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In Pambuhan young tribesmen proudly display their arms like scars of war. Blue, black, red and some still healing – they are covered in multitude of stings from unforgiving honeybees that thrive in the tropical rainforests of Philippines’ Occidental Mindoro.
It is no mean feat by all accounts to survive the onslaught of venomous avengers on wings. So bigger the conquered hive, taller is the social standing among fiercely competitive peers.
Ruthless they may be, but honeybees have existed in accord with indigenous Mangyan tribes for centuries and form an integral part of their livelihood in the highlands. They are cared for as much as they are vanquished for the unique blend of golden honey they produce.
However, for days of painstaking efforts in the forest and risks to their lives, Mangyan earn next to nothing when they sell their honey to middlemen from the lowlands. The best price they can hope to achieve is 150 pesos or under 4 US dollars for 5 litres of raw honey. The same is then sold by traders in local markets 8 times dearer.
This exploitative trade practice has existed for generations and Mangyan have had little recourse. Scattered in small communities over a vast geographical area, the seven tribes of Mangyan are not only physically and socially isolated from rest of the Filipino population, but are also among the poorest and most marginalised.
A Mangyan family earns on average just $0.34 a day. Nine out of ten Mangyan have poor access to safe drinking water and majority are illiterate. Historically nomadic and forest gatherers, the tribes often struggle to feed themselves, particularly during rainy season which lasts four months. It is such a routine part of their life that they refer to it as “hungry period” like any other season of the year. The consequences are obvious as 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and infant mortality rates are so high that a child is considered fortunate to reach the age of 10.
However, things are beginning to change, albeit slowly with initiatives on the ground. Global child rights organisation Plan International is engaged in child-centred community development for Mangyan since 2005. Through an EU funded livelihood project the organisation is aiming to reduce hunger and poverty among Mangyan communities in Mindoro Island and improve the health and nutrition of 17,000 people, including over 3,000 children.
As part of its livelihood training programme, the organisation in 2010 established a honey processing centre for Mangyan in Pambuhan where community members are trained to process honey using modern methods and sell it directly to the local markets. “We want Mangyan communities to engage in sustainable livelihood activities. Our goal is to enable the communities to take over the enterprise and run it themselves,” says Rachelle Nuestro, a Plan official, in-charge of the project.
From pressing honeycombs with bare hands to processing honey wearing a hygiene cap, it has been nothing short of a culture shock for the Mangyan. Not just that, for majority who have never been to school, Mangyan are coming to grips with basics of value chain, fair-pricing, market strategy and business planning. “It is challenging but we make it as simple as possible in their dialect and context,” says Nuestro.
Mangyan can see the immediate gains. “Now, we process our own honey, sell it direct in the market and earn 70 pesos for 300-gram jars,” says 32-year-old Roberto, a father-of-three. This is a huge difference to about 10 pesos paid by local middlemen for the same.
“Not just processing, we are also training them harvesting honey in a sustainable way and preserving it using better techniques to avoid contamination,” says Manuel Uy, enterprise development officer for the project. In peak harvesting season up to 12 Mangyan people work full time in the honey-processing centre. “During busy periods we produce 600 litres of processed honey in a month,” says 19-year-old Alvin.
With the great success of the honey processing centre Mangyan must now graduate to processing local fruits. “Mangoes grow in such abundance here that Mangyan do not know what to do with them. Training Mangyan to pickle the fruit is our next goal,” says Uy. His words meet the nods of community members.
For a change, the mood is euphoric in Pambuhan. Riding on the crest of their honeycomb success, the hard-stung Mangyan are now daring to get into some pickle.
(Davinder Kumar is an award-winning journalist and Press Officer for global child rights and community development organisation Plan International. This is his concluding feature of a three-part special series on Philippines' indigenous Mangyan people)