There was a report in the news recently - June, 2005 - that the Philippine government is planning to boost the export of mangos by developing a brand, called "Philippine Mangos". That's great. Indeed, the mangos of this country, and of the Visayas in particular, have long been famous for their quality.
But by treating mangos as just another commodity, we run the risk of forgetting the incredible cost in toil and sacrifice required to deliver the sweet mangos to the stores. The reason Philippine mangos are so good is not just that the climate is favorable - it's because the Philippines is home to a special breed of men, who nurture and harvest the mangos. They are fearless, they are tireless, and they do not complain about their work.
A huge amount of effort is required to produce a mango harvest. City-dwelling Cebuanos never realize this, but there is more to the mango harvest than reaching up and plucking a fruit. Indeed, the city-based owners of the mango trees - often money lenders who received the land as collateral tend to complain about the paucity of a harvest, never understanding the sweat and toil that produces every precious fruit.
First, the mango trees are sprayed, about five times with separate insecticides and pesticides (from multinationals such as Bayer). This is common practice; spraying has largely replaced the ancient system of fanning smoke - from burning mango leaves - into the tree. While perhaps more effective, spraying a tree is no less a chore than smoking it. Several empty drums are prepared and filled with water; to this, the pesticide - mostly the Bayer brand - is added. Incidentally, this pesticide is purchased by the peasants themselves, usually on credit. The owners of a tree rarely contribute in terms of capital, and never in terms of labor, but still receive the bulk of the harvest. But more about that later.
To spray the mango trees, you need a pump and a long hose. A very long hose, perhaps several hundred yards in length. The pump's engine is started, and you grab your hose and scramble up the nearest tree; then the next, and the next, often covering as many as two dozen trees. The sprayer often works alone, as anyone within a radius of 10 yards is likely to get drenched in insecticide.
The spraying process can go on for weeks, depending on the weather. Sometimes, the trees are smoked after the final spraying, just once. Apparently, there are some critters that even the chemicals from Bayer can't get to.
If all goes well, the area will soon be covered in the fragrant air of blossoming mango trees. The flowers produce a fine, sweet aroma, similar to that of the plumeria. If half a dozen mango trees are blossoming as summer draws to a close and a gentle, cool evening breeze wafts down the hillside, you may be forgiven for momentarily mistaking your surroundings for paradise; the trees will be bathed in pink light, and every breath you take will be richly perfumed.
Perhaps because they have so long been exploited by humans, the mango trees are capricious; sometimes they will flower, and sometimes not. Often, you will have a blossoming mango tree right next to one that stubbornly refuses to sprout any flowers. A harvest may be obtained twice a year, or once, or once every two years.
Shortly after blossoming, the tiny quintets of petals will have been washed away by a shower, and the mango fruit will begin to sprout. Tiny at first, barely the size of a pinhead, they quickly become larger, adopting the distinct mango shape.
This is a busy time for the mountain folk who look after the mango trees. Old newspapers are purchased in bulk, at 600 pesos for 100 kilograms - for some reason, the newspapers are almost always foreign, with either Chinese or Arabic script. These are cut and folded and turned into small paper pockets by the womenfolk. The men, wearing cloth pouches specially designed for the purpose, will grab a stack and a stapler and go back up into the trees.
Each baby fruit is carefully put in a paper envelope, which is stapled shut. Soon, the tree will be bearing a strange harvest of folded newspaper. The paper envelopes serve the purpose of protecting the fruit from the birds, who don't seem to mind the pesticide. This work of papering the fruit must be carried out quickly, and, under pressure to protect as much fruit as possible, the trees are usually climbed - again - solo. Laborers will stay up in the trees for long hours, descending only to take a quick lunch. And, if the rains are heavy, they will have to go back up again to re-wrap fruit from which the wrappers have been washed away.
Eventually, the mangos are harvested, and women, children, and men are mobilized to lug the heavy sacks of fruit to the nearest road, from whence it is trucked off to the city.
