In a cinderblock-walled courtyard half shaded by palm and balete trees, in the quiet Davao City subdivision of Juna, stands the industrial array of Coffee For Peace (CFP). Bamboo drying frames and stacks of hard plastic tubs flank locally fabricated de-pulper and roaster machines. Close by are tables for sorting beans and, in an adjoining room, a large digital scale with boxes and burlap sacks for overseas shipping. Once every two weeks, up to the courtyard gates rolls a heavy Isuzu truck piled with bulging plastic sacks. Perched atop the sacks are farmers from CFP’s partner community on the slopes of Mt. Apo, the towering volcano to the west of Davao City. Silfred Abelitado meets the truck. He is CFP’s expert in the complex process of rendering world class coffee from raw cherries.
Kuya Fred, as he is known at CFP, supervises the unloading. He directs farmers and CFP warehouse workers alike as they pour the fresh coffee cherries from the sacks into tubs for rinsing, then into the de-pulper machine. From the de-pulper, the naked beans go back into the tubs for fermentation. Later, after the farmers have eaten lunch with the CFP crew, taken payment for their cherries, and departed for their homes and fields on the mountain, Kuya Fred oversees the next steps of the production process. There remain many laborious hours of hand stirring and squashing the beans from their mucilage coatings, spreading them across the bamboo platforms to sun dry, cracking off their parchment hulls, and finally roasting them to a minutely precise degree — not a hint of a tinge too dark or too light. And all through the process Kuya Fred is controlling quality, seeing to it that rotten or unripe cherries go to the compost pile, that the beans on the drying beds are raked and re-raked to prevent mildew, and that no broken or worm-eaten beans ship under a CFP label.
Though always working to boost his warehouse team’s efficiency, Kuya Fred never tyrannizes. A good natured, paternal foreman, he is always quick with a song or a joke, lifting their spirits as he toils with them through the stagnant, baking Davao afternoons. He considers the CFP staff, and that of CFP’s sister organization PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI), his second family. It has been ten years now since he came to CFP/PBCI, but his coffee work began decades before that, in the plantation fields of South Cotabato. It was in those fields, also, where Fred’s peace building career began, as he forged friendships across Mindanao’s cultural divisions of Lumad, Moro, and migrant.
When Fred was a small child, his family left their native Iloilo City, on the Visayan island of Panay. Like thousands of Visayan families over the course of the twentieth century, the Abelitados migrated south to Mindanao. More sparsely populated than the Philippines’ crowded central islands, Mindanao offered Visayan migrants a chance to build a better economic future for their families. The Abelitados sojourned five years as tenants on a rice farm in M’lang, North Cotabato before moving on to Polomolok, South Cotabato, where they raised corn.
This was in the early to mid-1970s, during the Philippines’ long night of Martial Law. These years also saw, as a corollary to the Martial Law repressions, the high water mark of armed rebellion by the New Peoples Army (NPA), climaxing in the government’s Operation Scorpio, which captured “Kumander Dante” — NPA founder Bernabe Buscayno. For Fred, attending elementary school in South Cotabato, the frequent concussions of aerial barrages striking NPA positions nearby shook his nerves until he grew used to them. More distressing, to Fred, was the death of a playmate’s father, a government soldier killed by an NPA marksman.
Sporadic fighting continued in South Cotabato into the ‘80s, as Fred entered young adulthood. He joined neither side of the struggle, but continued his family’s trade of farm labor, tending coffee trees on a plantation not far from his parents’ house. His coworkers were Moros, Lumads, Illongo migrants like himself, and migrants from other parts. Fred is no sectarian; he socialized without prejudice. He found a special affinity for members of the B’laan tribe, indigenous to South Cotabato. He made a number B’laan friends, visited their villages, and lamented the the cruel poverty he saw there. With their tribal holdings diminishing steadily under the influx of newcomers, the hungry B’laan clung to survival. Theirs was the experience of nearly all Mindanao’s Lumad tribes, and Fred could do little for his B’laan friends but commiserate.
On the plantation, one harvest season, Fred took special notice of one of the contract workers brought in short-term for the cherry picking. She was an Illongo girl whose family lived in Davao City’s Mintal district. As she and Fred plucked coffee cherries side-by-side, working from tree to tree down the rows, he courted her. Their marriage a few years later took Fred away from South Cotabato to Mintal. He lives there today, with his wife and daughters, and commutes by jeepney to Juna for his CFP work.
Ten years in, the processing routine is scientifically streamlined and partially automated, as described above — not like in the early days at CFP, when Fred roasted the beans in an aluminum bowl above a gas flame. Back then, one kilo took three hours to roast, and left Fred’s skin, hair, and clothes pungent from smoke.
He hand roasts only occasionally these days, to demonstrate the technique to farmer collectives who want to process their own coffee but have, as yet, no roaster. Instructing CFP’s various groups of partner farmers in every facet of the coffee craft, Fred takes pride in the role he plays in improving their earning powers. One CFP partnership gives him special satisfaction, because those farmers are B’laans growing coffee on the slopes of Mt. Matutum in South Cotabato, not far from where Fred’s parents still reside. These tribespeople are among CFP’s largest suppliers. Decades ago, Fred’s heart ached for the tribe, but he did not know how to help them. Today his work with CFP helps empower B’laans and many others to earn steady and reliable income, and to raise themselves out of poverty.