In Itogon, in the Province of Benguet, Cordillera, Philippines, the local indigenous Igorot people, one of the various ethnic groups of the area, grow Arabica Typica coffee in their backyards. This variety in the area has a long history.
It was as early as 1875 that Arabica Typica coffee was first introduced to the lowlands of Benguet Province by the Spaniards, where the cultivation proved to be unsuccessful due to the heavy rains and low altitudes that affected the flavour of the coffee. Soon after, the coffee plants were transplanted to higher altitudes, from 4000 to 5000 feet, and seeds were distributed to native people of the Barangay.
In the memories of the locals of Itogon, the Arabica coffee has always been grown in the area, to the extent that is has adapted perfectly to the conditions of the Itogon hills, with most of the coffee trees having been inherited from parents and grandparents before them.
The Itogon Arabica coffee trees are semi-wild and grow between 300 – 2,100 meters above sea level.
Farmers practice multi-cropping with the coffee trees amongst bananas and plantains and other trees like avocado, pomelo, and lemon in the native forests surrounding the barangay. They also grow a wide range of food crops including pulses, sweet potatoes, squash, and plantains, among other vegetables.
However, coffee growing was not the primary source of income for the locals of Itogon prior to 2018, where Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) caused massive landslides to Itogon that lead to the closing of the Itogon mines and leaving the communities unemployed.
A turning point was the support of Michael Conlin, President of Henry and Sons (a leader of freshly roasted coffee beans that was established in 2013) who encouraged the Arabica coffee growers to create the Saddle Hartwell Lumbag Coffee Growers Association (SHALCOGA), where 70% of the coffee growers are women. It is the women who hand pick the red cherries, while the men tend to do the washing and drying. The women also handle the sorting of beans by size and sometimes pound the dried cherries for home use.
SHALCOGA assures that the coffee trees are naturally grown with no pesticides, with the cherries being hand-picked when fully ripe and processed on site in Itogon consistent with the Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence (FSCE) Cup to Seed Protocol.
They sell the coffee beans directly to Henry and Sons after drying.
The Itogon arabica coffee has a nutty, dark chocolate aroma with a balanced level of acidity.
The Itogon Arabica coffee was launched as a Mountain Partnership Product in 2019 at WOFEX Manila.
The Mountain Partnership Products (MPP) initiative strengthens the resilience of mountain peoples, their economies and their ecosystems.
It is a certification and labelling scheme based on environmentally and ethically sound value chain approaches, which promotes short, domestic value chains while ensuring transparency and trust between producers and consumers, fair compensation for the primary producers, conservation of agrobiodiversity and preservation of ancient techniques. You can read more information here.
Moreover, the Food and Tourism for Mountain Development in the Cordillera pilot project was developed by the Mountain Partnership Secretariat, Slow Food and the Department of Tourism in the Philippines.
The project is to connect small scale producers with tourism service providers, help promote high-quality mountain products from the Cordillera region and allow visitors to discover and support the unique biodiversity and culture from this region.
So it is possible to safeguard indigenous foods whilst boosting the local economy, promoting climate resilient agriculture and generating more income for Cordillera’s mountain communities.
As a part of the pilot project product value chain and production training activities, workshops and events were organised to promote local mountain economies and improve value chains of the products.