Barako coffee at risk of extinction due to Taal eruption

Davinci Maru, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 29 2020 08:20 PM | Updated as of Jan 30 2020 07:45 AM

Fearing spoilage because of the ash fall, Sophia Bedua is forced to harvest coffee fruits, whether ripe or not. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - It's a bitter reality coffee lovers in the Philippines may have to swallow.

The country's specialty coffee, kapeng barako, is in danger of becoming extinct after thousands of its trees were damaged by Taal Volcano's eruption, industry officials warned Wednesday.

"There is a danger of extinction because barako is primarily grown in Batangas and Cavite. Right now, we have to do some risk management by saving the species," said Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI) president Pacita Juan.

Cavite and Batangas, which produce about 90 percent of the country's barako, were among the areas affected by the January 12 eruption.

The volcano belched a towering plume of steam and ash, which blanketed some 4,309 hectares of coffee farms, data from the Department of Agriculture (DA) showed. 

Many trees did not survive while others would take at least 2 years to recover. Some 5,000 small farmers also stand to lose their livelihood.

"We're taking a long-term positive step to protect the species... We want to protect that sort of trademark coffee that is so attached to the Philippines," the board's director Guillermo Luz said.

The Philippines is only 1 of 4 countries that produce barako, which comes from the Liberica variety, he added. Other Liberica beans come from Malaysia, Vietnam and Ethiopia.

In order to reproduce barako, which is known for its strong flavor and sharp aroma, the board plans to use one-third of the harvestable coffee in Cavite and Batangas as seedlings to be planted in other areas, such as in Mindanao.

"It's a crisis but a unique opportunity... We've taken a hit but we have a plan to recover and expand the production areas," Luz said.

Some 15,000 barako seedlings stored in a private farm in Alfonso, Cavite were also spared, the board revealed.

Ash-coated trees will also be cut up for it to regrow and bear coffee cherries again under a "rejuvenation program."

SUPPLY SHORTFALL

The PCBI, however, warned consumers they might have to get their caffeine kick from other varieties for now.

Since the coffee industry in Cavite and Batangas took a major hit from the eruption, supplies are expected to dwindle due to the production loss of about 40 percent.

Prices may also soar for barako, which is currently being sold at P250 per kilo, said PCBI director Alejandro Mojica.

It would also take around 2 years for the industry to significantly recover, he added.

"The harvest next year is already affected," Mojica said.

In total, coffee farmers will lose around 5,000 metric tons of green coffee beans worth around P600 million, said Rene Tongson, also PCBI's director.

If converted to roasted products, it would amount to more than P1 billion, he added.

"Old farmers also started to lose interest and might go to planting other crops... Not only do we have to rehabilitate the trees, we also have to rehabilitate their mindset," Tongson said.

The board is set to meet with the DA to discuss measures that will help growers recover their losses and for the industry to recover.

COFFEE CONSUMPTION

The Philippines, an ideal place to grow quality coffee, produces some 35,000 metric tons of green coffee beans annually, Juan said.

Filipinos also consume 150,000 metric tons of coffee annually, which could translate to 120 million cups of coffee, she added.

"The demand for coffee is strong. The consumption is rising, but production is dwindling, if not plateauing," Juan added.

To fill the huge gap, the country imports coffee products from Vietnam and Indonesia.

The Philippines grows 4 commercial varieties of coffee—Robusta, which is mainly used for instant coffee; Arabica, which sells at premium price; Excelsa; and Liberica (kapeng barako.)

Mojica considers Barako, in particular, as laborious variety because it grows in climate with a distinct dry and wet season.

It is also cultivated in areas with an altitude of between 250 to 800 meters and soil with "plenty of organic matter," he added.

"Mahirap pa siyang kunin tapos kunti pa ang binubunga, pero doble naman ang presyo," Mojica said.

Coffee was introduced in Lipa, Batangas in 1740 by a Spanish Franciscan monk, according to the PCBI.

From there, it was then cultivated in other parts of Batangas before reaching Cavite in 1870.