The tribal land on a hillside of Mindanao has a spectacular view of the Davao Gulf, which cuts into the island from the Philippine Sea. Unfortunately for the Bagobo Tagabawa people, the view doesn't put meals on the table or pay their children's school fees.
Like many indigenous groups in the Philippines—and around the world—the Bagobo Tagabawa face discrimination, racial tensions and exploitation by unscrupulous businesspeople. Chief Gunda Marquez can tick off his tribe's problems: high illiteracy, contaminated water, poor nutrition and substandard health care for the region's tropical diseases.
So, when Catholic Relief Services began a program to improve agriculture on Mindanao, we were sure to include the indigenous people.
With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CRS has helped farmers improve their coffee and cacao crops. The program has also connected farmers directly to buyers. That critical step is easing one of Bagobo Tagabawa's problems: It has eliminated intermediary traders who had been offering tribal members lower prices than they had been paying to nonindigenous farmers.
Before the CRS project, Gunda says, "we were lucky to get prices of $1.35 per [2 pounds] of cacao," an essential ingredient in chocolate. "Now that we can sell directly to the processing plant, we now get close to $2.00 for [about 2 pounds]."
By way of that processing plant, the tribe's cacao ends up in commercially sold chocolate bars. The extra income goes a long way toward helping the poorest families in the tribe as they struggle to overcome the stigma that comes from their indigenous status.
"We've had a paradigm shift," says Gunda. "The indigenous community, including our tribe, had no idea of our options. We have wider knowledge because of the project. We've learned how to provide a better product."
"Before," he adds, "the traders offered us one price, and we had to take it. CRS sends us updated prices from the big corporations like Nestle and Kennemer Foods International through SMS [text messages]. We use that information to decide when to sell our harvest and who will buy it."
Passing Along a 'Development Mindset'
The better income, which provides purchasing power for everything from food to school to education, has put Gunda's sights squarely on moving his entire tribe forward.
"I want my people to have a 'development mindset' and share that mindset with their children. I want farmers to prosper in the future," he says. "One of my dreams is that, through getting good prices from farming, our children can go beyond elementary school and be able to make a choice between being a professional and going into farming."
The tribe is gradually moving toward better incomes, and Gunda is seeing healthier lives linked to stronger ties to the tribe and ancestral land.
"I can only describe it like this: Our community is a 'sweet home place.' People help each other. We have a beautiful view overlooking the bay. We have ancestral forests still standing. Our abundance comes from our natural resources in our ancestral land. We are blessed to have such a beautiful place, with virgin forest, medicinal plants and sacred space."
He expresses his thanks for the CRS training. "The things we've learned will be with our tribe well into the future."
Tribe member Elino Isidro adds, "We've been taught how to stand on our own—including about our rights as a tribal community—so even when the project ends, we will be able to get better incomes from our land."
As Gunda's visitors prepare to depart, admiring yet again the breathtaking landscape rolling down from the steep hillside and out to the sea, he strikes a final hopeful note.
"We are proud of our tribal identity. It's in our blood that runs through our veins. We might speak English or Tagalog at school, but our heart is in our tribe. We are not wealthy, but we are rich in our kindness."
Jennifer Hardy is the CRS regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.