If you had visited the conference room of the Lantapan municipal legislative office in Purok-2, Barangay Poblacion, Lantapan Municipality in Bukidnon Province this last Thursday, you would have found the swivel chairs filled not with municipal lawmakers but with farmers from the five Lantapan coffee industry clusters. Each of these five grower collectives, organized with the initiative of the Diocese of Malaybalay Social Action Center, is named for the barangay where the cluster is located, and the assembled farmers represented the clusters of Kaatuan, Baclayon, Bantuanon, Capitan Juan, and Poblacion. The farmers wore paper name tags, but the placards on the long tables at which they sat identified the absent lawmakers. Because of this odd juxtaposition, the municipal and provincial officials who had called the farmers together began at one point to address them as “Honorable Ging” and “Honorable Cesar,” and everyone had a laugh at this.
Lantapan’s Department of Trade and Industry had invited the farmers to participate in a two-day training program titled “Coffee Training: From Nursery to Coffee Processing,” and presented by the PeaceBuilders Community Team. PeaceBuilders Executive VP Joji Pantoja and roasting expert Silfred Abelitado (Kuya Freddie) from the Davao office, together with Pastors Clay and Maria Rojo and Pastor Eduardo Isada from the PeaceBuilders Bukidnon team lectured the assembled farmers on many and various aspects of the coffee business, including planting; nursery establishment; planting stock selection; potting and maintenance in the nursery; and proper harvesting, and finally Kuya Freddie gave a demonstration of manual coffee roasting. The teaching team expounded the advantages of the highly-sought-after arabica coffee species over the less in-demand robusta species which the farmers have been cultivating up to now. They brought along arabica seedlings and beans in the husk ready for planting.
Among those eager to try planting the arabica were Edgar and Vilma Inson of the Bantuanon cluster. Besides farming, Vilma also serves as the Department of Trade and Industry’s agricultural technician for barangays Kaatuan and Baclayon. She told me that the four hectares which she and Edgar farm are surrounded by a banana plantation owned by a multinational corporation. In this plantation, chemical insecticides are used. The aerial spraying of the banana trees causes a number of problems for the Insons, as well as for other fruit, corn, and coffee farmers whose land adjoins plantations run by international companies. When the bananas are sprayed, the insects flock to the small farmers’ patches instead, and overspray is thought by some of the farmers to cause respiratory problems. The chemicals also cause water contamination, and the drift of the spray from the plantations to the small farm plots means that farmers close to the plantations cannot sell their own products as organic, even if they do not employ any chemicals themselves.
Often, Lantapan farmers cannot compete with the international companies and instead opt to lease their land to the companies and work for a daily wage growing company produce on land that was previously theirs alone. Vilma told me that many farmers become only laborers on their own land. Poblacion farmer Pacita Jurolan said company wages are small. From her explanation of the realities of labor in Lantapan, I gathered that if you have some land, you can lease your hectares and labor and thus be a permanent worker, if a low-paid one. But non-landowners can only work short-time on a non-contractual basis. Several farmers told me that the companies will only employ a laborer for a few months at a stretch in order to avoid paying any benefits.
We were saddened by the stories we heard from formerly independent farmers struggling to compete in a global economy where middlemen and corporations seem always to have the upper hand. But the PeaceBuilders team and Coffee for Peace have high hopes that by training farmers to produce high-value, grade-A arabica coffee and to process the beans themselves, we can enable the farmers of Lantapan to realize greatly increased earnings and to never again come under pressure to lease their land and sell their labor to the advantage of international corporations.