Coffee growers embrace agroforestry
Just over 850 metres above sea level in the mountains of Cuernos de Negros in the central Filipino province of Negros Oriental on a rocky dirt road 40 minutes by scooter from the nearest town centre, there’s an unexpected tourist destination: the quaint coffeehouse Baslay Highland Brew Coffee.
Barely four years old, Baslay is fast becoming a highlight in Dauin, a municipality 16kms from Dumaguete City, the province’s capital. Dauin is best known for its golden beaches, but it also has verdant mountainous regions, which is home to Baslay.
Housed in a three-storey bamboo building with views of the majestic hill range of Mount Talinis and the Dauin coastline, the café serves organic coffee grown in the café’s adjacent plot of forest.
The coffee shop is run by the Baslay Highland Agriculture Cooperative (BASHACO), which was incorporated in 2019, though it was founded in 1985. BASHACO is co-owned by 88 farmers who grow coffee under the cover of nearby woodlands, using a method that integrates trees and shrubs into farming. They communally own and manage 220 hectares (ha) of dense forest, with some 120ha set aside for coffee.
Because the cooperative harvests, dries, sorts and roasts its own beans, it cuts out traders and distributors, who often pocket most of the profits. Coffee farmers are among the most exploited of Filipino ag workers, with the typical coffee farmer making just over US 50 cents per kilo of beans.
By contrast, BASHACO’s members are paid a wage for their work growing coffee and for any work they do in the café, as well as being paid profit-sharing dividends. (The co-op’s senior citizen members have also been afforded an extra monthly rice allowance since early last year.)
“The journey from forest destroyers to forest caretakers hasn’t been easy for our farmers. Often, reforestation efforts in our upland communities lead to displacement,” BASHACO chair Ruel Perez tells Eco-Business in his native Bisaya and Tagalog. “However, without involving the community and addressing the true root of kaingin, which is poverty, most of these programs don’t prosper. The coffee we now produce is a testimony to our community’s persistence and hard work,” he adds.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Three decades ago, the land these farmers tilled was a patchwork of denuded woodland. Subsistence farmers scorched swathes of the land to plant corn and root crops. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2002 and 2021, Negros Oriental lost at least 105 ha of primary forest, 44 ha of this attributed to fires.
Thankfully, it’s different now. With the help of renewable energy provider Energy Development Corporation (EDC), under its Binhi initiative, BASHACO has moved to a more sustainable model based on woodland protection and biodiversity conservation. EDC provided farmers with seedlings and training in sustainable farming; it also bore the cost of reforesting the area. Over the decades, Baslay’s farmers have grown increasingly self-sufficient and now EDC’s contributions are geared more toward marketing and connecting the community to institutional partners.
Perez says the transition from damaging to sustainable took some “25 years of unlearning”. His parents were among the first to take up the program in 1985, when he was just five years old. He would later join as a teen. On weekends, he worked in the community’s plant nursery, where seedlings are grown before being transplanted, for some pocket money. Later he went on to graduate with a degree in forestry from the Central Philippines State University. He now applies his formal training to bridge the gap between Indigenous farming practices and modern science-based applications, such as permaculture.
“I wanted to give back to my community and afford more opportunities for the generations to come in our barangay,” he said, using the local term for a small town or municipality. “I humbly believe I’m already doing so now.”
Negros Oriental’s upland communities, like other mountainous rural areas in the Philippines, suffer acute poverty, three times the level of those living in Dumaguete City. EDC aims to ease the region’s poverty. To do that it needs the region to remain forested to replenish Mount Talinis’ watersheds and aquifers to power its geothermal plants. EDC has planted more than 6.5 million indigenous seedlings over some 10,000 ha of previously degraded watersheds, helping renew Dauin’s biodiversity The area is now frequented by wild civet cats and has become a refuge for 113 species of endemic birds and bats.
Looking to the future, Baslay’s farmers are exploring how they can tap other natural resources in their dense woodlands to complement their coffee crop. These include harvesting wild honey and cacao, as well as rearing water buffalos for carabao milk.
They also hope to add a restaurant that serves native cuisine and local produce. Earlier this year, Baslay Forest Coffee was named as the official product of the municipality of Dauin.
“It has been inspiring to see the growth of Baslay’s farmers into forest protectors and now coffee entrepreneurs,” says Norreen Bautista, EDC Negros’ head of corporate social responsibility. “Our initial goal was to empower the community and liberate them [from poverty]. Now, three decades and three generations later, they’re entirely self-reliant, sustainable, and contributing to the protection of Negros Island’s natural resources.”
For Perez, it’s slightly more philosophical. “There’s a saying ‘we don’t inherit this world, we only borrow it from the generations after us. What I want to leave to my children is a world that is not degraded, a Baslay rich with natural resources.”
TOP Baslay Highland Brew Coffee, a small coffee shop on the foothills of Mount Talinis run entirely by members of its hinterland farming community