Coffee and Hope in Violence-Wracked Sulu

Turning beans into coffee is a unique process on Jolo, the violence-wracked main island of the Sulu Archipelago. Farmers put the beans on the road so that army trucks ferrying troops or transport jeeps run over them, acting as giant kneads to remove the pulp.

That is a far cry from the heyday of coffee production in the Philippines, which 200 years ago was the fourth-largest coffee producing country in the world. The country has since been overtaken by Vietnam as the top producer in Asia and now produces a minuscule 0.12 percent of the world’s coffee supply.

Starbucks, this isn’t. The producers in the Sulu chain are even at the bottom of the list of Filipino coffee producers. Acquiring a proper coffee mill would remove the need to have their beans “road-cracked,” as the farmers say while awaiting the daily run of vehicles to do the de-pulping. So far, they don’t have one.

But small as they are, and primitive as they are, the Sulu chain’s coffee farmers hope they can provide some steps out of the poverty and cycle of sectarian violence that has gripped the chain for decades.

Leading the coffee farmers is 60-year-old Putlih Kumalah Sug, who is trying to make her small business work and to pull her fellow farmers along with her.

“My God, is that the kind of coffee we’re drinking!” she says she exclaimed when she saw the farmers waiting for the daily run of the vehicles on the road. She then became interested, she said, in how to make what she called “clean coffee.”

Sulu is one of the centers of the long-running Muslim rebellion that once forced Putlih Kumalah to leave the island after she married a Christian army officer in 1980. When she returned in 2007, she says, she saw that nothing much had changed.

But, inspired by a pamphlet she had borrowed from a municipal agriculturist, it dawned on her that coffee farming might be a way out. She organized a few dozen farmers in her hometown about three years ago to harness the coffee trees growing in abundance but mostly untended across the islands’ fertile soil.

“We have no sanitized processing plant here,” she added, with usually only a traditional wooden de-pulper shared from town to town for farmers to use, diminishing the quality of the fresh picks.

The local agriculture department has only two roasters for the entire province of 19 municipalities, whose production has increased in the past couple of years from fewer than 200 tonnes to about 1,000 tonnes annually.

Putlih Kumalah prefers to take her beans to Manila for roasting and packaging, and eventually sells them at trade fairs and other local shops for indigenous products. She is now gaining the interest of buyers from South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

This has given members of her farmer cooperative, the People’s Alliance for Progress, an income of about P70,000 pesos each (US$1,640) for a seasonal harvest estimated at 30 tonnes – an amount hard to come by when jobs are hardly available in villages wracked by internal wars.

The differences are tangible. The hamlet in which she lives, a former rebel training ground, displays a brighter image than most other rural parts of the island. Houses are painted in pastels and decorated with Islamic bunting and the community has begun finding ways to improve their lot, by gathering resources for farming, sending their children to school, making their own water systems and other basic needs when government service barely makes a dent on ordinary lives.

A trend for coffee has begun, primarily part of the Muslim culture here judging from the several makeshift cafes seen in town and that were once a center of social gatherings before the outbreak of the rebellion in the mid-1970s. A local museum curator said it was here where Arab missionaries first introduced coffee in the 14th century, long before Spanish colonizers arrived on the shores.

Jodl Isahac, a young, active member of civic groups and coordinator for the Philippine Coffee Alliance in the Muslim autonomous region, is taking the matter of persuading Muslim farmers to take their coffee much more seriously, as a matter of course to solving their poverty.

“The farmers should see the difference between picking red” – referring to the ripe beans called cherries, apart from the unripe green ones – “and doing the ‘armalite,’” he said.

Fearing that fighting might erupt anytime, farmers learned to harvest every bud from the coffee trees in one big swoop because they didn’t know when they could do it again, thus calling it by the style of an ‘armalite’ akin to the rapid popping of the Armalite rifle, the US Army’s M16 -- common to the sight and sound of the villages.

This and the crude processing by which is it pulped and roasted, according to Isahac, showed bean defects in the quality of the coffee when he had it tested in the Manila. But surprisingly, he also discovered that it was free of any plant diseases, thanks largely to the island’s pristine, untouched wilderness.

Sulu farmers didn’t give much attention to coffee, thinking of it as something incidental to their way of living, preferring to earn money from the easy harvest of exotic fruits. They normally sell beans to middlemen who buy them at a low price of P40 (US$1) to a high of P120 pesos per kilo to be sold at wholesale value to bigger factories out of the province, including the multinational Nestle factory.

Putlih Kumalah’s farms also produce the coveted civet coffee taken from the animal’s excretion, which can be worth P300 for a brewed cup in Manila. Sulu coffees are mostly of the Robusta and Liberica species.

There are only about 1,000 farmers currently involved in the coffee business, covering an estimated 2,400 hectares in an area much of which remains enclaves for Muslim rebels and their families. The largest areas of so-called plantations, producing 37 percent of the harvests. are found in the town of Patikul, a known lair of the extremist Abu Sayyaf rebel group that has been notorious for kidnappings and terrorist attacks.

“Teaching them the right way will take a long time,” said Isahac, believing that coffee would one day sustain the island’s economy. “If they learn its value and will be given a fair price, they will take care of their coffee and take pride in it.”