A few weeks ago, I was in the mountain villages of Zambales talking to a group of small subsistence Aeta farmers, an indigenous people. The agriculturists from the Preda Fair Trade project were there to help them gather and weigh their wild mangos and Preda Fair Trade staff were ready to pay them 100% higher than they would get from the lowland traders. The chieftain, Mario Pabalan, speaking in Tagalog although his native language is Zambal, told us about the trading hardships they encountered.
“It is very hard work for us to carry the mangos across the mountains and to the town and get only a few pesos a kilo for them from the traders, thank you for buying our mangos at a fair price”, he said smiling. Looking up at a magnificent mango tree, sixty years old at least, silhouetted against the blue sky, I marveled at the resilience of these people as strong as their trees but marginalized by Philippine society and the world at large. Mario went on, “in the past years we did not harvest the wild mangos, the price of the commercial traders was so low so mangos were wasted, now everybody is busy harvesting the trees because of the high price that Preda is paying”, he said with a smile.
I was happy to hear that and to know that Fair Trade, doing what is just and right in business by paying a fair price, could bring such simple benefits and happiness to these rugged, weathered, impoverished yet proud people. Their grandparents had planted the trees; their grandchildren were reaping the harvest with hard work and a happy disposition.
I observed an agile Aeta man perched in the tree with a rope to tether him. He held a long bamboo pole with a small net bag or pouch on the end. He extended the pole to the bunch of green mango fruits above him and gathered them into the net bag and with a tug they dropped inside. He retracted the pole and retrieved the mango fruit and placed them carefully into a basket that was hanging beside him from a branch. It was soon full and he lowered it on a rope to the waiting hands below and pulled up an empty basket that was soon filled as the one previously.
So the harvesting went on like that all day with dozens of gatherers climbing the great trees. The children were eating the green mangos with relish, their faces turning into a grimace, twisting their smiling faces at the sweet sour taste. Others added a pinch of salt. An old lady with sun-burnt face and arms and wrinkled skin like dried leaves was gathering the mango seeds from children. She had a small nursery for the planting of more trees.
When the baskets were loaded with fruit, they were weighed one by one. Some mangos were added until the exact weight of 20.5 kilos was registered on the clock face of the scales. Then it was put to one side while the rest of the day’s harvest was likewise weighed and recorded.
At the end of the day, each of the collectors and gatherers came forward to claim the payment due for what they had gathered. Most were able to sign as they took the money; others pressed their thumb to an ink pad and made their mark.
Then, as an additional help to the community, Donard and Roger, the Preda agriculturists, off-loaded two hand-operated water pumps, lengths of steel pipe and bags of cement. The village would get two new community village pumps to give clean drinking water to the villagers. Everybody clapped when the chieftain took the pumps in the name of the community and the obligatory photos were taken to the glee of the children.
There is a local elementary school and most of the children were attending. Only a few would go on to high school. But it was subsistence, they lived on the edge of survival and the mangos brought extra cash and a ray of light into their lives. The surplus they sold in the town eight kilometers away brought them little relief. They were cheated and exploited.
What they need is more fairness, more social justice where they could have the benefits of land reform and be given government support to become productive, self-sufficient communities growing their organic food with a healthy surplus that can get fair prices without exploitation.
Then they can educate their children and grow out of poverty. Fair Trade is a first important step in community development. All of us can help by buying Fair Trade products, mango and more, and by working for global justice [end]. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.predafairtrade.net
(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Universe, The Manila Times, in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)
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