History of Coffee in the Cordillera

by Maurice Malanes, Midori Nakamura and John Tacloy


Coffee was believed to have been introduced in the Philippines by the Spaniards.

 A Franciscan friar brought to the Philippines 3 gantas of coffee beans via a Mexico-Manila galleon voyage in the 1740s, and planted them somewhere in Manila. Upon his death, his servant boy dug-up the coffee plants and planted them in his father's land in Pinagtongolan, Lipa, Batangas.


Wild coffee trees were reported to be growing in the Southern Tagalog region as early as 1818 – those are believed to have been brought from Arabia and Indonesia by Arab merchants when they were trading in the surrounding areas of Batangas and Laguna. Eventually, coffee found its way to other places in the Philippines.


The revered birthplace of the coffee industry in the Philippines is Lipa City in Batangas. The city is believed to be the first place where a Franciscan friar planted coffee seed he brought from Mexico in 1749. It was the place where coffee cultivation/planting was enforced by Capitan Don Galo de los Reyes that resulted in the eventual establishment of coffee plantation within two-thirds of the town's area. Then a world coffee shortage followed, giving the most coffee profits to the Lipeños and making them the richest in the Philippines. The glorious days of coffee growers and traders in the place ended when an epidemic of insects known as bagombong almost wiped out coffee in Lipa.

Introduction of Coffee in the Cordilleras

According to research by Cipriano Bayangan Sr of the Benguet Organic Coffee Arabica Enterprise Limited, Inc., Dominican friars introduced Arabica coffee in Benguet, parallel to their search for gold and other minerals that were in abundance in the mountain regions. They established foot trails to search for gold in Lepanto Mankayan, through three routes: from Pangasinan going north along the Agno River (now the San Roque Dam) passing through municipalities of Itogon, Bokod, Kabayan, and Buguias; from Naguilian, La Union going up to Sablan, La Trinidad, Tublay, Atok, and Mankayan; and from San Fernando, La Union to Sudipen, Cervantes, and Lepanto.


In the course of the construction of foot trails, the Spaniards established “tres diaz”, or three days forced labor by every man and woman to open the said foot trails. As a result of this, many communities were able to establish gardens of Arabica Coffee trees in their backyard as well as engaged in pocket mining as a source of livelihood. This continued north, up to Bontoc and beyond.


Coffee Arabica arrived in Sagada, after other kinds of coffee had been introduced in the lowland areas. There are three versions to the story of how Coffee Arabic was introduced in Sagada. These stories have been told among the people of Sagada.


The first places the time at around 1895, when two Spanish ex-soldiers, Manuel Moldelo and Villavelde, introduced Coffee Arabica, which was the start of coffee production in Sagada. Jaime P. Masferre, a Spanish detachment commander, also became involved in coffee growing and many local people were laborers in his coffee plantation. Later on, coffee seedlings spread to the various communities in Sagada through marriage and other social interchanges between people from different villages. Coffee Arabica was planted in the backyard of many households and became popular, especially in northern Sagada.


Another account places the date during the late 1800s. Then, Ilocos Sur was an important trade post in Northern Luzon. The trade was under the jurisdiction of the Spanish, and many people from the Mountain Province came to Ilocos Sur to exchange their products (such as meat) for salt, sugar, or dried fish, which they did not have. The people from Mountain Province brought coffee and tobacco from Ilocos Sur, and later on, coffee was gradually planted in different areas of the Mountain Province since the climate was suitable for Coffee Arabica.


Finally, it is said that around 1900, a Japanese carpenter named Okoi was hired by American missionaries of the Episcopal Church working in Sagada. He also worked on building the first sawmill in Fidelisan, under the church mission. Coffee Arabica was brought to Fidelisan in northern Sagada, by Okoi through his contact with Masferre, who was also working under the church mission at the time. It is said that seedlings of Coffee Arabica were given to Okoi by Masferre, and later on the production of Coffee Arabica was spread to the Fidelisan area.


Coffee Production and Distribution


The production of Coffee Arabica has been spreading throughout communities in Sagada since the 1900s. People have grown their Coffee Arabica as inter-crop with banana, citrus fruits, and arunas in their backyard, and continue to do so at present.


There are century-old Coffee Arabica trees in Pide, a part of Fidelisan. Those trees still bear coffee cherries and the owner’s families have drunk the coffee for generations. In Aguid, Fidelisan, there are also old Coffee Arabica trees of about 60 to 80 years old. Most of the tree owner’s families were the first settlers in the community. The products of Coffee Arabica are still one of their sources of income.


Coffee was mainly used for house consumption by the growers, and only when they harvested a surplus of coffee did they sell it for additional income. There were itinerant traders from Bauko, mostly women, who acted as collecting agents that bought the green beans of Coffee Arabica from coffee growers in the Fidelisan area. Coffee was also a valuable product for the local people to barter for sugar, salt, fish and biscuit. To this day, people have taken their coffee to sari-sari stores to barter or convert to money. Thus, coffee was already used as a cash crop at that time.


People in the neighborhood used to get together to harvest and process their coffee. The work used to be done during the spare time taken from working in their rice fields, or during “obaya” when people stayed in their houses.