Category Archives: Philippines

A Timely Lesson in Volcanology

I have just competed my third volunteer assignment in the Philippines in past year. I do enjoy this country: friendly people, great food, and they speak English.

This time I worked at the southern tip of Luzon, the country’s largest island. Larger than all the other 7,100 islands. I was asked to conduct an enterprise assessment of BACODECO. This local farmers’ co-op is trying to survive with limited cash and with a large overdue loan. They have many ideas to resolve their problems, but these ideas require prioritization.  In order generate needed cash they hope to expand their piggery, dairy, coconut, silage, water delivery, and retail businesses. All the while they are trying to collect past due micro loan payments from the co-op members. Attempting to do all of this at once, they risk hopping on their horse and riding off in multiple directions at the same time.  Not good for the horse and not good for the rider. But we did make good progress on prioritization.  I hope to get progress feedback in a few months.

The co-op’s office is small, cramped, and not air conditioned (90 degrees, 90% humidity) consequently we held our strategic planning meeting across the road in the modern gas station’s mini-mart among the rows of potato chips and soft drinks.

Mayon Volcano is claimed (at least by Filipino tourism officials) to be the most beautiful volcano in the world. And it certainly is perfectly formed.  See photo. And to add a touch of drama to my location in the city of Legazpi, we are at the foot of this active volcano.

Mayon lies five miles from my client’s headquarters.  It began erupting on June 1 and has kept at it the entire time I have been here. (Look again at the photo.) Steaming continuously. Glowing lava at night.  We are working safely outside the 3.6 mile exclusion zone. I needed to enter the exclusion zone just once to interview the farmer who is responsible for water pump maintenance. But no worries, wayward lava was still over two miles away. Then typhoon Egay blew past. It was out to sea and didn’t hit us directly. But heavy rain and high winds raised concern about lahar danger: massive mudslides down the slopes of the already unstable volcano. Equipment readings on the side of volcano showed micro earthquakes caused by the continuous eruption.  So erupting volcano, micro earthquakes, lahar warnings, and typhoon effects on top of my requirement to aid my co-op client.  But the greatest problem I faced was the termites.

The life cycle of termites dictates that once the termite eggs hatch some hatchlings will become workers, some will become soldiers, and swarms will become flying termites in search of a mate during their brief life span.  At dinner recently we discovered that some prefer to swarm the restaurant guests.  They don’t bite (unless one is rotten wood) but they do fly around one’s face, food, and hair.  Very annoying.  Consequently, the restaurant staff turned off the lights and shut the doors until the swarm disseminated. We ate in the dark for thirty minutes.

By my final day in town I had finished my work so I set out to explore Legazpi.  I visited Lignon Hill, an extinct volcano with a commanding view of the live Mayon Volcano nearby.  After a hot one-mile trudge up very steep Lignon Hill I was able to view Mayon. Or actually the clouds surrounding Mayon.  Sort of a disappointment.  But I overcame my disappointment by stopping by PHIVOLCS. The friendly staff at the Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology gave me a tour of their observation post.  I saw an array of computer screens – – akin to an airport control tower’s screens – – that tracked all aspects of the erupting volcano.  I learned that this was an “effusive” eruption: lava flowing down the slope, not an explosive (and much more dangerous) eruption.

Pasted on the walls of the volcano control room were maps that showed the multiple dangers and geographic range of these dangers. They included:

– Pyroclastic (lava) flow zone

– Toxic gasses zone

– Ash and rock-fall zone

– Lahar (mudslide) zone – – particularly dangerous during a typhoon’s heavy rains

Fortunately, none of these overlapping zones impacted my hotel or my client’s farming areas.  Nor did they impact the Philippines National Police Force championship basketball game.

After my science lesson at PHIVOLCS, I stumbled across the Legazpi Astrodome.  Despite the highfalutin name, the Astrodome was, at best, a local gym with a linoleum floor. But in this gym played one of the best basketball games I have seen in years.  These policemen cum basketball players were superbly talented.  They were lightening quick – – perhaps three to four time quicker than I was during my prime. And my prime ended a couple of years ago. However, despite their impressive skill, none of these players could play in the NBA.  Most of the talent was under 5’8” and the tallest of the lot barely scraped 6’. Also, every now and then the defense didn’t lock down like it should have.  But all in all I watched a very entertaining game. And interestingly, at least to me, basketball is the national sport of the Philippines. And the policemen proved it.

By the way, the red jerseys beat the blue 73-63.

Chocolate, Rice, and Balut

The chairman of HMPC cooperative is one of 35 cacao doctors in the organization. He visits cacao farmers to help them improve their yields. Previously he was a MILF commander.  And before you smirk at that acronym, here in the Philippines it refers to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is, we hope, a former terrorist organization.  This group became active in 1969 when it attempted to secede from the predominately Catholic Philippines and form its own Islamic state. Several decades of insurrection and occasional terrorism followed.  However, an off and on peace process seems to be taking hold.  The MILF has agreed to semi-autonomy in their region of southern Mindanao.  Fighters are being decommissioned; weapons surrendered. It appears that the government and the MILF are on a peaceful trajectory.

