What’s Fair is Fair

Growing up as an opinionated teenager in the 2000s, I always felt passionate about engaging with issues of social justice. Amidst the buzz of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 and dreaming of joining the marches in Edinburgh during the British-hosted G8 summit (only the sixth formers got away with skipping school to attend!) I knew that I wanted to do something to make a difference in a world that seemed crippled by poverty, famine and greedy corporations. I remember learning that around 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day (around 65p) which shocked me so much it pushed me towards wanting to get involved in the work of development organisations like CAFOD.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

To add to this, in our high school geography lessons we had classes on how huge global corporations rip off farmers in the developing world, paying them a pittance for the cocoa, coffee and fruit that they may produce. I wanted to find out what organisations were doing to pay farmers a fair price for their goods and so I became obsessed with looking for the Fairtrade mark in supermarkets and ate more Fairtrade chocolate than I care to remember. That year I bought all my Christmas presents from the Traidcraft catalogue and I became actively involved in setting up a Fairtrade stall in school which sold chocolate and fruit juice to the student body every Friday break time.

And then the reality of leaving school happened and my bubble burst. I became a volunteer for a year before I headed to university and ever since then, the words “budgeting”, “sale” and “Tesco Everyday Value” have rested eternally on my lips. I no longer was conscious about where my clothes were made (I boycotted Gap no longer out of anger for the sweatshops but because I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a pair of jeans) and I only managed a small smile when I noticed one day that Cadbury Dairy Milk, arguably the biggest chocolate brand in the UK, had become a Fairtrade Certified product. The only economic development issue I was concerned about was the economic situation of my own wallet.

So, imagine my surprise when last week I found myself high in the mountains of the Zambales province, Philippines tagging mango trees to aid the work of the Fair Trade Project here at the PREDA Foundation.

PREDA (People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance) have been working in Fairtrade now for over 40 years, originally by helping older youth gain skilled training and getting them into job placements. Many of these youth had been unjustly jailed and rescued by PREDA social workers because of their inhumane living conditions on the streets and in jails. Since then, PREDA Fair Trade has fully evolved into a fully certified Fair Trade Organisation which has helped set up livelihood projects in far-flung communities giving opportunities to indigenous Filipino people by providing a fair price for their mangos and other fruits.

Arriving at the Aeta community. The small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year!

Sheltering under the mango tree: the small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year due to the fact they don’t have to buy kerosene for their lamps (there’s no electricity!)

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit one of these indigenous villages and meet the Aeta people as it coincided with a visit PREDA were making to take some solar-powered lights for their community (which would save them almost 4,000 pesos a year – around £55; a huge saving!). The houses, which weren’t so big, were made exclusively of bamboo and had pointed thatched roofs. Plants adorned the areas surrounding the homes and there was a real warm feeling to the community which had houses dotted, almost randomly, around the area. And unlike the slum areas in Manila, there was a lot of space for the kids (and chickens) to run around. In what seemed to be the centre of the village, a large mango tree rose from the ground: a landmark and a perfect sanctuary out of the sun to discuss just how much the support of PREDA is helping in their lives.

They told us that the commercial buyers would charge as low as 5 pesos (around 7 pence) per kilogram of Pico mango, whereas PREDA pays between 10-12 pesos (15-18 pence) per kilogram of Pico and around 17 pesos (25 pence) per kilogram of Carabao mangos. Unlike the commercial buyers who would select the best looking fruit and reject half the crop, PREDA Fair Trade buy all the mangos produced (provided they aren’t unusable or damaged), giving love to all the weird shapes and sizes that might fall from the trees each harvesting season. Even the skins and stones have a useful purpose: the skin is eaten by the animals and the stones are replanted. Everything is used, and nothing is lost!

The foundation also pay all of the money immediately upon delivery of the mangos and a bonus or profit-share is given back to the farmers for every kilogram of mangos sold. All of these fair, ethical business practices completely help to empower the farmers, providing employment and the vital funds to help send their children to school and buy food; things which I know I sometimes take for granted.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmer stands on the far left.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmers stand on either side.

