Freedom from to freedom for

31 May 2015

 

They were caught between the crossfire of an all-out war waged by the government then. They lived in fear and they constantly moved about, for self-preservation. They got tired of being bakwits (refugees) in their own homeland. They decided to fight back and take control of their lives.

So off they went to the mountains to live, not as rebels, but to be farmers of coffee beans of the Arabica variety. The kind that’s sold to a company called Coffee for Peace.

Coffee for Peace is no ordinary trader. It is owned by a couple who migrated to Canada in the ’80s to protect their family from possible political persecution. Despite their comfortable lives in Canada, their calling pulled them back to the Philippines. And they decided to base themselves in the heart of the conflict in Mindanao.

To us in the Metro, we are probably only familiar with the Mindanao conflict involving the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s fight for self-governance and independence. In arable properties, however, a few battles go on and loom between the migrants and the untitled land owners over ancestral lands. Migrants who come from Luzon or the Visayas have also made Mindanao their homes and source of livelihood.

Jojie observed that in meetings to reconcile opposing parties, coffee was almost always the instrumental beverage. This sort of provided the epiphany she needed to use coffee as an instrument of peace. She and her husband Dann launched a program to teach people in the community, former rebels included, the science of planting coffee by taking advantage of the natural gifts of the highlands such as Mt. Apo.

The Philippines is blessed to be one of the very few countries that produce all four varieties of coffee—Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsia. Arabica coffee thrives in patches, ideally lava soil, at 700 meters above sea level with wind and air temperature of 20 to 28 degrees Celsius. The coffee tree requires three years to grow but after that, it can provide bounty on an annual basis.

Jojie buys the farmers’ Arabica beans that she supplies locally and even exports to Canada and the US (and soon, to Australia and other countries). But unlike other traders, Jojie buys them at a very good price for the farmers using fair trade principles, even as she gives the training and the all-important coffee seedlings.

It is not difficult to understand that even rebels can get attracted to the idea of coffee farming. Their habitat is the mountains, they need decent livelihood, and they need a fair trader to buy their produce. It counts less what their political affiliations are because in time, all that will count is their contribution to the economy and the society, and how their enterprise becomes pivotal to laying down their arms and joining the fold.

It is with this noble objective of not thinking what her enterprise can give her financially that Coffee for Peace won the Bid Challenge in 2011 and became a finalist in the Developmental Social Enterprise Awards of PwC Philippines and the Benita & Catalino Yap Foundation.

But Coffee for Peace’s work does not stop with helping in Mindanao or in serving freshly roasted coffee in their coffee shop in Matina, Davao. Since last year, Jojie and her team have been travelling to the north, in another conflict-stricken mountain called Cordillera, to bring their expertise in fostering peace by using coffee and the enterprising promise it brings to the people of Kalinga.

In 2011, a breakaway group of rebels signed a peace agreement with the government which promised to provide livelihood and employment support for their members but this remains to be a promise. A former comrade said the high military presence in the area makes it difficult to former rebels live a simple and ordinary life. Coffee for Peace brought with them the same flair they shared in Mindanao and gave these farmers another lease on their lives by teaching them coffee plantation management and peace building. Coffee for Peace helped them regardless of their past. What matters was how they wanted to live for the present and for the future.

I am reminded of my favorite literary writing by Rabindranath Tagore. He referred the violin string on the table as a violin string that is free, as it is not attached to a violin. But only when it is attached to a violin that it is free to produce music.

Our brothers in the mountains and in Mindanao have been fighting our military for more than 50 agonizing years. And the biggest lesson here is that no one progresses or wins in a war. It is almost heartwarming to learn that many of our own gallant men in the Armed Forces of the Philippines favor the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or any form of law for that matter, that grants our Muslim brothers the peace they deserve.

Coffee for Peace is one of those social enterprises that have shown how this may be achieved. How inclusive growth is not just a mere punch line. How even a non-legislative solution can be brought about. Rebels fight for freedom. Freedom can be used productively by engaging in enterprise. Yes, the solution in Mindanao is enterprise that’s owned and controlled by its people. If it is a war to make these enterprises flourish and become successful, it is certainly a war that is much easier to win. Peace can be a choice by realizing true freedom—not freedom from, but freedom for. 

Alexander B. Cabrera is the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co / PwC Philippines.  He also chairs the tax committee of the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP).  Email your comments and questions to aseasyasABC@ph.pwc.com.  This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.