When I arrived at the market place in a town in Zambales Province with the Preda Fair Trade team, I was to meet the women tribal leaders of an Aeta community from the mountains. We found them at the back of the market and they were very disappointed and angry. We sat in the shade of a tree to hear their story of commercial exploitation and cheating.
They told me their men had spent two days climbing mango trees and harvesting the mango fruits, both the carabao and pico variety, and they had carried the fruits in sacks to the town to sell. The selling price for mangoes was P35 a kilo but the Aetas were only offered P5 a kilo. This would not be enough to earn them money to buy a few kilos of rice. They said it was unjust and unfair that they were being cheated by a corrupt trading system. This favored the rich and exploited the poor.
This is one of the reasons why poor farmers remain poor and why indigenous tribal peoples of the Philippines and elsewhere are among the poorest of the poor. They can survive on their ancestral lands by growing a variety of vegetables, raising chickens and goats but when they need medicine, school supplies for their children or clothes and household items, they come up short of cash. Their products are not given the right and true value. They have no one to protest to or appeal the rigged system.
The sale of their agriculture products is their only hope of earning an income. But they are frequently cheated and exploited. They have to borrow money from the commercial traders in the markets and that is another reason they have to accept a very low price for their banana, coconut and mangoes.
Many a scholarly paper and institution research work on the roots of poverty overlooks the social and trade injustice done to hundreds of thousands of small farmers. The rich dominate the trade and can dictate the buying price of products.
This was the problem that we were determined to solve, and to do it through a fair trade and making the products organically certified. We worked with the indigenous Aeta farmers and held meetings and seminars on fair trade criteria and the organic standards. It turned out that the little trading company we set up was able to find an export market among the World Shops and in supermarkets that paid a fair price for the products and this we passed on to the farmers.
Instead of only P5 a kilo, we offered to buy their pico and carabao mangos at a much higher price. The farmers were elated and they all agreed to follow the criteria of being fair. They attended seminars and training in organic methods and standards.
They learned how important it is to respect the rights of women and children, although the Aeta women are fairly empowered and several are elders or chieftains of their small groups in the remote mountain villages. The training is also to improve hygiene and sanitation in the villages and to send their children to school.
The project brings additional help in providing thousands of mango saplings, coconut seedlings, cacao and coffee plants to the farmers to strengthen their historical and legitimate claims on their ancestral lands and provide a variety of crops for future income. They received hand pumps for their villages and in one village, a water system with a holding tank and distribution pipes was built.
The organic training over a three year period was the most challenging of all. The Aeta farmers live in the remote mountains and while there are no chemicals used, there is strict monitoring. They could not afford chemicals or pesticides but they had their natural fertilization methods for their crops already. What was challenging was training leaders to monitor and make regular inspections of the mountain range to be sure all the criteria were being implemented and to document everything.
These simple yet wise and intelligent farmers knew and loved their environment upon which their survival depended. They could easily understand that the forest has to be guarded and protected. Finally, they were ready for the visit of the local and international organic inspectors.
They came and spent a few days visiting the area at random, checking if the mango growing areas were clean of any chemicals or unacceptable farming methods. They inspected the reams of documents prepared and finally they left.
A few months later and after much payment for fees, travel and expenses of the inspectors, the area was declared to be organic. It was and is a great achievement. Now we have to see that it stays that way. We hope climate change will not damage the flowering of the trees and the farmers will have a good harvest and earn higher prices for their organic fair traded mangos.