Now Brewing: A Perfect Storm

As a unique Filipino coffee catches on worldwide, so too, Cameron Conaway believes, will the child labor it’s tied to.

MANILA, Philippines – Manny Pacquiao, José Rizal, the Thrilla in Manila and the multicolored jeepney are images triggered by the mention of this area. But Filipinos are making room for another icon: the kapeng barako. While the rest of the world has enjoyed mostly arabica coffees, they’ve enjoyed this rare liberica variety that grows in places like Cavite and the southern province of Sultan Kudarat.

At present, the Philippines accounts for only 1% of the global coffee supply. However, as China increasingly becomes a coffee consumer and as foreigners increasingly come to love the distinct flavor of the kapeng barako, coffee business here is predicted to boom. This is all great, except for the fact that child labor in the Philippines is up by 30% over the past 10 years. Oh, and that line in the September 2012 issue of Smile Magazine that reads: “…children are the preferred coffee pickers; they simply clamber up the trunk to reach the cherries in the highest branches.” Preferred. Simply.

A child in Cavite works the sun-drying coffee seeds

Taxi drivers and restaurant owners all said the same thing, “Yes, children work the coffee here.” Whether it’s picking the cherries or raking the sundried seeds, it’s clear that kids work a significant amount in the Philippines. I don’t have a problem with children working, but as I said about my experience in the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh: all child labor is not created equal. There is a difference between a child helping out during the day—if education simply isn’t a possibility in the area—or doing some work after school, and putting in 12-hour days of brutal labor in the fields. There are good lessons to be learned in work and often children working is simply part of the culture. While I’m not a fan of Westerners policing the world and thumping their fists at differences, I’m also not willing to stay quiet when all signs point to this being a devastating situation for an entire country’s children.

“Coffee pickers harvest cherries the old-school way – by hand…” (Smile Magazine)

At the Asia Pacific Forum on Human Trafficking hosted by Not For Sale in Manila, I heard from survivors of human trafficking. Mothers. Fathers. Children. They all wanted their kids to have an education. For the most part it wasn’t a matter of not wanting it or not appreciating what an education can provide. The argument is made that family values need to change in order for poverty-stricken groups to see the long-term holistic benefits of an education. Please. Survival always comes first. Education means nothing to a parent whose ribs are bulging, whose child’s oblique muscles blink with each breath. The problem is making the practicalities of education a possibility—things like affording the travel expenses to reach the school village. An element of stability must be present for an educational system to take root, and this stability, especially for notoriously underpaid laborers like farmers, is often a dream that remains untenable.

President Barack Obama was lauded for addressing human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative. While this is great, the real heroes are the warriors on-the-ground like the Visayan Forum, people and groups who have their finger on the pulse of child abuse and human trafficking in their areas. They are the few who not only can offer support after the fact, but can read when a perfect storm may be brewing. Take the story of Dante Campilan. Since he was seven he’s been engaged in backbreaking work under the blazing sun in the sugar cane fields of Mindanao. Getting his story out there might not change his life situation, but it could. And that story could help give him a chance at a fair life, a life where he has choices, a life where he could even become an activist to save others from missing their childhood the way he has. \

In the battles of child labor and human trafficking, we need to create more “coulds.” The way to do this is not only by rescuing and providing shelters, but also by preventing a tragic situation by sensing a brewing storm and signaling the alarm.

—Cover Photo sarahemcc/Flickr

—Child Labor Photos/Smile Magazine, Sept 2012

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. i agree…:)

    of course 96 million pesos is a huge amount especially for an NGO.
    obviously the buck stops with the exec director who comes across as a humble quiet woman but this really is just an act…. as the media has picked up on.

    the law with do its course, but a guilty verdict will see the end of visayan forum and thier licensing removed. anyway lots of other great orgs around anyway.

  2. Dear Pau,

    (1) “US Tax payers are rightly annoyed.” Of course they are. Americans in general hate taxes of all kinds – our politicians can’t even talk about raising them or they won’t get elected, especially if it has anything to do with helping people outside of America.

    (2) “all british funding to this org has been stopped.” As they should have. The money needed to be listed as funding and they’ve got some work to do with financial transparency and bookkeeping. But money isn’t everything when it comes to corruption – especially with the php to dollar difference and especially with the good they’ve done. I believe much of the money they didn’t cite was likely used to fight trafficking and pay their human trafficking investigators. In any case, at most I see this as perhaps a few bad apples in an otherwise awesome group of people.

    We’ll see what happens. Either way, I’m glad you’re up on this issue. So few people are.


  3. all british funding to this org has been stopped! enough said

  4. can u tell me of any other ngo in the philippines who have corrupted away nearly 100 million pesos!! usaid and the us government would not file charges without a water tight case… us tax payers are rightly annoyed! all those supporting this organsiation we will proven so wrong!

    so i think your last comment is a bunch of malarky!!

  5. Dear Pau,

    I’m glad you brought that up. They’ve had some problems recently, but I’ve met far too many of their amazing workers and I’ve watched them do far too much good all throughout the Philippines to believe they have some sort of widespread scheme going on. Most corrupt NGO in the Philippines? To quote Vice President Biden: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.”


  6. visayan forum!! the most corrupt ngo in the philipines!
    they have a pulse in their pockets!! for US tax payers AID money!!

  7. Thanks for the note, Singlan! We’re hoping for the same.


  8. Excellent piece, Cameron. Thanks for signaling the alarm….I hope my (former) homeland and the world over will hear it.

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