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A Hundred Thousand Coffee Seedlings for Just Change

Athena Banza stands by the coffee seedlings at the nursery./Photo by libudsuroy

“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.

WATER
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.

TREES
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.

COFFEE
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.”

FIRE
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.”

LIGHT
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.

Banza takes a coffee break. Above her, on the wall her Lake Kalaw photo./Photo by libudsuroy
Banza as activist-farmer has opened doors for small farmers in her village./Photo by libudsuroy
A seedling sprouts from a coffee bean./Photo by A.Banza
Thousands of coffee seedlings at the Francfort nursey/Photo by A.Banza

Comments

Nadz's picture

Very detailed

Wow, so much detail obviously you did extensive research, I learnt a lot from reading the article. Good work congratulations.
Nadz

Life is just for living

libudsuroy's picture

Thank you, Nadeen

Dear Nadeen,
Thank you for reading my post. My subject was a walking library so that when I needed to re-create that knowledge on my article, I have to study what she was talking about in order to provide the contexts.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Dear Lina,

You've exceeded my fondest expectations with this piece of work. I feel as though I know Athena Banza a bit, have spent a little time with her and would like to spend more. I feel as though I stood beside you -- which perhaps I did, in spirit ! -- as you interviewed her and experienced crucial aspects of her life, from a significant meeting in which she is asked for her obviously-valued opinion to various daily routines which allow the reader into her life and paint a picture of it. Ms. Banza seems an excellent example of, "Start where you are," (Pema Chodron) and I have tremendous admiration for the birth, trail and impact of her work, from start to now. Athena was certainly an excellent choice for your Module 1 assignment.

Your turns of phrase, from cinematic descriptions to choices of quotes, are rich and fruitful, giving the reader a clear impression of your subject.

Thank you for your hard work, your integrity, persistence and commitment.

- Sarah

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

Klaudia Mexico's picture

coffe for a hope

Dear Lina
I did enjoy reading your story is amazing how we can resist, even of it's from our own town. Congratulations for such amazing article and the woman you´re telling us about,
cheers

Klaudia González

it's seems you have published it twice.

Klaudia González

libudsuroy's picture

hi, Klaudia

Thank you for pointing this out. I am deleting the other older post.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

libudsuroy's picture

Thank you for your wonderful

Thank you for your wonderful comment. And sorry for this delayed reply. Indeed, there I was looking for a subject, most of whom were living in far cities, living larger-than-life lives; and then, only to find out that I would write about someone who lives in the most remote town in the country's poorest province that is part of the conflict-ridden region that I have been covering for years. :)

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Thank you for your wonderful comment. And sorry for this delayed reply. Indeed, there I was looking for a subject, most of whom were living in far cities, living larger-than-life lives; and then, only to find out that I would write about someone who lives in the most remote town in the country's poorest province that is part of the conflict-ridden region that I have been covering through the years. Exposure through World Pulse will surely let the rest of the world be aware of her vision and mission.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Cali gal Michelle's picture

Lina- All your efforts,

Lina-
All your efforts, research, heart, and soul are evidenced here. I know you struggled, but ended with something that was worth it. You have brought Athena to us, and us to her cause. You were able to discern the most effective words and phrases, both from her mouth and from your mind, coalescing into a compelling story. Lina, this article exhibits journalistic style while remaining true to your heart.

I know that your skill will only increase as you practice new skills and continue to bring us the world.

Many blessings!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Leigh Anne Kranz's picture

Athena!

Thank you for sharing the ingenious alternatives of Athena Banza. You really made her come to life in the piece. Excellent profile.

LA

Precious M's picture

Learnt much

I have learned so much from your article. I love the way you describe. I felt like I was there with you and Banza. Keep inspiring!

My pen speaks

libudsuroy's picture

Dear Precious, thank you for

Dear Precious, thank you for dropping by and sorry for this late reply. Your comment is a precious inspiration!

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

libudsuroy's picture

Dear Precious, thank you for

Dear Precious, thank you for dropping by and sorry for this late reply. Your comment is a precious inspiration!

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Iryna's picture

Saving nature for our children

These issues about MDGs and environment are so close to me and to what I do every day! It is so important to give your forces to save the beauty of the unique place where you live. Athena makes a great work and who if not me understands how difficult, and sometimes even impossible is to change the situation. But because of such people like Athena we help our nature to survive and keep it safe for our children.
The article is very alive, Lina, and very interesting,
Warmest greetings,
Iryna

Paulina Lawsin's picture

On second read, since you

On second read, since you used water and fire/light as sub heads, can the earth element be used as a subhead for the coffee and trees sections? Athena, the goddess of wisdom will be happy to read your/her story.

libudsuroy's picture

Five elements

Hi, Paulina,
I began writing the article with the five Oriental elements in mind as subheads. Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth. But the story was already unwieldy (about 3,000 words) and I needed to slash (down) the piece. So I took away the metal part and later, broke away from it by using ''coffee'' and 'trees'' and ''light'' as subheads.
Athena knew about the progress of the story through the last six or seven drafts. This is what I like about the World Pulse process: I must share the story with my subject before posting it on my journal.
And yes, in our email exchange both of us soon claimed the 'herstory' as our common (coffee)grounds.
Thanks so much for reading this and so sorry for the delayed response!

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Greengirl's picture

Creatively Written!

