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STRING AROUND MY FINGER: Dear Manny Piñol and the accidental coffee growers of Benguet

January 11, 2019 - Friday 12:01 PM by Eva Aranas Angel

You do not know me, but I know of you so let me introduce myself.

I am Eva Socorro Estrada Aranas Angel and you may not know this but somehow, we are related. No, not by  blood or consanguinity nor by affinity. If you notice, I come from a long line of euphonious Hispanic last names. Estrella-Aranas on my father’s side and Castro-Estrada from my mother’s whose family tree has been traced to go all the way up to the branch of Andres Bonifacio’s. That’s why my late brother was named Bonifacio. My husband and I thought of naming my first two pregnancies either Andrew if it were a boy and Andrea if it were a girl, which is ironic because Andrea is a boy’s name in Italy. I lost both pregnancies in the first trimester but, by the grace of God, I have a teenage son now. By the way, it is Aranas, not Arañas. There’s a world of difference because I have always associated the ‘ñ’ with the peninsulares and I have always been content with my being ‘Indio’ matching my ‘kayumangging kaligatan’ skin color as my friend from Talavera, Nueva Ecija would describe me, along with my pug nose.

We come from a family of ‘bastards,’ just as many other Filipinos do, because as legend would say, and talks among the Doña Victorinas at the time, my father’s family having come from Cebu where Magellan first landed in 1521 (as the song goes) and where the number of churches are the densest, we also presumably could have a from long line of Spanish friars. I think the freckles among my Tias faces and arms and décolletage would prove that. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Spanish genes just dissipated down the generations including mine and I have none to show. No more freckles. No more  blushing when the sun hits my face. Nothing. Nada. Zero. So there goes my electric mestiza dreams. Or, I might have been a mutation because I couldn’t possibly be genetically modified like the Bt corn, onions, garlic, tilapia, and bangus are altered nowadays to make them bigger, better, heavier, pricier, something that your department, I surmise, is looking into.?

But enough of talking about how we are not related. Let’s talk about how we are related because, again, like it or not, we are. I hope you are not vegan or vegetarian because we are related by six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

You see, my husband did a bit of election lawyering for you, along with Bobet Torreon. I know. It was tough going against ‘gold’ as the opponent was at the time, jaundiced-yellow loyalist. I won’t belabor the ‘guns and goons’ part, but she also had the ‘equity of the incumbent’ in case of a tie, and that holds true for the reigning champion in  a division in boxing, which you had been analyzing, annotating, and anchoring for prior to becoming a politician or even as a politician, right?

I was also a former professor of one of your daughters. I used to teach Biochemistry, Physical Diagnosis in the same medical school she and I went to. And I could see how you adore them you made them guest writers in your blog or Facebook page with the prefatory bio-sketch. Of course. I would sing paeans too. Any proud parent would.

So, having introduced myself, let me tell you why I am writing you.

I checked your Facebook Page recently and quite sadly, there’s nothing going on there save for shared posts from Martin Andanar and Mocha Uson. They do not even have anything to do with your office. Pardon me if I might have been looking at the wrong or unofficial Facebook page but in a fit of nostalgia, for whatever this is worth, your blog was our go-to page when we wanted to check the veracity of the results of the latest Pulse Asia or SWS survey before we go high-fiving one another in the hospital aisles, corridors or parking lots or group chat. You see, you had integrity, man. We trusted your fearless forecast. If, in case it is the same, correct, official Manny Piñol Facebook page, may I interest you with the fact that there’s such a thing as web content manager or social media administrator who can do the job for you. I couldn’t imagine how busy you must be now. Should you engage in one, I assure you, it isn’t about propaganda to sort of, beat your drums for you, which indirectly makes you look like you’re beating your own drums. Which brings me to the kind of social media content I was looking for when you made so much fanfare about returning a no occasion gift – a  Rolex watch that landed in your office, implicit of a quid pro quo because let’s face it, yours is a very powerful portfolio. You did it, in your own words, for ‘transparency’ but it was a ‘one time, show time.’ You and I know that many businessmen are shrewd, Mr. Secretary. Like an amorous or lecherous lover obsessed over an inamorata, they will keep trying and trying and trying and trying. If it’s any consolation, your department isn’t the only recipient of a bribery attempt. One regional head in fact, had the temerity to demand for a new pick-up truck (yes, regional director, not a Cabinet Secretary) to approve projects from the department. Sigh, the poor unsuspecting public! So much work against corruption. Can we ever find the way?

