Longtime Coffee For Peace (CFP) barista Catherine Moreno Olitao wants the Philippines’ small farmers to hold onto their land. She sees how the modern, globalized economy squeezes the life out of traditional family based agriculture, pressuring poor rural folk to cash out and move to the city. Catherine’s farmer relatives live under this strain, and she is proud that her work at CFP helps address the deep-seated economic injustices that plague Philippine agriculture.
CFP not only trains farmers to cultivate high value arabica coffee trees, but also seeks to bring them into a partnership with the company – at first by paying the farmers fair trade prices for coffee cherries, and later by giving them a percentage of the net profit from coffee sales. At the same time, CFP works to educate farmers about the real value of their small land plots. Catherine tells me how wolfish businessmen routinely prey on farmers, first by dictating rock bottom prices for produce, and then by offering to purchase the farmland for a lump sum which appears substantial to a poor farmer but is actually far less than the land is worth. “If I’m a farmer, I don’t hold that kind of money ever,” Catherine explains, “So [I] will say ‘Yeah, Sure!’ . . . But [the farmers] will be the ones who are sorry. Because all that money will blow away. But the land will never come back.”
Of course, the real worth of the farmland depends on the value of the crops it can produce. This is why CFP is also working to improve the reputation of Philippine coffee globally and at home. Catherine extols the virtues of Philippine coffee to the patrons of the CFP café and among her own relations. In so doing, she confronts the middleclass bias in favor of imported commodities. Filipinos, she tells me, tend to set small value on “native” products. Air-conditioned malls are stocked with imported goods, while local wares are haggled over in the broiling open air market. So when CFP offers its “native” coffee domestically, it cannot count on the kind of boost that “American made” products receive in the US. Instead, CFP’s baristas find themselves explaining why a product such as someone’s aunt might cultivate on her back lot and haul to market slung over a motorcycle is being accorded the same prestige as if it had come from Europe.
As it happens, the coffee CFP sells is some of the world’s best. Grown in the volcanic soil and temperate, high-altitude climate of Mt. Apo, it has earned high marks in international cuppings. But most importantly, say CFP’s baristas to their customers, paying fair trade prices for a local product makes it possible for smalltime Filipino farmers to retain their holdings and educate their children. While the North American public has been comprehensively indoctrinated on conscientious consumption for at least a generation now, in the Philippines “buy fresh; buy local” and “fair trade” are still in their infancy. Nevertheless, many of the CFP café’s patrons have expressed support for the company’s mission, as well as eagerness to participate. This increasing public engagement is the reason why CFP – who export the bulk of their coffee to Canada and the US – also maintain the small café in Davao City. They hope it will serve as a demonstration model to inspire other Filipino social entrepreneurs, and it appears to be fulfilling that mission. Catherine is proud of her role in the first wave of her nation’s fair trade movement.