On the way to the site where native food chain Binalot Fiesta Foods obtains some of its banana leaves, President and CEO Rommel Juan is getting a crash course on dealing with Aeta tribesmen. “Apparently they prefer to be called ‘kulot’ (curly) instead of Aeta,” he says. “I’m surprised. In Manila we always thought it was a derogatory term.”
Juan is visiting the second site of his DAHON (Dangal at Hanapbuhay Para sa Nayon) Program, which sources leaves directly from farmers instead of going through middlemen. “Our initial site in Laguna is still active but we’re looking for additional sources,” explains Juan. “We discovered that the highlands here (in Zambales) have a lot of ‘butuan’ banana plants whose fruits are delicious only to birds and bats, which is perfect since we only need leaves.”
The Aeta communities reside near the bananas, which is why Binalot tapped them for the northern DAHON program. But, unlike the Laguna farmers, Juan and company have to contend with a different culture. “Sa Nagcarlan wala lang silang opportunities,” (In Nagcarlan they just have less opportunities) explains Juan “we only needed to train them to use the resources they have. Here, most of them are content with subsistence farming.”
Bayani Canlas, DAHON local coordinator, explains: “Maraming puso ng saging, kamote, gabi, at kung anu-ano pa sa kanila kaya hindi nila gaanong problema ang pagkain. Hindi sila masyadong nag-aalala tungkol sa kakainin nila bukas.” (There are lots of banana hearts, camote, taro, etc. in their area so they don’t have much of a problem with food. They don’t worry about what they will eat tomorrow.)
The easy-going attitude sometimes causes problems with orders. “Pag marami silang kakainin, ‘di na minsan iniintindi yung pag-putol ng dahon, kaya nagkukulang kami sa order.” (If they have plenty to eat, they sometimes don’t prioritize gathering leaves, which is why we sometimes come up short.) Canlas is fortunate to have the support of lowland-raised Aetas to help him fill orders which can go as high as 26,000 leaves per week.
Juan sees this as a unique opportunity. “Of course in our operations we want a steady supply but this insight is so interesting from a CSR perspective. How do we make them more (for lack of a better term) ‘professional’ while still keeping their culture?” adding that the key is to offer them something that they want or need. “They don’t need money to survive so a straight transaction won’t work,” muses Juan, “but developing their community so that they’re better equipped to deal with lowlanders might be more appreciated.”
On their way back Juan and his team notice a lot of kids in school uniforms and learned from Canlas that a lot of Aeta children go to the local public school. “Maybe we can start there: provide transportation to make it easier for the kids to go to school” observing that while they may not need money for basic necessities, they will require some cash to send their children to school.
“Education is the key,” claims Juan. “We need to make sure the next generation has the skills to rise from subsistence living.”