I don’t know how naïve either you or the public may be to believe those so called transparency, publicity stunts of that nature. Let me elaborate.

Consistent with the unscrupulous businessmen’s nature, Mr. Piñol, that’s no longer how the game is done. Even before Napoles, they were already cautious and careful not to leave any paper trail. Perhaps they learned from ‘Jose Pidal.’ No money changed hands either through checks or bank deposits which sets off the radar of anti-money laundering council (AMLAC) for huge tranches of bank transactions in a day, no box full of money would be left on the gate, no paper bag handed over. These lobbyists would just make you choose which casino overseas you would like to visit: Macau? Marina Bay Sands in Singapore? Just go, claim and encash the chips. That’s why casinos are thriving. That’s how things were done. Note how I used the past tense. I did not say that’s how things are being done. If this practice is perpetuated, I am not privy to any, but I must say there was a time in our history when it was bumper crop season for those in the upper and the lower house.

May I also appeal to you to please stop another failed attempt at a publicity stunt in the form of TienDA? Whoever conceived such idea deserved to be made into fertilizer. You see, I give you the props – the intention was admirable. It was to showcase and provide a market for Mindanao farmers to have an avenue and market for their goods. I get it. But, please remember also that one cannot achieve in two days Mindanao farmers magically having a sustained market thereafter. If complaints are to be believed both in mainstream and social media, it was tragic and disastrous for many farmers, sellers, and vendors. First there was so much chaos. Second, there were looters and thieves among kibitzers who filled their plastic bags and baskets and left without paying. I am sorry you are reminded of this nightmare again now that you are a ‘hot’ property over the rice shortage and your sweeping statement over the recipients of 4-P’s.

So, at the start of your career as Department of Agriculture Secretary, I took genuine pride and pleasure seeing you having photo-opportunities with tuna, mackerel, sea shells, marlins in the fish stalls in public markets, how you did the rounds of the markets all over the country documented in your once active Facebook page.

I have seen you do your customary appearances in inaugurations, ground breaking, trade fairs, other ceremonies and perfunctory rituals that come with the territory. I have seen you almost everywhere except high up in the north.

This is the exactly the reason why I am writing you.

Two years ago I had the good fortune of climbing three mountains – one in Paro, Bhutan, another one, the second highest mountain in the Western ghats, Meesapulimala in Munnar, Kerala in India and Mt. Pulag in Kabayan, Benguet. Each trek has its own story but the most unforgettable was that in Mt. Pulag, the country’s third highest peak.

It might sound insane for a fifty-ish married woman to be doing solo treks but this is my thing. I took the Ambangeg trail, the easy trail, and had for my trek guide and porter a man named Daniel. In case you haven’t scaled this mountain yet, Mt. Pulag is made up of three kinds of trails. From the ranger station is the pine forest trail, the mossy rainforest trail, and the vast and expansive grassland trail which is an assault, almost ninety degrees about fifty meters up the summit. Daniel belongs to the Indigenous Peoples and we spoke in my fractured Ilokano. He did not finish grade school but he’s streetsmart and is doing freelance porter and trek guiding on weekends, which was why I made arrangements with him as early as May for a climb in November. The reason was that he was always in the vegetable terraces, working on a land as a lessee, planting patches of carrots, lettuce, and cabbage and either didn’t get my text messages for lack of signal or he would come home very late. Sometimes, it would take him a week to reply because he ran out of load . As the farmer, he had to spend for the pesticides, fertilizers, and where applicable the organic kind. Come harvest season, Daniel would have to engage the services of a third party to transport his harvest from Kabayan, Benguet to Baguio City. Daniel, who cannot bargain from a position of strength, was paid dirt cheap prices for his crop just so he could dispose of them. From whatever little he has earned, he had to pay off the interest of his loan from the landowner who sold him the fertilizers and pesticides. At the end of the day, his financial statement would show a net income in the red so he had to borrow again, and the cycle of being tied to both the land he could never own and a debt he could never repay continues.

