Friday, September 17, 2010

Aren't We Farming Yet?

We planted coffee before we knew what we were really doing. It fit most of the criteria we had for a crop we wanted to focus on:
Long-term orchard type crop
Not too intensive to care for
Plants and land-preps for them relatively inexpensive
 A few other crops that are grown around here may have very good returns but also demand huge labor costs and other expensive inputs (fertilizers & pesticides) in a short period of just a 3 or 4 months.
 Actually those first 50 coffee plants were free volunteers that we got from a neighbor. As a newcomer to the tropics, these seemed like an exciting, exotic crop to me, which made them just a little bit more alluring to get involved with. Later on I discovered the local wholesale value for the finished, un-roasted beans, plus the amount of post-harvest work it takes to get them to that point, and the attraction began to fade. Plus, coffee plants take 3 years to begin to bear reasonable sized crops; they’re still far from fully mature. Marketing directly to coffee consumers in the U.S. rather than one of the corporate buyers here, like Nestle, is another business altogether, involving a great deal more volume than we’d have access to for a long time. Something on the order of shipping container loads of the stuff. So, our timid little planting of young coffee seedlings on some of our most marginal slope land hasn’t ever developed beyond that point; after 2 years I’m still waiting to see if we’ll get more than what’s needed for our own consumption.
What did happen soon after this was that we heard about a local grower of a commercially valuable type of banana who was doing well at inter-island export with his crops. We went right away to visit him. We told him we’d already ordered 50 young banana plants and wanted to get some more information from him on growing them if he was agreeable. After he learned that Edna manages her family’s 8 hectares (20 acres) now under cultivation, he turned serious and challenged us to instead, at the least, place a minimum order for 2000 seedlings, enough for one hectare (2.5 acres). Otherwise, he said, we were just playing around at growing these when we ought to be very serious about such a rewarding crop. And, he said, we wouldn’t have fun growing just 50; with the ante up to 2000, things are a good deal more fun. This was actually the plan he himself had followed, starting with a 1.5 hectare planting and then, 14 months later when they matured and gave their first crop, he used the considerable proceeds to expand out right away to fill the 8 additional hectares where we visited him. Now, 3 years after starting his plan, it was very obvious that he was doing quite well, and in the process of yet another, larger expansion at a different location.
So, we went home, feeling both giddy in our heads and sort of sick in our bellies, knowing this was an incredible financial challenge for us to consider. But we also knew that any other plan was not significantly moving us forward financially and that failing to make some sort of drastic change to the management of the farm from its present cropping, which is primarily field corn, was actually going backwards, slowing but surely sinking into a desperate mire of further poverty. 

Making money from growing field corn is the essence of the term oxymoron. The fertilizer companies, the seed companies, the corn buyers, and the banks that often finance all of this activity, they all make money. But the farmers that I observe around here usually operate at a net loss when it comes to this crop. And this is exactly the same scenario for farmers in the U.S. In fact, most of the very same multi-national corporations that American farmers do business with are here in the Philippines as well as most other South-East Asian countries for the same profitable game. Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, etc. all have offices and sales reps throughout the area. It’s sort of like they know a great way to make easy bucks season after season, so they just have to duplicate their operations wherever farmers are still out in the sun and soil struggling to make a living. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aunt Bising's Funeral

Aunt Bising A Few Years Ago
Everyone but me of this small group now at the cemetery, were here before for Iking's funeral and burial, and even though it's been nearly two decades, it all must seem very fresh to them; a stabbing on a dark night unexpectedly taking a young life that should have outlasted the rest of these brothers who are now in their forties. The group is exceptionally hushed while elder brother Winnie has been working, but my mind is astonished and whirling loudly with thoughts about what I'm observing.
When my wife's aunt died recently, she'd celebrated her 77th birthday just the week before. I've attended 7 wakes and a couple of burials here in the Philippines since I've been living here, but I was sure going to see and learn a couple of new things this time. We immediately became quite involved in all of the arrangements for putting Aunt Visitacion, or Bising as she was known to all of her friends and family, to her final rest.

