A Hundred Thousand Coffee Seedlings for Just Change
“This is home,” Athena Banza tells me as the pick-up we are riding in passes a big pool full of water hyacinths. “That‘s Lake Kalaw.” The landscape is a rhapsody in greens even as the cab rattles like an empty tin can over the paved road in Francfort, Bumbaran. But she warns, “Don’t be deceived by the lushness. Banana plantations and bio-engineered corn coexist here. But this is my village. My family is here.” And, she, the wandering development worker-activist, at 45, has come home to farm.
Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur’s remotest mountain town, 1,000 meters (3,812 feet) above the sea, about 187 miles southwest of Cagayan de Oro, is named after the mythic city of Magalinday Bumbaran in Darangen, the epic of the indigenous Maranao, who constitute 70 percent of the town’s 9,000 inhabitants.
First on her itinerary was the Francfort Community Water Supply Services, Inc.(FCWSSI). Ten years ago, Banza, an engineer--turned-development-worker, spearheaded the building of the water system in her village. By that time, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the worldwide commitment to better the lives of the world’s poor by 2015, had gained momentum. Banza was aware that the seventh MDG, environmental sustainability, stressed access to safe drinking water. She foresaw that women’s lives would improve in her village with the waterworks.
“With water faucets in our homes, women and children didn’t have to fetch potable water from afar. That meant healthier children with more time to study and play, and women having more productive hours,” she noted. The organization began serving 100 households; now, it serves 700.
Banza is meeting with FCWSSI officers to review a multi-million reforestation project on the Bumbaran Range that FCWSSI will implement with an environmental foundation. The reforestation project involves the seven mountain ranges of Lanao del Sur and Bukidnon, dubbed as the island’s “lungs” and the source of Mindanao’s six major rivers. “Are we capable of doing what is required of us in the agreement? Besides, the area is beyond our village,” she says. She also questions planting exotic species like Caribbean pine and calliandra. She recommends foregoing the project. Everyone at the meeting approves.
‘’I believe in reforestation for environmental sustainability, as climate change adaptation. But the process here is not right. It is so top-down,” Banza stresses, lamenting how the government often dumps projects on the laps of communities, insensitive to local processes.
“I grew up thinking that development was something that happened elsewhere, never in Lanao del Sur. Poverty and conflict are the more familiar themes to me when I was growing up,” she recalls.
Lanao del Sur is the country’s poorest province, with poverty rate pegged at 68.9 percent in 2012. Francfort, mostly inhabited by Christian settlers like the Banzas, was burned down twice, part of the collateral damage of the protracted secessionist war waged by Islamic rebels. Twice, too, the residents rebuilt this community.
Banza's activism bloomed during the People Power Revolution, the non-violent citizen’s movement that toppled the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. As a student leader then, she protested the exploitation of laborers, including women, in pineapple plantations. Immediately after graduation, she joined a non-government organization advocating for agrarian reform.
After the meeting, we move to a nursery that houses thousands of coffee and various other seedlings close to the balding foothills of the Panasong Range. I ask her, what is your alternative to this grand master reforestation plan?
She tells me the story of the 15 Farmers Coffee Project. At Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Massachusetts, where she completed her MA in Sustainable International Development last year, she met Jessica Ketchen, whose thesis links environmentally-sustainable coffee production to farmer-beneficial marketing. Together, they went around the country learning about the coffee industry. Thus, began their partnership with the farmers, agriculturists and Pakisama, the national small farmers and fishermen confederation.
How does coffee fit into your plan, I ask. I can understand why coffee, the world’s most traded commodity, next only to petroleum. With disease plaguing trees in Latin America and Africa, there is room for small players. But what makes you think you’d outsmart the coffee traders who monopolize inputs, dictate prices and control supply and demand?
Banza feels that the ingrained craving of the locals for the brew will sustain their project. “Because we market local(ly). We’d go rainforestation farming. Coffee thrives under the canopy of bigger trees. Plus, intercropping, organic fertilizers, integrated pest management. We will be planting durian, coconuts, rubber, bananas, other endemic hardwood, bamboo, vegetables, spices, raise free-range chickens, bees, goats. ”
In coffee processing, she hopes to use low-tech renewable energy, which was the focus of her recent graduate studies. She has organized a women cluster, envisioning the sharing of benefits and economic power. “They hope to be involved in processing, which we’ve found out to be the most profitable,” she says. “We are prefiguring post-2015 scenarios, the Sustainable Development Goals(SGDs). The drift now is towards making justice a major element in the SGDs. If positive change be sustained, it must be just, particularly for women.”
The project was gifted 25 kilos of premium Arabica beans for seeding a few months ago. “The donor asked only to taste the first cup of coffee when the trees bear fruits in three years,” she said. She plans to grow at least 100,000 seedlings to share with more farmers at no cost.
“To convince farmers to plant trees, we must offer an economically valuable and more environmentally sound species. That’s coffee,” she explains. “These hills are our watershed, the aquifer lies deep under them. So, if we don't plant trees now, the water will most likely be steeped with chemicals from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and the water quality will suffer,” she adds.
“See, we do not have to reforest some far place we have not even seen,” she says; then, extending her two arms as if to encompass the entire Panasong Range before us, “Imagine these hills, the rainforest farms of tomorrow.”
At the Banza ancestral house, she revives a dying fire on the clay stove. As the fire blazes and she places a water kettle on the stove, she tells me, “Sustaining a fire is the greater challenge than merely building one.”
She continues, “It is the same with activism, I think. Consciousness-raising alone is no longer so effective. I can’t simply tell the farmers to stop using chemicals or growing Bt corn. When we try to convince people to shift to sustainable agriculture, they ask: so, what is your own farm like? So, I have to bear witness.I have to show that the coffee farming and marketing I advocate will work.”
While her NGO engagement was a detour from her profession, she now finds this new phase as the braiding together of vital interests: farming, community concerns, renewable energies, even self-care. Single and the youngest of ten siblings, she further invokes practicality. “Nobody takes care of activists and their families. My farm is a long-term investment. As (a) development worker, I took care of other people's concerns and issues. Now, as I take care of myself, I also continue helping others.”
With a mug of hot coffee in hand, Banza recalls those long dark nights in Francfort without electricity. “I studied by the light of the palong-palong (kerosene torch). My parents, who were teachers, wrote their lesson plans and checked student test papers by the palong-palong.
“I could not stand the smell of kerosene. Soot gathered inside my nostrils, settled on skin and under fingernails. I vowed to rid of the torch,” she recalls. She later shows me a palm-sized solar panel that powers her evening lanterns. “That’s why I do not say hello to kerosene anymore because my best friend now is the sun,” she jokes.
My attention drifts towards a framed poster on the wall: lake, bamboo grove, mountain. “I photographed that scenery. That’s Lake Kalaw down the road, 15 years ago, now filled with water lilies,’’ she laughs. “Run-off from farms; nitrates overload.”
In this village twice burned and twice rebuilt, where a lake is choked with nitrate-fed lilies, and where export-quality bananas and genetically altered corn are daily blights, I consider Banza’s laughter an act of resistance.
Here and now, ”the future is dark, as in inscrutable,” as author Rebecca Solnit, channeling Virginia Woolf, would write. But the darkness is not of night. Instead it is the dark of dawn, which for Athena Banza, the activist-as-farmer, with her solar-powered lanterns, water faucets and coffee seedlings, is the beginning of daylight, her best friend.
This article is a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.