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Indigenous farmers find strength in numbers, defy pandemic

Indigenous farmers find strength in numbers, defy pandemic

At this time when agriculture is bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 300 indigenous farmers in Bukidnon are earning more than ever. These farmers from the impoverished barangays of Dumalaguing, Guihean, Sayawan and Bontongon, locally known as “Dugus-B” in the town of Impasugong, are thriving through product consolidation and collective marketing.

“We’re really in a better position now. We can sustain the daily needs of our families because we earn better compared to the pre-pandemic period,” said Evamay Penloyan, 25, who has been farming abaca, arabica and robusta coffee for a decade now.

Like other Higaonon farmers, Penloyan of Brgy. Guihean has mastered traditional farming in the uplands of Impasugong. But she admits it was not quite uplifting for indigenous farmers like her. Their income had been left at the mercy of middlemen who bought their produce at a very low price.

George Belican, 47, of Brgy. Dumalaguing can relate to Penloyan’s musings. He has been farming high-value crops like bell pepper for 15 years, coffee for seven years and abaca for six years now, but his yield and income hadn’t improved. That was until he joined the “Impasugong Crops Development Project” which started in 2019. The project is led by nonprofit organization Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF) in partnership with Impasugong-based Kauyagan Savers Multi-Purpose Cooperative (KSMPC) and other entities.

Making farmers reliable suppliers

Project proponents learned that farmers in Dugus-B lacked coordination among themselves in marketing their produce. They also lacked technical know-how to improve the quality, which prevented them from commanding higher prices. They had limited access to profitable markets.

“Their farming techniques were very traditional. For instance, they did nothing to [nurture] their 50-year-old coffee plants,” said KSMPC general manager Imelda Esteban.

The project is essentially building a community-based social enterprise that aims to uplift the lives of small farmers through consolidation and collective marketing of three commodities predominant in the area: coffee, abaca and corn. The consolidated products are then sold to bigger companies like Universal Robina Corp., Newtech Pulp Inc., Le Festin, and even small enterprises like Kape Lumad.

“[Some] bigger markets believe that small-holder farmers aren’t reliable suppliers because they don’t consistently deliver the product quality required by the market. We wanted to prove them wrong,” said Esteban, explaining the need to train these farmers.

With the help of the enterprise, the prices of these raw products are sold P3 to P5 higher per kilo than the prices quoted by local traders so far. With potential linkage to local and international companies, selling price is seen to increase by up to P23 a kilo.

In the first quarter of 2021, the enterprise reported a total of 14,000 kilos of consolidated green coffee beans valued at more than P1 million. In the same period, more than 700 kilos of abaca fiber amounting to almost P50,000 had been consolidated.

From January to October this year, the enterprise consolidated a total of 28 tons of coffee beans and 12 tons of abaca fiber. This translated to P115,000 total incremental income for all the farmers, according to PEF records.

Apart from linking to profitable markets and building capacity, the enterprise also provides soft loans to the farmers of Impasugong, Bukidnon’s “tribal capital.” Out of almost 54,000 total population, 80 percent belong to the ethnic group Higaonon. Most residents (54 percent), especially Higaonons, live below the poverty line, based on 2020 state records.

Strong ecosystem for farmers

Although Impasugong has recorded only about 200 COVID-19 cases so far, trading has been disrupted due to the strict lockdowns implemented in the country. Despite this, the enterprise thrives in Dugus-B. PEF said this was due to the strong multi-sectoral collaborations forged with the following: KSMPC as a market facilitator; Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority-Region X as a trainer and technical consultant on abaca training and monitoring activities; Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Bukidnon as a provider of post-harvest facilities for abaca and environmental safeguards; the Impasugong Municipal Agriculture Office (MAO) and Department of Agriculture

Region X as providers of technical and marketing support for corn; the Trade Department as development supporter of coffee and abaca production; and, institutional buyers.

“We designed the [enterprise] to work with existing institutions. Development is [a] long-term [endeavor]. There must be an ecosystem around the [farmers] that will support their livelihood after [our project] has phased out,” said PEF executive director Roberto Calingo.

Citing PEF’s experience in the past 20 years, Calingo said forming an eco-system with multisectoral support for small-holder farmers in remote communities was usually unsustainable when there was no strong relationship with local government units (LGUs). PEF itself had some programs that failed in the past.

“Many groups tend to avoid working with the government because they can be hard to deal with [but their role is crucial]. [The enterprises] that become sustainable are those that are deeply rooted in the local [communities], NGOs (nongovernment organizations), enterprises and government,” Calingo explained.

On the part of Impasugong LGU, it is actively engaging with organizations like PEF that conduct programs for farmers, MAO agricultural technician Marylou Sobradil said. “Our officials are very supportive, and we allocate funds for facilitating collaborations with different organizations.”

Farmers’ buy-in

The future of the project looks promising but managing it has not been easy for PEF, which operates semi-formally, and the farmers who work informally.

“They use tradition [and word of mouth] to forge contracts. So, we had to adapt to them,” said Calingo, who admitted that their documents were not culturally sensitive.

Due to their informal ways of doing business, most Higaonon farmers still like dealing with local traders. They just have to harvest, individually bring the goods to the traders, then get paid at whatever price the traders decided. They don’t have to use new farming techniques that are now required in the enterprise. PEF argued that behavioral changes among the farmers would be vital to improve productivity.

“We’ve been learning new concepts that we never knew before, like pruning our plants to improve yield, crop diversification, the use of fertilizers [and financial literacy]. I am now able to save a little money [which I couldn’t do before],” said Belican, father of a twoyear-old child.

“We learned that merely drying and sorting coffee beans, for example, can improve its quality and increase its value,” said Penloyan, mother to a seven-year-old child.

Unlike Penloyan and Belican, many others in Dugus-B still hesitate to shift from their old ways. However, some are gradually buying into it.

“A fellow farmer [who preferred local traders at first] is now trading all of his coffee beans through the enterprise because we earn more here and the new farming concepts introduced to us are quite easy to learn,” Belican said.

Esteban clarified that they did not want “to kill” the business of local traders. They want to offer farmers access to better markets instead.

A long road ahead

Despite initial progress, many socio-economic issues remain unaddressed in Dugus-B. These include inadequate access to electricity, potable water and health services—all of which are crucial in improving the quality of both the products and the farmers’ lives, Calingo said.

“When you don’t have electricity, you can’t process your harvest. You can only sell raw materials which have the lowest value in the market,” he said, citing their plan to integrate renewable energy sources for the farmers.

To date, the increase in the farmers’ income is still far from ideal. Eventually, PEF targets each family to generate at least P100,000 annual income, which is still below the poverty threshold per family in the country.

“Our eventual measure of success is when the farmers ask us to leave because they can already run the enterprise by themselves … I think it should happen in five years because there are other communities where we need to focus on,” Calingo said.

The road to success may be far-off, but both Belican and Penloyan are hoping that the enterprise continues to thrive especially amid the prolonged pandemic.

“I want to get my family out of poverty. I think this may be possible through the enterprise. I wish that we could be linked to more resources and better markets,” said Penloyan.

Written by: Mark Toldo