Philippine Banana Cooperatives’ Successes and Challenges

Food First | 08.31.2020

The following is an interview between Kahlil Apuzen-Ito from Foundation for Agrarian Reform Cooperatives in Mindanao (FARMCOOP)  and Food First’s Erik Hazard, which took place just before the global COVID-19 shutdowns occurred. It is based off of Food First’s Issue Brief, Philippine Banana Farmers: Their Cooperatives and Struggle for Land Reform and Sustainable Agriculture by David Bacon.

Cover Photo by David Bacon

Erik Hazard (EH): Can you talk about who FARMCOOP is and how the organization supports the banana cooperatives in the Philippines?

Kahlil Apuzen-Ito (KA): FARMCOOP stands for Foundation for Agrarian Reform Cooperative in Mindanao. We work to uplift small-holder family farming communities from poverty and help develop the economic and social sustainability of small farmer cooperatives and associations.

We are currently working with over 49 small-holder family farm coops and associations in Mindanao, the southern island of the Philippines. Of those 49, we are working with 22 agrarian reform and banana cooperatives which have a membership of about 4,000. We provide legal, organizational, administrative, technical, and educational trainings and services to our partners in these farming cooperatives.

We were founded in 1995 by labor union leaders and plantation workers who were beneficiaries of the agrarian reform in 1987. Many of the original founders were the labor union leaders who were organizing the banana plantation workers back in the 1980s into unions. In response to the agrarian reform under President Aquino, our labor union leaders organized banana plantation workers into cooperatives and eventually formed FARMCOOP.

FARMCOOP has been critical in assisting the small farmers to form cooperatives and gain ownership and control over the land that was distributed through agrarian reform. We have also helped to build the capacity of the cooperatives to manage their farms, produce quality produce, and negotiate contracts with companies that are fair, and thus substantially improve their livelihood and conditions.

EH: How did the land reform in 1987 open up pathways for banana cooperatives in the Philippines and what effect did this have on the material conditions for banana plantation workers who now had the opportunity to become farmers and work the land for themselves?

KA: For many decades, land reform was one of the main solutions proposed to the Philippine government to address poverty. There were many different land reforms over time, but the most important and substantial reform was President Aquino’s 1987 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). The CARP allowed for large amounts of agricultural lands monopolized by large landowners and multinational corporations to be redistributed to agricultural farmworkers and indigenous people. This included land controlled by US multinational companies in Mindanao where bananas and pineapples were produced for export.

The notion of redistributing  land was ideal, but the Agrarian Reform Program was not without its flaws. At that time, there was little to no funding allotted to support the transition for the legal redistribution of the land. Further, there was no training or council given to the farmworkers to enable them to run the cooperatives successfully as a business or even access the market. 

There were no models or paths to follow for farmworkers benefiting from the agrarian reform. Sometimes, the Department of Agricultural Reform created under the program would work against the farmworkers and for [emphasis added] the multinational corporations. This was a huge challenge for the cooperatives and our organization.

Our Founder and Executive Director, along with the labor union organizers at that time, saw that the CARP provided an opportunity to change the situation of banana farmworkers. Despite the challenges, they still organized and strategized ways to make it viable for farmworkers so they could truly gain their land. In that process of forming the cooperatives, there were contracts that the cooperatives signed with the multinational corporations that actually worked against their interests. FARMCOOP worked in repealing those contracts and forming new ones that would be mutually beneficial to the cooperative farmers and the companies.

One of the contributions that emerged from these struggles was the banana producer and purchaser agreement, a contract which allowed for fair pricing of the bananas and would lead to the significant improvement of coop farmers’ standard of living. But early in the process of the cooperatives’ formation, we realized that the farmworkers had to be supported in their transition to thinking as a farm owner. We had to recruit other staff who had skills in accounting and other business-oriented skills to train the farmers in administration and farm management as well. These trainings successfully built the coops’ capacity to run the farms successfully. With this change, the farmworkers’ conditions greatly improved.

To just give you some context to the type of challenge that happened from transitioning from farmworker to farm owner; before, as farmworkers, they were struggling to make ends meet; they were struggling to provide for their households; put their children through school; pay for medical expenses; and they even talked about only using slippers or bicycles to get to work. But now, these coop members are able to afford cars and motorcycles. Their houses are more stable and some of their children are able to become professionals,etc… There was a huge shift in their living conditions, but also a large shift in the mentality of farmworkers. We were able to prove that even without much education, these farmers were able to run a very complex cooperative operation that could thrive in the banana production world.

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EH: What has the larger impact been for Philippine society in general, outside of just the cooperatives themselves? Can you touch on the growing political role of the cooperatives in parts of the Philippines?

KA: To give you a little context, I want to share a story that shows how agricultural workers were treated and also the level of paternalism and classism that has existed for some time now in the Philippines.

At an international conference that I attended a couple of years ago, a large banana landowner stated that “The smallholder farmers in the Philippines, whether they’re associations or coops, will not survive. Eventually, they will need the assistance of the ‘big brother’ to survive.” The big brother in this case are the large landowners and corporations. There really was no confidence at the time that small-holder farmers could thrive in an agricultural setting that was socially and economically dominated by large landowners. 

When we worked with the banana coops, we were able to show that if we consistently focus on creating opportunities and overcoming these obstacles, we can actually distribute wealth through the cooperatives. When these cooperatives improved over time, they were also able to channel some of their resources and efforts to also assist their communities. For example, they were able to provide better livelihoods in the communities around them; they were active in their villages in addressing gender and childhood injustice by raising awareness against violence against women and children; they were involved in school feeding programs to address malnutrition; and they’re taking steps in addressing climate change and becoming better stewards of the land.