Spraying a tree, wrapping the leaves, and harvesting the mangos are part of an art. Often, the peasants in a rural locale renowned for this skill - there are many such pockets in the hills of Talamban - will travel as far as Leyte just to help with the mangos.
It is all tiring work, but then all work is tiresome. The real cost, however, is not in stamina consumed, but in the risk endured.
Mango trees are huge. The peasants climb up the trees using hand-crafted bamboo ladders and ropes, but the ropes are not used as a safety harness. The ropes are used for pulling up the ladders - 4 to 5 yards long - up into the tree. Set against a branch and tied with the rope, the climber will ascend further, from the equivalent of a first storey to the next.
For some reason, most Visayans refuse to venture into the dark, even with a torch. But do not ever mistake them for cowards, for they are not afraid of heights. Never hesitating, they rapidly climb up the trunk and onto thinner branches; the good fruit is usually at the very top. Watching them from afar, it almost seems as if an antigravity device has been invented in the mountains of Cebu.
But of course it hasn't, and the gravity is always there. Every year, an undocumented number of laborers plumets to their death. Every year, an undocumented number of mountain peasants suffer permanent disfigurement while spraying, wrapping, or harvesting the mangos.
I met Rodrigo, called Digoy by his friends. In the year 2000, he had almost finished harvesting a
tree, but two fat mangos remained at the top. The branch
turned out to be rotten inside, and Digoy crashed to the ground, where two boulders awaited him.
His arm, hopelessly splintered, had to be shortened, and now his hand faces the wrong way, a useless dangling appendage that turns heads on the rare occasions Digoy ventures into the city.
Two mangos, for one hand. Wasn't it too high a price to pay? Rather than cursing his fate, however, Digoy thanks the Creator that he is still alive today. He happily agreed to take us to the tree from which he fell, and pose - so that, some, at least, will better understand the human cost behind the mangos.
In the queer way of this world, the morning after I spoke to Digoy, his younger brother Elvis fell from a tree while wrapping the latest batch of mangos. Showing the whites of his eyes and unable to speak, he was rushed to the nearest hospital. Eventually, his coherence returned; he said he was fine, but couldn't move his right leg.
The x-rays would cost more than 2,300 pesos, which a mountain peasant cannot afford. The owner of the mango trees? It would be a waste of money to even try contact him; the blame would be placed squarely on Elvis. The very words to emerge from the cellphone, too predictable: "It is your own fault that you were so clumsy and fell out of the tree. Why should I pay your hospital bill?"
Heaving and hoing, his companions carried him to the free government hospital in the city. X-rays would be cheaper there. But no. At Southern Island, aka Vicente Sotto Memorial Hospital, nurses and doctors, ironically snacking on green mangos and bagoong, told him that, due to an agreement with the city administration, residents of Cebu City are no longer accepted at Southern Island. "Only residents of the probinsya may be brought here."
Technically, the mountains of Talamban, though a good hour away from the city perimeter, are still part of Cebu City.
Residents of Cebu City are to be brought to the Cebu City Medical Center - an institution of notoriously low standards which was the subject of a public row as the mayor tried to close it down in 2003. "Things were bad at the CCMC, but they are much better now," the staff at Southern Island said reassuringly, practically holding the door. But that is not what Elvis and his companions - exhausted after a day spent up in the mango trees and trekking from hospital to hospital - discovered. At the CCMC, they were told that there was no film for the x-rays.
No film? None at all? "Well, we have four pieces of film, but these are for emergencies. This is not an emergency. You need to go buy film elsewhere, and then you can get the x-rays taken here."
Fair enough. Where can we buy the film? "Try Southern Island."
Leaving Elvis behind to suffer on the bed at CCMC - a wood board with no mattress nor sheets - they went in search of film. At Southern Island they were told, not suprisingly, "We never sell our film."
There is nothing much the reader can do about this situation, except one thing. Next time you buy mangos at the market stall, and are tempted to complain about the price, please: think about the real price that the mountain folk of Cebu are paying for the mangos.