And then, January the following year after my climb, a negligent camper who did not follow the rule of not camping out on a weekend left a stove open, which exploded and burned a considerable area of grassland of the Akiki trail. Immediately upon learning of this, I called Daniel and his partner to check on them. They were, despite the tragedy, effusive in their gratitude for the call and my offer to send them money to tide them over while the trails were closed both for investigation and rehabilitation. Daniel says, ‘Ilang Linggo lang po ito, Ma’am, makakaakyat na po ulit kami.’ They politely refused my offer.

I checked on them again in March and despite the precipitous decline in the number of hikers, both domestic and foreign, they were hopeful that the students, after the school year ends, would be climbing again. But there was none. My referrals from Malaysia went to Mt. Ulap and explored Baguio instead and the Canadians went to Sagada.

By the end of May of the same year, I got a call from Daniel. He told me how up until then, there had been no more hikers because the summit had been closed. He said that he and his group of freelance trek guides and porters would like to form a cooperative to break away from the cycle of debts with usurious rates and the exploitative pricing terms by a third party reseller who brings their crop and harvest to the city. He asked if my offer to loan them an amount was still there. Daniel and his group had a plan. Inasmuch as most of the farmers in Kabayan, Benguet had all been vegetable farmers, he wanted to ‘experiment’ growing coffee. I concurred, thinking that it was perhaps one chance for them to be self-reliant and self-sustaining.  I was about to tell him that it was never meant to be a loan but instead an amount I’m giving them, but Ted, my husband, nudged me and reminded me about ‘charity with dignity’ and so I sent them an amount twice I had offered them in January as a loan they can pay whenever they want to without any interest.

In October last year, I was surprised to see photos in my Viber account of seedlings, neatly lined, thousands of them with a caption that said, ‘Ma’am, ito na po yung mga kape na tinatanim ni Daniel at ng mga kasamahan nya sa kanilang lugar.’ It was from Daniel’s partner who said many more things that made me tear up. As I thanked her profusely for sharing with me their joy,  she explained further, ‘Ma’am, high altitude po kasi kami kaya mas maganda ang Arabica. From seeds po, ay gawa ng seedling bed or pwede na rin ang direct sowing sa seedling bed or direct sowing sa pot. Kung direct sowing sa seedling bed, pwede na pong itanim kung handa na pong itanim. So kailangan po ng nursery talaga kapag ikaw mismo ang magpo-produce ng itatanim mo from seeds to seedlings. Sa kaso nila Daniel, hindi po nila ibebenta yung mga seedlings. Sila na po mismo ang magtatanim para yung beans na lang ang ibebenta. Kaso po, it will take approximately three years bago mamunga. Mas maganda po sana, may government agency na involved para ma-improve yung quality ng product at makatulong din po sa processing and packaging. Malay nyo po, pwede silang magbigay ng tulong sa mga coffee growers at gamit tulad po ng Coffee Huller Machine at iba pa pong tulong at gabay para sa mga farmers.’

Daniel and his cooperative are the reasons I am writing you, Mr. Manny Piñol, as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Their hopes are high despite moments of lowest of lows. Unlike some people, they toil the soil from the break of dawn to the dying of light. They do not sit idle, waiting for the quarterly 4Ps.

This is all I have to say to you. As they say in sports, the ball is in your court.