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Finding peace over a cup of coffee

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COFFEE fuels the modern world. It’s the stuff that gets industrialists out of bed, it gets writers to write; it’s what settles deals laid on tables in coffee shops. A business by social entrepreneur Felicitas “Joji” Pantoja reveals what could be an untapped use for coffee: quelling brewing conflicts and having them settled over a cup of coffee.

Ms. Pantoja identifies herself as a peace missionary, working for the nongovernmental organization Peacebuilders Community Inc. Meanwhile, Coffee for Peace, her other involvement, where she sits as CEO, teaches indigenous people’s communities, mostly in Mindanao, about coffee farming and processing, but more importantly, principles in conflict resolution.

Coffee for Peace, Inc., was founded in 2008 while Ms. Pantoja was helping resolve a conflict between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While there, they came upon an incident where a Muslim landowner gave a parcel of land to a migrant farmer, with the condition that the migrant farmer’s heirs would return the land upon the end of the farmer’s life. However, the landowner began to take a share of the farmer’s harvest, claiming it as rent. “Most of the conflicts in Mindanao started with something like that — on a larger scale,” she noted. The conflict between the landowner and farmer escalated into gunfights. “We had some workers there. What we did was, we invited them to this bahay-kubo (nipa hut), and then we served coffee. So at least they could talk over [about] what’s wrong,” said Ms. Pantoja, during an interview last March in a coffee shop owned by her sister. Her sister’s cafe, located in Manila’s flower district of Dangwa, serves coffee from the beneficiary-farmers of Ms. Pantoja’s enterprise, and a coffee shop in Davao does the same. “We observed that people stopped fighting [when near] a cup of coffee. When coffee was served, they start of have a dialogue and converse.”

While coffee might set you on the edge, there wasn’t much consideration on the chemical effects of coffee on the mind. What was important there, of course, was the ritual of withdrawing from the world and sitting down with a person in the hopes of understanding them. BusinessWorld asked if this could have been accomplished with another beverage, but she said, “The common drink there was coffee.” And as for the conflict between the farmer and the landowner? “After that they settled. The migrant farmer understood what this Muslim [landowner] was talking about.”

Coffee for Peace is not something to sniff at, but something you might want to closely sniff. Ms. Pantoja’s beans have been graded an 87 by the Specialty Coffee Association (a grade of 80 already sets you as a premium specialty product). She supplies coffee to a company in Canada under a Fair Trade Agreement, but admits that her production can be limited because of the small size of the enterprise. Currently, she is working on expanding operations. The limited size of production also inhibits her from a profit-sharing scheme with her farmers, but as a temporary measure, she pays above-market prices for their products, to sell to the foreign companies. “We believe that relational harmony — which is what we call peace — and quality coffee, should go together, to make this project sustainable.”

This might sound fancy, but for all intents and purposes, the aim is to give farmers a more stable life in a land rife with conflict, especially armed with tools of peace and reconciliation techniques.

“They have to learn how to handle conflict,” she said.

She gave a case where the IP communities with which she worked would encounter members of the New People’s Army, who would ask the communities for help, especially in obtaining food. Military units would then descend on the communities and tag the IPs as collaborators, or possibly members of the communist group. “The communities say, ‘No; we are just feeding them, because they asked.’” Despite their own dwindling resources, the communities would also give in to the soldiers asking for food. “These poor communities end up feeding both these parties that are fighting. Sila talo (they lose),” said Ms. Pantoja. Because of these conflicts, the IPs evacuated the area.

“Now they have to leave that place and put on hold what they’re doing because of that,” she said, which is where her coffee farming comes into play. “We teach them the value of having the culture of peace. We teach them the value of loving their land.”

“We define peace as harmony with your creator. Harmony with yourself. Harmony with others, and harmony with the creation.”

She then gave an example where, with her help, a decades-long conflict between a banana plantation and several indigenous groups in Bukidnon ended. The government gave the permit for a banana company (sometime in the 1960s Ms. Pantoja estimates) to plant in an area that would have been ceded to the groups as ancestral domain. In fact, a tree sacred to the group was located within the area. According to Ms. Pantoja, they claimed that the company was “poisoning them” and had cut down their sacred tree, and lastly, did not provide jobs for them. The banana company, worried about the brewing conflict, hired a private army to protect itself. Not to be outdone, the IP groups formed a militia. Things went from bad to worse as the militia blew up vehicles owned by the company. It can be assumed that the company’s private army had some tricks up its sleeve too. Either way, Ms. Pantoja met the company’s owner’s spouse while sourcing coffee (she had run out of coffee for her local operations due to her exporting activities), and through her, arranged a dialogue between the company’s owner and the indigenous groups (over coffee, we can assume). The company ended up paying right of passage for its irrigation to the IP groups in Bukidnon, and paid P2.6 million for a livelihood program focusing on food security for the IPs. While this may seem costly, Ms. Pantoja said that the owner reported that he was actually saving money since he no longer had to hire and arm a retinue of bodyguards.

Because it’s only fair, Ms. Pantoja’s Peace and Reconciliation programs are taught to both parties in the conflict. The six-month program includes a three-part course in Peace and Reconciliation, cross-cultural communication, factfinding, costing a conflict (showing the financial real-world effects happened to be effective in this case), as well as survival skills. “Sometimes, there are bombings,” she said matter-of-factly.

While some of us can clock up what happened to the aforementioned situation as luck, as in the chance encounter between Ms. Pantoja and the company’s owner’s spouse. Had she not formed a relationship with that particular lady, would she have been as successful? “We normally [form] personal relationships first. It’s hard to be strangers and suddenly say, ‘Would you like to talk to these people?’”

“It’s more of relationship-building and then, when we learn about the story, then that’s the time we would ask.”

For her efforts, Ms. Pantoja was awarded the Social Enterprise with Peace Impact Award from the United Nations Development Programme in 2015. Earlier this year, she was recognized as one of the Inspiring Filipina Entrepreneurs of 2017, by the Office of the President.

Because her efforts are all about creating dialogue, from speaking herself, what did she learn from listening?

“It’s a long process,” she said, speaking about peace. “When you introduce change, it cannot be an overnight thing. You really have to invest your life with them.”

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