Starweek Magazine

Coffee for peace

Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - From a political activist to being a peace activist, Joji Pantoja knows what transformation can do to a person. Whether a farmer or an advocate, the change starts from within. And even in farming and planting coffee, the being, the self must first be whole to be able to commune with Nature. Sounds esoteric? Biblical? Even ethereal? That belief has made Joji convert coffee farmers into responsible community leaders and peace builders.

Up in Bansalan, Mt. Apo, 1,700 meters above sea level or similar Indigenous People’s areas,  Joji and her team can stay for about six weeks for the total training module. And all these to teach them how to farm and pick the best coffee available. Why six weeks? The training is not just about digging a hole, putting a seedling this high and watching it grow. The training involves values formation, before anything else.

And the coffee tastes good. My colleagues in the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI) stopped by Joji’s outlet in Matina, Davao City where her café called Coffee For Peace is located. Open until 11 p.m. or sometimes until 2 a.m. so that those who may have had one too many can chug a cup of coffee before heading home, Joji proudly hosted us for late afternoon coffee.

Around the store you will see wall hangings from the Maranaw, Tala-andig musical instruments, a fishing cage used as a lampshade, a table with sewing machine bottoms. I was thrown back to Malate in the 1980s where eclectic cafés were in fashion. But the café envelops you in her cause – that of helping lumads or IPs become better coffee farmers, while also developing their inner selves.

We met a Canadian intern in the store and another American Mennonite intern in her processing center. These lads will stay with her for one year to eat and breathe the cultures of the IPs Joji works with. And mind you, as interns, they pay her for training. Good deal, don’t you think? She gets extra hands in the café or in her factory while getting paid to teach these youth.

I could feel the passion of this woman whose desire is to make great Philippine coffee known to the world. Sounds familiar? I could relate to her desire to teach the farmers, one community at a time, one village at a time, one family at a time.

After a round of coffee, we headed to her processing center where Joji the innovator works. She has designed coffee drying beds of all shapes and sizes, of low to high budgets, so farmers can dry their coffee on raised beds and not on the ground where it is exposed to foreign matter, including dirt and stones.

She showed us how quality coffee is exported in small microlots (one sack at a time) to Canada and the US. She showed us her family of peace builders who sort the coffee with care, day in and day out. And this is why her coffee goes to a company I came across in the USA called Level Ground Trading. This company gets only from direct sources such as Coffee for Peace. I have seen the gondolas of Level Ground in a fair trade store chain called Ten Thousand Villages. These stores are all over the US and Canada, and I was so proud to see a Philippine-sourced Level Ground package when I used to see just Africa and Latin America in their packages.

In fact, I saw these coffee in Ten Thousand Villages just before I opened the ECHOstore in the Philippines and it has admittedly inspired me to make ECHOstore a place for artisans and small producers – of coffee, cocoa and everything else we proudly produce in the country.

I asked her what she dreamed for Coffee for Peace in five years’ time. She replied while driving her trusty four-wheel drive vehicle: “I want to see Philippine coffee around the world,” she starts. Check. “I want to teach farmers the whole value chain so they can even own their own café,” she continues. 

And this will soon be reality. She plans to open a “KAPE-yapaan” (a play on the local word for peace which is kapayapaan) in Valencia, Bukidnon, where farmers will be running the enterprise – tasting their good coffee, serving their own coffee.

Indeed, besides peace-building in communities, she also builds enterprises, and empowers the farmers to be the proud farmers and retailers of their coffee products.

She may as well be our Ambassador for Peace. Peace not just in conflict areas like Mindanao, but peace also in conflict zones like our own homes, our own communities.

And also peace within ourselves.










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