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Representative of Philippine sugar cane organisation Alter Trade Corporation visits Naturland headquarters

On 22nd February, Elizabeth C. Mondejar, marketing and sales manager of Alter Trade Corporation (ATC) in the Philippines, visited the head office of the Naturland Association in Gräfelfing, Germany. Ms Mondejar was warmly welcomed by Steffen Reese, the general manager of Naturland, and Friedrun Sachs, International Dept. Alter Trade Corporation and Naturland are looking back on more than 20 years of successful cooperation. The first contact was initiated in early 1990s through GEPA, the fair trade company. Naturland accompanied ATC in the conversion to organic agriculture, and after the successful Naturland certification in 1997, GEPA launched the first organic Mascobado sugar on the German market.

Following introductory conversations and after a tour of the head office, Ms Mondejar gave a talk on the various programmes pursued by Alter Trade Corporation as well as on sugar cane and banana cultivation. Some 25 Naturland staff members were happy to devote their lunchtime to acquiring first-hand information about this Naturland partner in the Philippines. Elizabeth Mondejar spent the afternoon talking to the staff from the various departments of Naturland.

Giving cane sugar workers a voice

Alter Trade was founded in 1988, at a time when the sugar crisis in the Philippines, and especially on the island of Negros, the fourth largest island in the Philippines, resulted in the mass unemployment of hundreds of thousands of workers from one day to the next, because it was no longer profitable for the owners of the plantations to harvest the sugar cane. It is true that many of the workers were allocated small plots as part of a land reform programme, but they were not farmers. The aim of Alter Trade was to present the producers with alternative marketing channels and to assist them by offering training courses and advisory services in the field of organic management. Today some 442 sugar cane producers, members of 12 organisations, are affiliated to ATC. They manage an area of some 402 hectares, and in 2015, 107 hectares were managed organically to the organic standards of Naturland. ATC and the fair trade have enabled the members of these co-operatives to evolve from farmhands without a voice to smallholders with their own rights.

Alter Trade produces close to 1,000 tonnes of full-bodied Mascobado demerara sugar in its own mill. 80% of ATC’s sugar is exported, and the main importer in Germany is GEPA. The remaining 20% of the Mascobado demerara sugar are placed on the domestic market. So far the demand for organic produce has been limited in the Philippines, which is why ATC is trying to raise the awareness of the Philippine population for a healthy diet and sustainable farming by means of educational work and advertising campaigns.

Advisory services for diversification and organisation

Besides providing advisory services for conversion to organic agriculture, ATC offers producers assistance in the form of loans and advice on how to handle their finances and in organisational matters. It attends to its members’ health and wants, above all, to eliminate the dependency of Philippine farmers on cheap imported foodstuffs from neighbouring countries. With its project SAVE (Sustainable Agro-ecological VillagEs), Alter Trade wants to encourage sustainable farming and especially the diversity of the crops grown, and enable the farmers on the island of Negros to produce their own food and become independent. It is the objective of the Alter Trade Corporation to create a new food supply system for Negros.

Another important ATC product is balangon bananas, an indigenous type of banana produced by close to 3,050 balangon farmers scattered throughout the different islands of the Philippines. With great logistic effort, these are exported by ATC to Japan and Korea, mainly via alternative marketing channels.

Challenges and dangerous threats
ATC has managed to make quite a difference in the almost 30 years of its operation, but its work is also endangered and hampered by various developments. One danger Elizabeth Mondejar referred to time and again was the threats posed by climate change. Dry spells are occurring ever more frequently and violent typhoons pose an increasing threat to its members at ever shorter intervals.

Land pressure caused by multinational enterprises has not stopped short of the Philippines: pineapple, banana and rubber plantations on a grand scale are the result. Another threat to its work is the import of cheap food of poor quality. Since the Philippines is a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), an organisation designed to reduce trade restrictions between its member states, increasing quantities of cheap food imports e.g. from Thailand are flooding the domestic market. When customs are abolished as of 2017, price pressure on sugar cane from the Philippines will increase further. In contrast to the other member states of ASEAN, there are no state subsidies for the cultivation of sugar cane in the Philippines and production costs are much higher than in the other ASESAN member states.