And it’s safe where I am, over 400 miles and an expanse of water from the heart of the unrest.  I even checked with a college classmate who was in the Filipino Army about the safety here.  He said good to come, so I came.

I have passed several highway billboards displaying the photographs of 15-20 wanted terrorists.  One giant poster read, “Wanted, Dead or Alive.” It felt like the wild west.  But once again, I am in an entirely safe part of Mindanao.  And Mindanao is that large island in the far south of the Philippines. The second largest of the country’s 7,600 islands. 

My assignment this time is with a cacao farmers’ co-op.  Cacao is the raw crop that, after several processing steps, ends up as a chocolate candy bar…or as other chocolate products including, and I’m not making this up, vinegar, breakfast porridge, tea, wine, cosmetics. I got to try the vinegar, tea, and porridge.  I still like chocolate bars best.

Six months before I arrived, the co-op had engaged another volunteer to help them with product line expansion.  The flavors currently on offer are dark chocolate, milk chocolate, mint, hot spicy, nutty cashew, caramel, choco-espresso and choco-latte. I felt no need to add more.  In fact, I was brought here by my NGO, Grameen International, not to review the product line, but to analyze the co-op’s business initiatives and recommend improvements. 

One situation cried out for solution.  A government bank issued loans to over 700 of the co-op members; the money was used to expand cacao production.  All but four loan recipients have either defaulted on their loans or are years past due.  When nearly 100% of the loan recipients cannot repay, there is something wrong with the program design, not with the loan recipients. The farmers are not making enough money from their farming activities to repay their loans. Working with management we developed a roadmap to use to approach the lending bank to request a freeze in the farmers’ repayments. A freeze would allow the farmers to make a living from their crops without the threat of onerous payments hanging over their heads.  I will find out later how the bank responded to our roadmap.

So that I could better understand their business, the CEO took me to one of their farms. I observed how to prune the cacao trees to allow sunlight to reach the ripening pods. How to graft a young shoot onto an existing trunk to extend the productivity of the cacao tree.  Also, how to slip a biodegradable plastic bag over each pod to protect from pests.

I interviewed the farm owner, a woman in her mid-60s.  When it came time for photos, I tongue-in-cheek suggested she climb into the cacao tree.  Sometimes my humor is a bit too literal for use in other countries.  She began to climb.  I quickly stopped her, not wishing responsibility for OSHA-required injury paperwork.  However, she was the best mid-60s female tree climber I have ever met.

Later at the chocolate processing facility they had me remove my shoes and don a cook’s toque, apron, face mask, and sanitary plastic gloves so that I could temper the chocolate. (See photo) Before molding into bars, one must continuously smooth the chocolate on a granite-topped table. This action removes tiny air bubbles in the chocolate. And tempering is only one of a dozen or so processing steps, cacao pod to candy bar, necessary to satisfy the public’s collective chocolate addiction. Worth noting, I never did get the hang of tempering, the production staff had to repeat my efforts. Chocolate making is not easy.

The Filipinos love karaoke. One night they took me to a karaoke studio where I attempted to sing a song in Visaya – – one of 120 distinct languages spoken here.  Since Visaya is a relatively phonetic tongue I was able to more or less read the lyrics.  Still couldn’t carry a tune though.  Singing is not easy.

Some restaurants have armed door guards. I went to one such eatery in Kidapawan, my assignment city.  The guard seemed thrilled to see a westerner – – I saw no other westerners in Kidapawan – – so thrilled in fact that he left his post at the door to seat me, then bring me water, and later a menu.  Normally wait staff would perform these duties.  And normally a guard would spend his time guarding the door or chatting up the waitress.  But for a brief while the door went unguarded and the waitress un-hit-upon.

Each day the office cook would bring me sikwate (hot chocolate) and putomaya (sticky rice sweetened with coconut milk) as a mid-morning snack. This was only one of many rice offerings throughout the day. The Filipinos eat rice three times daily, or occasionally four.  I’m not a big white rice fan so I would mix it up by occasionally ordering rice noodles, rice crackers, or rice cakes.  It’s pretty hard to avoid a rice-centric diet here.

I did eat one non-rice dish.  Balut.  This unusual fare (unusual to Americans, not to Filipinos) is merely a boiled duck egg.  With a partially formed duck embryo inside.  I tried it, didn’t much like it, and have since eliminated it from my list of good things to eat. I will not be bringing any balut home with me.

The Witches of Siquijor

When an NGO books my travel they do not always find a direct route to the assignment site.  In this instance, to reach Manila I was sent Boston – Atlanta – Seoul – Manila.  Sort of zig zagging across North America and Asia to reach Manila so that I could perform volunteer work.  Such routing is seldom fast and efficient.  But my connection through Seoul, Korea (Incheon Airport) was incredibly efficient.  I passed through security points via facial recognition and paused in front of a no-touch, body temperature reader (anti-Covid measure.) All fast and efficient.

The concourse had all the high-end brands one finds in modern airports throughout the world, but it had something I had never seen before in an airport: robots roving the concourse.  Travelers can use a touch screen to query a robot about flights, shops, restaurants, January 6 hearings, and all sort of other items.  I’m not actually certain of the January 6 information.  I made that up.

I spent 18 days working in Manila with the Federation of Peoples’ Sustainable Development Cooperative (FPSDC.)  Even the acronym is long, but the co-op’s work is admirable.  They assist over 4,000 poor farmers (mostly coconut growers) by providing microloans and housing to families who lose their homes to the frequent typhoons in the Philippines. FPSDC also works to improve the farmers’ yields and process their coconuts into value-added products like desiccated coconut, coconut oil, and coconut sugar.

Finding good market information about coconut sugar – – a task in this assignment – – was a challenge.  This is a relatively new and narrow niche product without its own specific industry code.  For example, the soft drink business has an industry code, 312111.  Use that code to conduct your research into soda pop. But coconut sugar has no code, so information was hard to find. But the product does have a growing following of supermarkets, food processors, and beverage makers. 

Give a farmer a coconut and he will eat for a day.  Teach him to research coconut sugar and he will eat for a lifetime.  So, not only did I conduct market research, I also mentored three members of my client team in how to conduct market research.  Ideally, they will continue to learn of market opportunities well after the end of my assignment.

Generally, I am not a strong proponent of sugar.  In fact, I sometimes say that sugar is the devil.  But, I have a decidedly different view of coconut sugar.  It is natural, organic, unrefined, provides phyto-chemicals not offered by refined white sugar, and importantly, it has a low glycemic index.  This is a boon for those who want to avoid a spike in their blood sugar level.

My assignment was spent working with a small team from the client organization.  We conducted internet research into the demand for this natural sweetener, visited supermarkets to view shelf displays of coconut sugar, conducted Zoom call interviews with industry players, and analyzed internal company data.  All in all, we concluded that growing global demand for this healthy (healthier?) sweetener would be a boon for my client.  We also concluded that significant opportunity for expansion exists in their home market with food processors, bakers, and chocolate makers.  Consequently, FPSDC will focus their efforts for now in the Philippines. But meanwhile, I urge my dear readers to check out your local Whole Foods for evidence of coconut sugar on the shelves. If there, stock up.  Do yourself a health favor and do the poor coconut farmers a favor as well.

The Filipinos have a charming way of making a visitor feel important.  I am always addressed as “sir.”  Often the sir is spoken before my name, frequently before my formal name.  Hence, when I walk through the hotel lobby, the staff will address me as Sir William.  Not quite the princely respect I think I deserve, but respect all the same.

                                                     – – –

The small island of Siquijor (See-key-hor) lies between two larger islands, Negros and Bohol.  Despite its diminutive size it has an outsized grip on the imagination of some Filipinos. In the interior hills are healers who concoct traditional ointments for modern ailments. Some believe these healers to be shaman or even witches. Their brews are a form of witchcraft that should be avoided.  Over lunch in my client’s office in downtown Manila, I told my work colleagues that I planned to visit Siquijor Island upon completion of my assignment.

One of the women at lunch advised me to avoid eye contact with people on that island because they might be witches. “Some of the witches can change from man into woman and even something with fangs or into a cat or dog or another animal.” “If someone taps you on the shoulder, they might be transmitting a bad spell.  You should immediately tap them back to reverse the spell.” I was warned that I might see strange things on Siquijor.  If so, “You must quickly say ‘tabi tabi po’.” It was explained that this means excuse me to the spirits who are causing the strange occurrence.  Tabi tabi po is to be used only for spirits, not to be said to people. Another colleague at lunch said that she had heard of these beliefs but didn’t have any proof of the witches. But then again, she didn’t fully refute them.

Once we reached the island of Siquijor, I decided to visit a shaman to have my creaky right knee treated.  In the small village of San Antonio I spotted a roadside sign: Annie Ponce, Faith Healer.  In Annie’s living room I was seated in a straight-backed chair and wrapped in a sheet. Annie placed a bowl of burning charcoal beneath my chair and poured some mysterious liquid over the coals.  Smoke enveloped my body. The faith healer (shaman) blew on my neck and then on my affected knee. She massaged another mystery liquid into my knee. This was followed by her placing a warm poultice of green leaves on the joint.  The leaves looked a bit like spinach.  During the thirty minute procedure, ten children, grandchildren, and relatives milled about the living room observing the process and the foreigner in their midst.

Before sending me on my way she admonished me to avoid peanuts so that her treatment would benefit my knee.  Sadly, two weeks later it is still creaky. (I just couldn’t stay away from the peanuts.)  But my cross-cultural experience is much stronger.

To wrap up, I have concluded there are no witches on Siquijor and there is no devil in coconut sugar.