Following the visit to the community, I went with the Fair Trade team to tag some trees which is a requirement to receive ‘organic status’. This had me up in the mountains, jumping and diving over wild crops to get to the trees in order to put a small number plate on each one. There are 8,000 trees to be tagged, so every volunteer who comes through the doors of PREDA is recommended to spend some time getting involved! It was a highly enjoyable day of beautiful scenery and seeing the actual trees which bear the fruit that will be eventually exported to Europe and beyond was something I never thought I’d see. I couldn’t believe that I was right at the beginning of the chain and it made me see Fairtrade in a new and updated light.

Seeing how Fairtrade can affect people so directly has helped me to appreciate just how important it is. It is so easy to forget about the producers and farmers when purchasing goods at home; an invisible workforce who won’t know that the coffee I’m drinking wasn’t fairly paid for. Meeting real people who harvest real trees makes Fairtrade real. It’s real because I have seen it; it makes a difference because the farmers themselves told me it makes a difference, not because The Fairtrade Foundation or Cadbury tells me it makes a difference. It is completely, utterly and without a doubt restoring the dignity of these human beings, like you or I, who have been struggling for decades against companies ripping them off. It is empowering them and it is helping them live their lives to the full.

PrintFrom an overzealous teenager, to a penny-pinching student, I am happy to have had the flame lit once more inside of me. I am thankful to PREDA for letting me experience the wonderful work they are doing, and I can only hope that I can return home with a renewed consciousness of Fairtrade and slowly begin to phase out purchasing from the less-than-savoury companies seeking to make a quick buck from their “desperate” producers.

This next two weeks is known as Fairtrade Fortnight which is an annual, international campaign aiming to raise awareness of Fairtrade and encourage people to buy their goods. Perhaps over the coming days, look out for PREDA products (branded as Forest Feast) in stores. I am told they are stocked in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and in other shops nationwide. If you decide to purchase them, or indeed any Fair Trade product, simply take a moment to think about the man, woman or child living in a remote village thousands of miles away who would thank you over and over again for helping them to proudly support themselves in dignity and for making that one, simple but life-changing choice.

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Typhoon Ruby: The morning after and the weeks ahead (Part 3)

This blog is the third and final part of the story I have to share about Typhoon Ruby, the storm which hit the Philippines at the end of 2014. Click to catch up with part one and part two.

As the winds subsided and the rains began to calm, it was now possible to leave the safe haven of the dark, cramped office. As the power had been out for 36 hours and there was no phone signal we found ourselves not knowing the effects of the typhoon. It’s a strange feeling knowing my family and friends would have found out about the damage caused and the path of the typhoon well before I did, and I was living it!

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

That morning, at around 7 am, I ventured with the Salesian community to drive around the city and see what had happened. It was devastating. Parts of the city were unrecognisable — trees uprooted, buildings destroyed, crops flattened — and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As we drove along the coast, the beach-side barbecue huts that I had previously spent time eating pork kebabs and grilled chicken intestine (really!) had been flipped upside down and we had to swerve to avoid huge puddles and piles of debris that blocked the road. The whole of the visible Pacific Ocean, from shore to horizon, was chocolate brown following landslides washing into rivers and mud coming from the mountains. I felt like I was in a twisted version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Electricity posts were lying flat on the roads and the road which we had previously walked a torch-lit procession was blocked off by rubble and trees.

I had spent over 3 months falling in love with the rural, faraway city of Borongan and I was cut deep seeing what had happened to it. But, what got to me the most, was that if I felt that upset by what I was seeing, I have no idea how people who called Borongan City their home were feeling. I could only imagine the pain I would feel if I saw my home town ravaged quite like the one I was seeing that morning.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

Yet, people were resilient. People didn’t seem to show the same dramatic, over-emotionality that I was showing. The Filipino people just stood up, brushed the sand from their flip-flops and got back to life. I’m not sure whether those I encountered in Borongan were just good at saving face, borrowing the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’, or if their attitude was as a result of resignation but it seemed to me like whatever it was they were feeling, they were showing they were capable of bouncing back. Only a few hours after the storm left Samar, people were laughing and joking, thankful for their lives and one more day to live.

