Dressed in a black hoodie and jeans despite the sweltering city heat, Andres Malumpong shuffles into a modest factory building with a timid smile on his face, cradling what may as well be a pot of gold. Over the past 10 days, the 56-year-old farmer has gathered 2.5kg of coffee beans from the forest floor near his mountain village, situated 175km south of Davao City. He has travelled by motorcycle to personally deliver his precious harvest to Greentropics Coffee in General Santos City, near South Cotabato province. This social enterprise has been partnering with indigenous smallholders to produce fair-trade, single-origin coffee since 2007. However, the hefty bag of soiled beans in Andres’ hands isn’t his usual delivery. It’s actually one of the world’s most expensive – and unusual – types of coffee.
Andres is a Blaan from Purok 8, the farthest settlement of Kinilis village in Polomolok, South Cotabato. Kinilis is situated on the southern shoulder of Mount Matutum, home to some of the best arabica coffee beans in the Philippines, which they have been growing since the 1700s.
“The success of kafe balos has encouraged the communities to be stewards of wildlife conservation”
Known for their intricate embroidery and loom-weaving of dyed abaca fibres, the Blaan are one of the numerous lumad – a collective term for the non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Mindanao. Over the past century, the Blaan have been displaced by lowland settlers from other parts of the country and by multinational companies engaged in large-scale farming, logging and mining. Ethnic minorities across the archipelago, being among the poorest and most neglected in Philippine society, often suffer from discrimination and exploitation. Consequently, lumads have often been forced to retreat into upland areas like Matutum, a 13,947ha protected nature reserve rising above one of the world’s largest pineapple plantations, managed by an agricultural corporation. Fortunately, the area overlaps with around 10,000 hectares of ancestral domain, which legally upholds the land rights of Blaans living in the shadow of the mountain.
With the continued assistance of Greentropics, the once-marginalised villagers have markedly improved their standard of living by growing organic coffee and collecting an off-putting but sought-after by-product: civet coffee. Known as kafe balos among the Blaan, civet coffee is made from beans that have been consumed and then excreted by palm civets, a weasel-like forest animal from South and Southeast Asia that often forages for the ripe coffee berries on the plantations. Philippine civet coffee is produced by the Philippine palm civet (Paradoxurus philippinensis), a newly recognised species also found on Borneo and the Mentawai islands of Indonesia. “Since we started focusing on coffee, our lives have become so much better,” the soft-spoken Andres says. “My family can now eat three times a day.” At P900 (S$23.60) per kilo – more than five times the rate for regular beans – his latest delivery will earn him P2,250 (S$59), enough money to buy a 50kg sack of milled rice.
Civet coffee famously originated from resourceful locals working on Dutch colonial plantations in Java and Sumatra who, having been prohibited from harvesting the main crop for personal use, acquired a taste for the kopi luwak left behind by the coffee-eating civets. On Matutum, some Blaan farmers consumed civet coffee out of frugality, long before it became a luxury beverage around the world.
“My father gathered the droppings because he didn’t want [the beans] to go to waste,” says Julita Buan, president of the Matutum Coffee Producers’ Association, which was established two years ago to allow the farmers to take over more steps in the manufacturing process. “Soon, everyone in our family grew to enjoy kafe balos. We had no idea it was expensive!”
In 1991, the strange brew was introduced to the West by UK-based coffee trader Antony Wild. Prized for its smooth, earthy flavours and reduced bitterness – a result of enzymatic fermentation in the animal’s digestive tract – a cup of civet coffee can fetch prices of up to S$135 per cup in the United States. Unfortunately, the lucrative industry has led many unscrupulous entrepreneurs to try and meet this demand by caging poached civets, often in terrible conditions, and feeding them only coffee berries to increase production. Not only is this cruel, it also results in inferior coffee since the animals can no longer pluck the sweetest, finest fruits.
Greentropics founder Fred Fredeluces guarantees that all their kafe balos – which accounts for around 10% of their total annual coffee production – is ethically sourced, devoured by wild, free-roaming animals and collected by smallholders who sell only unprocessed beans to ensure authenticity. The company produces a total of 15 to 25 tonnes of organic coffee every year, supplying hotels, coffee shops and souvenir stores in General Santos. Available ground or as whole beans and starting at P700 (S$19) for a 70g pack, civet coffee sales have picked up in recent years and their Davao-based retail partner Kafe Balos Project caters to American consumers online.
Since the late 1980s, Fred, a former NGO worker, has forged long-term relationships with Blaan coffee farmers from Matutum, helping improve their regular coffee production by teaching them better harvesting and processing methods, and since 2008, encouraging them to collect civet coffee for extra income. “I want to add value and enhance their skills, making them part of the development spectrum of the region,” the 57-year-old social entrepreneur says. “They have come out of their shells, and now present themselves proudly as Blaans.”
Moreover, the success of kafe balos has encouraged the communities to be stewards of wildlife conservation. When Fred began acquiring wild-sourced civet coffee from Matutum, he also convinced the tribal council of Kinilis village to prohibit the capture and hunting of Philippine palm civets, thereby protecting a vulnerable species formerly regarded as a pest or a source of bushmeat.
Like other coffee farmers in Purok 8, a settlement of around 50 scattered households, the Buan family has upgraded from horses to motorcycles and renovated their home as a direct result of coffee cultivation. “I can now afford to send my two youngest children to school,” Julita reveals as she chops a pear-shaped chayote gourd for chicken soup and tends to the wood fire that’s cooking a cauldron of rice. The 50-year-old matriarch prepares dinner in a sooty outhouse kitchen that was once the tiny bamboo-walled hut where her family of nine slept on the ground – “like a can of sardines” – under a leaky iron-sheet roof. A two-bedroom house with concrete foundations, plywood walls and glass windows now stands proudly next door.
The following morning, cloud caps dissipate to reveal the lush volcanic peak looming over the village. Judith Morallas, the fresh-faced eldest daughter of Julita, scours a relative’s plantation up the mountain with her amber-haired mongrel named Baby Dog. Crouched beneath coffee shrubs, under the dappled shade of towering evergreen trees, she scans the leaf litter and inspects moss-covered fallen logs. Coffee scat is hard to come by outside the peak fruiting season between October and February, when the 8ha farm can yield up to P22,500 (S$590) worth of kafe balos in a month – that’s nearly four times the minimum monthly wage of an agricultural worker in the region.
After half an hour, Judith’s persistence pays off when she finds some elusive droppings, between the buttress roots of a large tree. She scoops up the loose, yellowish beans with her hands and carefully wraps them in a fresh leaf. “There’s more here!” Her jovial aunt Gloria Diamante yells from across the plantation, after uncovering two more clumps whilst weeding. As expected, the morning’s harvest is meagre but at least they aren’t leaving empty-handed.
Judith, who married a non-lumad lowlander, is determined to pass on her family’s coffee expertise to her precocious six-year-old daughter Maricarl, who eagerly helps to search for coffee scat in her free time. “I want her to learn our way of life, and be proud of her indigenous identity,” says the 32-year-old former schoolteacher. “Who else will inherit our wealth?”
With the Blaans of Matutum now empowered, one can be assured that every sip of their exotic brew is a cruelty-free indulgence that not only supports indigenous farmers and their families but also helps protect their unwitting furry forest allies.
This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine