Introducing Fair Trade High Above the Clouds

In the last posting, I wrote about Vie and Basil Reyes’ approach to localizing Fair Trade as a step-by-step process. I was interested to learn more about their work so we went to the northern mountains of the Philippines to meet their partners and see their coffee roasting machines in local communities. What I found clarified much about the step-by-step process they were speaking of when I met with them.

Chou and I took the 9-hour overnight bus to Banaue, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is only an hour up the curvy mountain road from Lagawe in Ifugao province, so I might as well enjoy the sights while conducting my inquiry! Besides, this trip is self-funded, so I can set my own agenda... Perks aside, the inquiry went forward a day later.

In Lagawe, I met with Father Valentin and Father Marion, priests at the local Roman Catholic parish. I was interested in what they were doing and how they came about forming a local farmer’s cooperative, CoRDI, which is  both a short reference for Cordillera Mountain range and Coffee Research and Development Institute. We met over a freshly brewed coffee sitting at the KAPEHAN, the small café situated on parish grounds between the church and the school. Father Valentin holds Master’s in Development Management and established the Social Action and Development Center which is run out of the parish. Upon meeting him I quickly realized this was no regular priest! 

He explained his involvement in the local community, “Since 2001, I involved myself in the promotion of Indigenous Peoples Rights by conducting Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) education… I also involved myself with environmental education and monitoring of government projects because we are trying to promote good governance. Later we tried to do political education, especially during the elections. We are trying to explain to people regarding the patronage politics that influences all aspects of our life, especially in development direction.” 

Like many countries around the world, patronage politics is the Achilles heel of democracy. Father Val explained, “Politicians run for office, but it is too expensive, so who will support them? Contractors, gamblers… [Once in office] politicians decide on development projects based on the needs of the contractors. We call them ‘juicy projects’ because instead of responding to the real needs of people, they are responding to the financial interests of the contractors.”

I could understand the interest a Catholic priest would have in promoting good governance, but I was curious how the Social Action and Development Center got involved in coffee production. He shared his experience in conducting environmental education with people living high in the cloud forests of the Cordillera Mountain Range. “They were converting their forests into vegetable gardens. Of course we asked why. They said that it is because they also wanted to survive. We asked them what were the alternatives, and our approach was from the perspective of faith and religion. We said, ‘Look, God created everything, and He made everything for us to survive. Now we are destroying it.’ They said, ‘How can we survive also? We have needs like food, education for the children, health.’ I asked them to list their existing resources and they named several fruits and coffee. For the fruits, we convinced them to have training in Sante Fe on how to harvest fruits, to turn fruits into jam, juice and fruit preserves. They went back and they were successful. We thought since they were successful, we needed to introduce another source of income, and we went into coffee.”

Father Marion, interim manager of Cordi Cooperative

I was impressed! I was speaking with a Father who was very in-tune with the needs of his flock. Typically the people in this area needed only one hectare to support their family, and Father Val inquired as to why they needed more and turned to tearing down the forest. “I found that the rich people, the capitalists, come in and offer capital for the farmers. They would say, ‘do you have a forest?’ The farmer would say yes. ‘Do you want to convert the forest to vegetable garden?’ And the farmer would say yes. ‘Then cut down the trees’ and later come in with the heavy equipment to level the land. Then they would say, ‘here is your capital for vegetable seeds and inputs like fertilizer and pesticides’. At harvest time the capital provider would say, ‘I will bring the truck and carry your vegetable to the trading post.’ Then afterward, the capitalist would say, ‘this is the remaining balance.’ It was a very small income for the farmers for four months labor. The farmers realized one hectare is not enough, which was the intention of the capitalists.

My question is this; why is it that you hear in Manila the price of the cabbage is around 30 or 40 Pecos per kilogram, even 60 Pecos, but here in the trading post it is 5 or 10 Pecos? It is a very big difference. No wonder the farmers say that one hectare is not enough and have to clear more and more.

Ifugao Kape, product of the Social Action and Development Center

Father Val went on to discuss the role of a syndicate that is controlling the local trading posts and shipping the mountain grown vegetables to Manila. We also discussed possible alternatives, such as his fruit jam and preserves project. Those are sold by the Sisters at the Good Sheppard in Baguio, the nearest city halfway to Manila. “The sisters are trying to help the farmers and for those producing organic food. Good Sheppard Sisters is an established outlet. There are many food products there, and one on display is Ifugao Kape.”

Father Marion, me, Father Valentin and the user-friendly Bote Central Coffee Roaster

With the coffee roaster from Bote Central, the enterprising priests have set up two coffee brands made by CoRDI. Lagawe Blends is made by the cooperative and sold locally at KAPEHAN. Ifugao Kape is the brand made for the Social Action and Development Center, and the market range for this premium blend reaches into neighboring provinces. In the discussion, they confessed their need to work on the marketing side of the venture. Chou and I decided that one thing we could do was buy ten bags of the Ifugao Premium Blend, and give them away to possible buyers and retailers we come across in the journey. 

When we returned to Banaue, we sat with the owners of two lodges listed in the Lonely Planet – that influential guidebook that exerts an inordinate amount of influence over backpackers from all over the globe. Both were receptive to our sales pitch advocating they buy and promote coffee grown and roasted by their neighbors. We even did the calculations of scoops per cup. Selling a cup of freshly brewed coffee for 35 Pecos (US $0.80) would net them over 500 Pecos per bag in profit. Admittedly, it was a bit strange for the lodge owners to be given a sales pitch by a couple of dusty tourists toting the coffee roasted from an hour down the road, but we had fun. We gave away all ten coffees on our journey back south with contact information to reach Father Val. 


Credits to MITCH TEBERG and her JOURNEY TO FAIR TRADE blog. Click HERE to view the original article.

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