As a foreigner from a different culture, I found this attitude of laughing in the face of adversity very difficult to comprehend. How can you make jokes at a time like this? How can you eat breakfast at a time like this? How can you stop yourself from just breaking down and crying? After chatting to people who lost their homes, had their homes partially destroyed, lost their crops, their livelihoods: I witnessed not one tear roll down a single cheek. As I write this, Pope Francis’s recent words reverberate in my mind —  “please don’t be frightened of crying”. For me, I’m a sensitive soul whose friends are used to seeing me get emotional, perhaps for me it would be more courageous to try and control my emotions sometimes. But, for the people of Eastern Samar, it is a sign of courageousness and bravery, I think, to not be seen as so sensitive or emotional and it’s this that is driving people forward for the sake of each other.

The destroyed "kubo" (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

The destroyed “kubo” (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

As for our place: living on the riverbank left our house vulnerable to flooding and unluckily the typhoon hit when the river was at high tide. As a result, the house was submerged under over 5 feet of water. Luckily, most of our items were moved up to the first floor of the building, but it meant that all of the big furniture was either destroyed or severely water damaged. At one time, even the refrigerator was floating in the water! The furniture in my bedroom had overturned and blocked entry to my room, and the clothes I had left there were sodden. As the water subsided, it left a thick mulch of mud and rubbish across the whole of the ground floor of the house which took days to clean. We lacked electricity and the only food we had to eat was a pig that had floated into our compound, which we slaughtered and lived off for three days — fine when we ate pork adobo and crackling on the first day, not so fine when by day three we were eating pig skin (which still had surviving hairs) and as for the other parts we ate? I’m not sure I want to remember. Not so tasty.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

It was decided, after consultation with the Salesians, my organisation back home and my own feelings, that I would leave Borongan. Of course, I was feeling tired, uncomfortable, irritable, helpless, vulnerable, sensitive and a whole concoction of other feelings and I was happy to leave the situation initially, but there was a part of me that was deeply sad about leaving. I felt like I had somehow played the “I’m A Foreigner! Get Me Out Of Here” card as everybody else had had no choice but to continue the clear-up and live without power, food, water and whatever else it was that we lacked in that time. I also felt like I wasn’t “seeing it through” — like I couldn’t tell my story without having a conclusion. Everything that I was working towards with my volunteering was only 3 months in out of 12, and I unexpectedly had to stop. One minute I was teaching a lesson on the area of a trapezium, the next I was in a car with all my luggage leaving for good. It was a challenge.

But having reflected on it over the last 2 months, the right decision was really made for me. Of course, my work at the training centre would have been on hold, and after my bedroom was pretty much destroyed, it wouldn’t be the first on the list of priorities to fix. With nowhere to stay, and no work to do, it is obvious that it was untenable for me to stay there. And that’s okay. I just hope my friends there aren’t too disappointed that I wasn’t able to stay longer; I know that I am.

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she's about to give birth to puppies!

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she’s about to give birth to puppies!

And so with a heavy, heavy heart my time in Borongan, and in fact my time with the Salesians, has come to an end. It has come to an end in a way that I could never have possibly imagined. I first thought about volunteering with the Salesians in the Philippines way back in 2011, so for a long time I had in my head the picture of how my time would go. And it was different. But I have learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be brave in the face of danger, how to be hopeful in the darkest of situations, how to find joy in the simplest of things, how to communicate without talking, how to cheer and clap a group of children doing the same dance routine for a fifteenth time like it was the first time I saw it and I learnt how to speak a language that very few people in the world could understand.

I can not thank the community of Salesians, all my friends and Filipino families there enough for welcoming me into their homes, inviting me to their parties and going out of their way to be super friendly to the foreigner who quite often sat quietly in the corner eating his Pinoy spaghetti or buko pandan. I will cherish every memory, and I will forever be sharing stories of my wonderful time in Borongan. It has changed me in unimaginable ways.

My final moments in Borongan - leaving behind many friends. Sad times!

My final moments in Borongan – leaving behind many friends. I hope we can see each other again one day!

After a Christmas spent with good friends in Manila, I have spent my last weeks in Cebu at the Provincial House whilst I arranged for alternative opportunities. On Wednesday, I will be moving to Olongapo in the north of country where I will be working with the Preda Foundation, a social and humanitarian organisation which works closely with abused women and children. I will stay there for two months, before I will arrive back to the UK a little earlier than planned at the end of May.