NATURE: Water, Trees, Coffee, Fire, Light. I just took a refreshing walk with you!
Reading through, I could visualize your experience with Athena Banza who is a clear cut environmentalist at heart. She is very knowledgeable and understands how nature works.

More often than not, man takes so much away from nature without giving anything back in positive terms. There is so much we can all learn from her exemplary lifestyle of living in harmony with and protecting our ecosystem.

Your message is clear and resonates with me. I really enjoyed the walk, because you just painted a perfect picture of Athena and Nature in words!

Much love and respect,
Greengirl

Dear Greengirl,
I am pleased to know you've enjoyed walking with Athena, as you accentuated the positive aspects of the story. Athena’s story surely resonates with you who is also so attuned to the natural world, its conservation and nurturance, and women's roles, rights and responsibilities in environmental sustainability.
Cheers!

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

pelamutunzi's picture

loved it

this is a well researched powerful piece of work .congrats for your effort. and you brought Athena and her environment to life giving hard facts. I feel like I was also there with you.
thanks a lot

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.
regards
pela

libudsuroy's picture

You are welcome

Dear Pela,
You are welcome! Athena, like Rebecca Chisamba, was a font of wisdom although she was a bit self-deprecating. My narrative is only as good as my subject's qualities. And, of course, like you, I have superlative mentors who brought out the best in my work. Both of them were with me throughout the entire creative process, providing guidance and inspiration.
I also look forward to reading your next piece, Pela!

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Deqa's picture

Amazing role model

Your story teaches resilient and the power of change which starts with tweaking our own actions and practices, Athena is such a great example for change makers, because she really understands her aim and she is knowledgeable and resourceful, and she completely implements the phrase 'be the change you wish to see' because she starts the environmental protection from her farm and throughout the town.
I loved the way you articulated her story, its picturesque and contains details that make the reader feel as though they witnessed you and Athena having that conversation.
Great work my dear, I always enjoy reading your pieces because it is detailed and rich.
regards
Deqa

libudsuroy's picture

as sure-gaited as you and Shamso

Hi, Deqa, Athena is as confident and sure-gaited as Shamso and you. Thank you for pointing out that she is some kind of changemaker. Her class at Brandeis University is named "2012 Global Stewards of Change". Looks like young development workers like her will be in the front seats of the world, driving humankind to a hopeful, more compassionate and sustainable future.

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

This is from Aminah. She posted this on a duplicate(d) post, which I have deleted

I have fallen in love with the activist-as-farmer, with her solar-powered lanterns, water faucets and coffee seedlings, the great Athena Banza. :)

And with the current job I am in, I feel Banza is one person who I can take as a role model for Home Based Workers of my country.

And her thoughts about the lack of support from government and also the how development occurred stood out.

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. "

I quite liked the way you presented the piece divided into headings and your use of "Ï" did not shadow the interviewee, rather it brought the place and your conversation alive. Well done :)

Salaam
Aminah

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Leslie Stoupas's picture

Great visualization for me!

I really enjoyed this article and understanding all that goes into the growing of coffee and sustainable agriculture. It is so important to understand how food is grown and the deep impact sustainable practices have. It definitely makes me more appreciative to read this, being in a country that consumes so much! Thank you for sharing this fascinating interview!

Leslie Stoupas

Dear Lina,

This is a masterpiece. I am impressed with the way you weaved the history of the Philippines and the history of this community into your profile. Of course, the work of Banza is incredible and she has brought so many positive changes to her community, but your art as a journalist, telling her story is impressive. You keep introducing us, the readers, to facts that you connect little by little to the over-whole situation. Though you separated your piece in sections with titles, you connect all of these different pieces and aspects of Banza's activism to the sustainability of her community. I also love how you started with the lake and end with the lake, coming full circle. Very well done.
Banza says that nobody takes care of activists, but she is wrong, you do!
Brilliant work!

Delphine Criscenzo

As I stated before, I love the activist-as-farmer, with her solar-powered lanterns, water faucets and coffee seedlings, the great Athena Banza. :)

We need more people like her to empower home based workers. And that, I believe would help in creating wealth in the rural areas. She is a great example.

And you are a great writer and brought Banza to us in such a beautiful way.
All the best.

Salaam
Aminah

lynnemhealy's picture

Athena Banza

Thank you for introducing me to this phenomenal woman, Libudsuroy :-). You have packed so much information into this piece ... keep up the good work :-)

Much love,
Lynne

Lynne Healy
www.lynnehealy.co.uk

Tash's picture

You write beautifully .I

You write beautifully .I loved reading this.

Good work!

Kind Regards,
Patsy.

Katya's picture

Better than a book!

This article was so full of information, it was better than a book! I wish Athena Banza the best of luck and you too!

Katya

Maura Bogue's picture

Good Work!

Great job! This story is very well-organized. I like the fact you used subheadlines. They break the story up nicely.

In the future, make sure you attribute your quotes after the first sentence. That way readers know exactly who is talking right away.

Best,
Maura

coolasas's picture

I'm glad to have read this

I'm glad to have read this article. Very enlightening.

It brought me back to my Mindanao adventure and somehow I can relate, I also did some farming in Claveria in MisOr and know about the reforestation plan in the mountain around there. Dreaming to go back.

All the best,

D

D

Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.
Malcom Wallace (Braveheart)

www.mydecadelongtravels.wordpress.com

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