Blaan farmers at Mount Matutum in Polomolok, South Cotabato, started coffee farming in 1987, with a multinational food and beverage company as primary client. Marcelo Buan, a Blaan farmer FSSI spoke with in 2013, said coffee farming used to be a ‘big headache’ for them because they earned close to nothing from the cheap coffee price. They could not afford to send their children to school nor buy clothes for them. They later on abandoned over 85 hectares of coffee plantation.
Mt. Matutum, which supplied 18% to 25% of fresh water requirements of agriculture and industries in Southern Mindanao, had been heavily abused. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the impact of massive destruction was apparent, with strong flash floods, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity and soil fertility felt by local communities. By 1992, only 3,500 hectares of Mt. Matutum’s 14,000 hectare-forest cover remained because of illegal logging and kaingin or slash-and-burn activities. Mt. Matutum was also under threat from encroachments of banana and pineapple plantations contracted by large enterprises.
In 1992, various groups including civil society organizations (CSOs), government, and foreign aid agencies started multi-sectoral conservation efforts. By 1995, Mt. Matutum was declared a protected landscape under Presidential Proclamation No. 552. After some years, development aid for the area started to phase out when conservation efforts resulted in favorable outcomes. With no more external funding, the major challenge for advocates was sustaining the conservation efforts.
In 2006, NGO worker and agricultural engineer Fred Fredeluces established the Greentropics enterprise, with the idea that locals would be empowered in managing forest resources if these could provide for better living conditions.
Fred had devoted 11 years of his life to the conservation of Mt. Matutum as part of the Mahintana Foundation, which was the lead agency in the environmental cluster of the coalition of social development CSOs spearheading efforts to rehabilitate Mt. Matutum. In the ‘80s, Fred managed a private coffee farm near the forest.
Having forged good relations with Blaan coffee farmers from Matutum, Fred was able to convince them to go back to coffee farming and strictly follow fair trade practices. To encourage the farmers, Greentropics bought their coffee beans at Php 110 to Php 150 per kilo, which was more than double the price which traders offered farmers at Php 50 to Php 70 per kilo. At this price point and with the cost of coffee growing and harvesting pegged at Php 45 per kilo, farmers were able to get a 50 to 150 percent return on investment. Currently, for every 100 kilos of fresh coffee cherry, farmers earn Php 3,663, which is 300% of their previous Php 1,000 gross income.
Fully convinced that farmers could get more than what they were earning as coffee producers, Greentropics engaged the farmers to be involved in the whole coffee value chain. Fred noted that companies which make it big in General Santos City thrived because of coffee processing. If farmers were to incorporate coffee roasting and packaging, they would be able to have a return on investment of 1,000 to 1,500 percent. To realize this, Greentropics partnered with social enterprise Bote Central, Inc., which designs and builds coffee roasting machines. The roasting machines, which are suitable for smallholder farmers, made it possible for the farmers to economically process and sell their own coffee, paving the way for community-based coffee roasting business facilities. Through this, farming communities were able to add value to their raw coffee beans and create additional sources of income for their families.
Previously marginalized, eighty-five (85) households of upland coffee farmers have markedly improved their quality of life. There has been more food on the table and children have had better health. Coffee farmer Marivic Mosquera said their family is now able to eat three meals a day and can afford to have viand with rice. Children can also now afford to go to school. In the past, the highest educational attainment for Blaans in the community was Grade 3. There are now two Blaan youth who were able to graduate from college. Marivic’s son Ian Dave Buan Mosquera is the first Blaan youth to have graduated from college. He took up BS Hotel and Restaurant Management at a private college in General Santos City. His brother Zaldy graduated from Mindanao State University in 2020 with a degree in BS Psychology. With the Blaans of Matutum empowered, they are also able to preserve their culture and take pride in their indigenous identity. Many have gone back to bead-making and enhanced their traditions.
When Greentropics started in 2006, the area for arabica and robusta coffee plantation in Mt. Matutum was only 40 hectares. This expanded to 163 hectares in 2018. Aggressive planting at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when community quarantine restrictions were in place further grew the coffee farms to 500 hectares. There is greater interest in coffee farming with communities being able to experience themselves its livelihood potential.
This has also resulted to increased awareness on biodiversity protection, leading to an enhanced wildlife habitat and watershed. Mt. Matutum is home to the palm civets.
Civet coffee, the world’s most expensive and rarest brew sought after by coffee afficionados, is made from beans that have been consumed and excreted by palm civets. The beans from the droppings of the civet cat are highly prized for their aroma and taste, said to be brought by enzymes that mix with the coffee berries passing through their digestive tract. Unfortunately, the lucrative industry has led to unscrupulous traders trying to meet the demand by poaching and caging civets, often in terrible conditions. When Greentropics began acquiring wild and ethically sourced civet coffee from farmers, Fred was able to convince the Blaan tribal council to ban the hunting and consumption of the civet cat. The success of civet coffee has encouraged the communities to be stewards of wildlife conservation. In 2017, when fire engulfed a portion of Matutum, Blaan communities mobilized to help the local government put out the forest fire and protect their coffee plantations.
The once-marginalized communities in Mt. Matutum from four barangays of Polomolok have organized themselves and formed the Matutum Coffee Producers Association. Fred says the goal is to help them create and establish their own brand.
“It won’t be a competition with Greentropics but instead a complement. The aim is for us to serve as big brother so they can work collectively and manage their own affairs. Greentropics won’t be here forever. That will be the legacy,” says Fred. Currently, Greentropics is working on the expansion of coffee areas and conversion of grassland into coffee farm to reclaim forest cover.
The experience of Greentropics and the Blaans of Matutum is living proof that the Planet bottom line can never be separated from the People and Profit bottom lines.