We went to the Funeral Home in the nearby village for their arrangements, then off to hunt down the agent for a burial insurance plan that was now going to be redeemed. In doing these I quickly came to realize that there was no doctor's pronouncement of death, no coroner's proclamation, or any similar official participation.
Later that afternoon, Edna, her dad, the children and I are on our way back over to Aunt Besing's home, well really her daughter Jacinta's home, for the beginning of the Wake . When we arrive, there's a large tarpaulin already being put up over some bamboo poles at the side of the house, and by now Aunt Bising's casket is in the living room surrounded by flowers, candles, some quickly thrown up drapery and other trimmings provided by the funeral home. 
We're here to pay our respects, but also for Edna and her dad, Berato, to assess the proceedings and add to anything else needed at this point. I settle in under the tarp on one of the benches that's been brought here from somewhere and I'm promptly asked if I want some brandy from the bottle on the table nearby. Later, when the occasion has had more time to develop, there will be beer, rum, card playing, chess matches, snacks and coffee to idle away the hours of the visitors out here while the more devout are inside, perhaps just visiting but also praying and singing hymns. For many years Berato has been the president of a group of local people whose function is to lend a hand with all of the things needed for these wakes that no one usually has around at the time they're needed. Like the large tarpaulin, for instance. Or the really large cooking pots, lots of plates
and cups, etc., to feed the many visitors and family who will come to be here, some at great distance like the big jeepney loaded with relatives from Davao 15 hours drive away, who arrive just the night before the burial. I learn later that most of those who attended Visitacion's burial will return to here afterwards to be served lunch. At the burial, I count roughly 200 in attendance and it's immediately apparent what all of the huge cauldrons are for and why a 400 pound pig was also slaughtered.
Jacinta's Sister Carmen Takes a Break
At 71 with a bad ticker, Berato tires easily and after awhile he wants to be delivered back home, a 2 km drive down and up through a muddy, sodden canyon that threatens to engulf our 4x4 mini-truck. Back at our house we load up more pots and tables, turn around and head back down through the mud with our supplies. We stay another few hours at Jacinta's, attending the prayers, but also making pitchers of coffee and serving plates of rolls and other snacks for the crammed houseful of family and friends who've already come from all over the nearby area. It's nearly midnight when we sink quickly into our own bed.
Early next day, Saturday morning after breakfast, several members and friends of the family load up their masonry tools into our small pick-up for the trip to Camp Phillips Cemetery. I'm told that until about 15 years ago it used to be an orderly and well kept place, managed by the Del Monte Corporation. Nowadays it's only sort of cleaned up once a year, on All Souls Day, by the families themselves. Otherwise, it appears as it does today, an overgrown and crowded place with seemingly no room for yet another burial. When I arrive with a load of materials for nevertheless one more interment, I squeeze through the surrounding graves and crypts to see more clearly the place where Aunt Bising's family is preparing for her final resting place. The workers have settled in to the area for the day by spreading some lunch items out atop the neighboring grave vaults that happen to have roofs built over them, offering some shade. They've also cleared the tall weeds growing up through all of the surrounding graves, making it seem as if this is our own private grotto, revealing the family's grave site that will now be altered to accept a new inhabitant. The family plot originally began with Aunt Bising's husband's burial at ground level nearly 30 years ago. Later, atop the flat cement slab of his grave was built another vault about three feet high to hold the casket and remains of the youngest of Bising's seven children, Iking, who was killed in a stabbing at 18, in 1990. Iking's best friend and several of his brothers are now here this day making these preparations for the mother's burial. There's been a lot of intense chatter all morning about the plans for the masonry work that is about to take place, and like most of my experiences here with Filipinos, I try to work out from the very few Visayan words that I understand what is actually about to occur. When we first arrived in the morning I didn't really have a clue, and now that I've returned with the supplies for the masons to work with, I'm even more puzzled; this is quite usually my routine here, lots of mystery. Iking's above-ground vault has had one end-wall removed, revealing the casket and his remains which are now just a pile of rotted wood, metal and his decomposed body in a heap inside, merely six inches in height. A few more hours go by with the masons working on the flat top of his vault. Meanwhile, one of the other brothers, Winnie, sits with Edna and I in the shade, drinking brandy and exercising his love for storytelling, none of which I understand. Suddenly, the shadows have grown a little long and the masons have gone as far as they can for the day; it is now Winnie's turn to do some work. He ties a plastic grocery bag around each hand, forming makeshift sanitary gloves. 
Now, he begins to pull out all of the bits and pieces from inside his brother's burial vault, carefully but silently making an inventory of what is debris from the casket to be discarded, and those items which will now be moved to the new, smaller tomb being built atop the lid. The best friend that Iking had during his lifetime stands at Winnie's side while this work goes on. Bones, teeth, hair, small bits that are impossible to recognize but seem relevant as the brother's remnants are slipped into a sack, along with some personal items found inside, like a pair of sneakers. The rotted and damp casket parts are tossed to the side and will soon be burned with the help of a liter of kerosene.
Things are incredibly quiet while this progresses, but my mind is astonished and whirling with loud thoughts about what I'm observing. A family disinterring a member that they sadly lost, the beloved baby of the family, from his resting place, to now make room for their mother that they've just lost; Visitacion's bright new casket will be sealed in to the place that her son's has been all of these years.
Aunt Bising's Grave Today

In the U.S., I cannot imagine a family in this day and age simply deciding and executing anymore such a simple but still complicated course of action without The State having lots to say about it. The same as before when there was no legal edict for the death of Visitacion, there seems again to be no question or any long, legal or bureaucratic involvement whatsoever. And this is one of the things that I like so much about being here, that most serious matters about life are dealt with very directly, with little or no concern about needing the proper permits and permissions from somewhere in a government office. It's talked over amongst the family members for awhile, and then work begins to resolve what needs to be done. Other things may be next to impossible to do, like getting a divorce, for instance. But this day, a family exhumed a body that didn't really belong to anyone but themselves to make room for the burial of another of their own family that died of natural causes.