They’re also getting more involved in the political system and pushing for their members to become active in the cooperatives’ politics. It helps the cooperatives, but the cooperatives also act in a way that supports their communities.

One example of this was after the earthquake that occurred last year, when cooperatives raised funds to help people who had lost their homes. So they’ve become both a social and political force as well by mobilizing networks and resources to go to areas where people and communities are needing more help.

EH: You mentioned the cooperatives taking steps in addressing climate change and becoming better stewards of the land. Can you talk about the context of the push for sustainable farming methods, what the transition looks like currently, and what FARMCOOP’s role has been?

KA: In the beginning, FARMCOOP’s version of sustainability was just to help economically sustain the coops because it was very critical, obviously, for them to survive and maintain and hold their lands. Over time though, there was a shift. It didn’t happen that quickly, yet, while the leaders of FARMCOOP were organizing the coops, there was also this discomfort with pesticides among the farmworkers. These pesticides were something that they were exposed to for some time in the 1980s. We would have farmworkers come to our house who were very sick, and they would then need to be taken to the hospital. Many of these farmworkers would have severe skin problems and rashes all over their bodies. One of them had such bad rashes from his head to his feet that his skin would flake off all over our couch and our floor. We had witnessed many of these exposures.

There was one important slide show that was done by my mother on the effects of pesticides on farmworkers who were spraying fields. In addition to having skin problems, they also had respiratory issues as well as leukemia. There was already this awareness for some time of pesticides’ effects on plantation workers. There was a desire to shift from that, but developing a different paradigm didn’t really come forth until years later when we had a chance to actually experiment with alternative sustainable farming methods around the year 2000. 

Initially, the impetus for transitioning to sustainable farming was health and environmental reasons, but there was also an understanding that there was a niche in the market. This potential niche in the market gave the cooperatives hope that there was a viable movement towards organic and a healthier agricultural practice where farmers wouldn’t have to use pesticides.  For those farmers who are still uncomfortable with transitioning to organic because they’re unsure if their livelihood would survive, they still have been able to decrease their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Sustainable farming of bananas has evolved a great deal. In the beginning, the mentality at the time was that organic was mainly about replacing chemical fertilizers with organic inputs. Much of that effort was to develop the organic fertilizers to replace the synthetic ones. The composting methods and formulation were improved, but the cost is high, and often prohibitive for individual farmers to practice on a farm-scale. Currently, the best we can do is to centralize the composting so that it can pass the organic certification standards.

Over time, as FARMCOOP became more exposed to different organic practitioners, it became part of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Since then, we’ve learned about other organic areas and resources in both the region and internationally, gradually moving more towards an agroecological approach. This included promoting the building farms’ self-sufficiency so that fertility could be more low-cost and practical for a small-scale farmer. Creating a participatory process was critical to this development of agroecological approaches. We’ve been involved in a project with our staff to work with our indigenous farmers and farmworkers to brainstorm and create a space where we could discuss indigenous practices and local knowledge of plants. Through this process, we can better understand how these communities approach soil fertility, water conservation, and how these practices can be integrated into their farms. We are also experimenting with cover crops, which is quite new to the organization. We are specifically looking for cover crops that are locally adapted as much as possible. We are also trialing Korean natural farming methods such as indigenous microorganisms. We are diversifying some of the banana farms to include other crops like caocao, fruits, and other indigenous plants and trees.

It is definitely growing, but we are still learning as an organization how best to approach organic farming and grow more holistically. We’re looking at it from a different perspective while working with the community to develop this from the ground up.

EH: You mentioned the economic constraints faced by some farmers when approaching organic farming or transitioning to agroecological practices. How difficult has it been economically for some? How are cooperative farmers responding to these pushes for sustainable farming.

KA: It’s very difficult economically. We’re able to afford compost at the moment because the social funds from the different coops are being used to develop the organic sustainability of the different cooperatives. There are conventional cooperatives who are starting to buy organic compost, but for them to develop the compost themselves, it requires larger investments and land areas, as well as access to water. Many of the indigenous cooperatives only rely on rain-fed agriculture with very little irrigation systems at all.  The lack of consistent water for their compost makes it infeasible on a larger scale currently.

They find it quite intimidating—when we presented the idea of the cooperatives making their own compost—but there is an openness as long as we can work on methods that make sense within their communities. But it will take some time because they don’t have a common land where they can create that space for composting. It requires a large amount of land and resources to properly do the composting while it also requires significant transportation to deliver the compost throughout the various farms.

The biggest problem with composting right now is that we have difficulty accessing the materials to do it. In Europe and North America, folks have hay. In Mindanao, we are struggling to find materials for the carbon source. We also have difficulty finding significant sources of nitrogen. One solution is developing a cover crop, which will take time, but it is a good solution. This can help with the organic matter buildup as well as nitrogen and other nutrient buildup. But it may take years for the organic matter to build up and be useful for the farm.

For the most part, the cooperatives are indeed open to sustainable agriculture, even with the obstacles that we’ve discussed, but we need to develop the demonstration farms where we could actually show the different practices that work for an integrated banana farming approach. This way, the farmers may be more willing to jump into more sustainable practices.

Right now, there are three organic cooperatives who have leaders who are open to working with us on cover cropping and integrating other methods to make their own fertilizers. We will be working with them throughout the year and seeing if this is successful and helpful. If their experience is positive, then they could share it with their fellow cooperative members.

Part two of this interview will be released soon.