by Fr. Shay Cullen

I love to go to the villages of the Aeta indigenous people of Zambales where I have worked for the past 45 years. These original Filipino people have survived for millennia on the northern island of the tropical archipelago, as long as 30,000 years, some anthropologists say. I climbed the grassy hills which were once their ancestral homelands and were deep in the primeval rain forest but since the turn of the century, the rain forests have been under logging attack and are almost gone. Their demise has made global warming all the worse.

The Aeta people would have been gone too since they are the people most badly affected by this loss of habitat. Most of the wildlife have disappeared or has been greatly diminished. So the Aeta people lost their traditional means of survival. But they learned to plant and nurture the logged-over land. They are a gentle, peace loving people and until the forests were cut down they were forest dwellers, hunters and gatherers. Now, they live in small tribal groups in small villages.

Their life was far from idyllic, they had nothing else but the unique skills of an ancient people to survive in the harshest and most difficult of environments. They live for the most part in lightly built, low wood framed huts with walls of bamboo and matted grasses on the roof; the long grass grow in abundance on logged over hills. Deforestation is one the greatest ecological crimes against the Filipino people.

They have learned from their ancestors great knowledge of medicinal, herbal plants and remedies that helped them heal wounds, kill infections, resist or overcome malaria with the ground bark or sap of a tree, to cure colds and flu with a mixture of herbal juices and teas. They learned how to build up their immunity against many diseases by a healthy diet of wild berries, honey, vegetables and mango and other fruit and they feast on forest chicken or wild pig occasionally.

The most beneficial fruits for their health they said are mango, guava, guyabano, calamansi and coconut. Rice is their staple. The Aeta have adapted to every situation: climate change, social upheavals, white man’s diseases, wars and land grabbing, sickness and malnutrition, isolation and racial discrimination. They adapted to the loss of their forests and ancestral lands. They are truly an amazing people.

In the village of Batiawan, I met a wizened old lady who beamed with happiness when I and my two companions, volunteers, accepted her invitation to sit outside her small bamboo and grass hut and share a cool drink of coconut water. Then she reached into a woven basket that she had made herself and took out a mango fruit. This was harvested from the towering mango tree that dominated the village, gave shade from the intense, morning sunshine and protected the little bamboo and grass roofed houses during typhoons.

The mango was still green with a hint of yellow, it was just ripening. She swiftly sliced on both sides of the large flat seed and handed me and my companion a piece of the fruit. We tasted with relish that tangy sour and sweet taste mingled together, nothing like it in the world, I thought. “You have so many mango fruits here, growing wild, you must be able to get rich by selling them, they fetch a good, high price in the local market?”, I asked Aling Maria.

“It is not possible, the dangerous work of the young men climbing the trees gathering the fruit and carrying them in sacks many kilometers to the markets earns so very little money. It is not sufficient to buy even a few kilos of rice. We leave them to fall to the ground and we eat what we need”, she told me.

I stood up and walked around the area and indeed it was littered with mango fruit rotting away. What a terrible loss, I thought. What cheating and unfairness this is, the Aeta are truly exploited I thought. I wanted to help but didn’t know how.

Then many years later, I discovered that there was a big market for dried fruit and I thought of the many thousands of mango fruits scattered on the ground all around that Aeta village and many other villages also. I found a business partner with a factory drying fruit and bought the mangos from small farmers and the Aeta.

The Aeta and small farmers got organized and now they get a high fair trade price for their mangos which is 200 percent higher than what some commercial traders will pay to them. There are development projects for them too. Also, there is a bonus payment given to the small, lowland farmers.

I had a quality dried mango with no added chemical, coloring or preservative and to last a long while. There is also one that is totally sugar free and yet retains a tangy naturally sweet taste. They all sell quickly and we can even help abused and exploited children with some of the earnings.

It’s not only great to taste and improve one’s health, vigor and immunity but it is spiritually good too. What I mean is, not only does a buyer of fair trade goods help small farmers and Aeta and abused children, but it’s a better way to live.

Above all, the Preda Fair Trading brings economic justice and opportunity to the poorest and most exploited of all. It lifts up their lives, sends their children to school and makes this world just a better place for all. And all can be part of making the change by being a fair trade buyer, doing right with a shopping bag and getting a taste for justice. [shaycullen@preda.org; http://www.preda.org]

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