The Man Behind Benguet’s Coffee Industry
By Dr. MICHAEL A. BENGWAYAN
La Trinidad, Benguet – There is a humble man, a teacher, agriculturist, fruit expert and sportsman behind Benguet’s burgeoning coffee industry. A disciplinarian, true, patient and hard-working Ibaloi, borne from Baguio and La Trinidad’s old Ibaloi clans.
He shuns publicity and prefers to be with his coffee and citrus plants, trees that he has worked on tirelessly to improve and promote in Benguet and the Cordillera to help our farmers.
The man I speak of is Dr. Benjamin Bilag Dimas, former Director of Benguet State University’s (BSU) Agroforestry project. I have known and learned from him through the years when I worked as a agricultural trainer, environmentalist and rural development specialist in the region for many years.
It is Dr. Dimas, unknown by many, who is acknowledged as the best coffee expert in the whole of Cordillera region.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Dimas started planting coffee under pine trees (Pinus kesiya). Coffee experts from many parts of the country scoffed at what he was doing saying “The coffee plants will die, the soil under pine trees is just too acidic”.
But Dr. Dimas had other ideas. Ideas that proved the experts wrong.
Today, the legacy of his work remains at Benguet State University’s (BSU) Agroforestry Project, a showcase visited by foreign and local agriculturists, farmers, extensionists, students and tourists.
The project, some 70 hectares demonstrates that not only can Benguet coffee (Arabica) variety thrive under pine trees. They can also bear fruits profusely as they have done for the past 20 years and continue to do so.
In recognition of his expertise, the Philippine Council of Agriculture and Forestry Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) published his work under its Coffee Technoguide and now serves the needs of many farmers in the country.
Benguet State University also came out with a Coffee Technoguide recommendation based from Dr. Dimas’ work and experiences.
It is not only the coffee trees that amaze visitors. The different varieties of oranges, lemon, and some apple trees greet visitors and leave them in awe.
Caytie Bagatelos from Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in California who helps PINE TREE-The Cordillera Ecological Center, an environmental non-profit group in La Trinidad, Benguet said “I never expected coffee under pine trees. In Bolivia and Ecuador, coffee trees grow under Leucaena, but under pine trees—unbelievable, but I’m seeing it”
Indeed, Dr. Dimas has moved many hearts and minds of farmers into adopting coffee as an alternative crop to Benguet’s fast-diminishing vegetable industry.
“Not all adopted coffee after they have been trained. Those who did are now cashing in on coffee and the late believers, they are just starting”, he once told me.
True enough, many Benguet farmers are now being pushed by the Department of Agriculture (DA)to shift to coffee.
Pat Annanayo of DA said, “If only majority of Cordillera’s farmers started planting 20 years ago, then they are also the country’s top coffee magnates, not only those in Mindanao”.
Proactive-minded farmers like Santos Tindano said, “I have been harvesting coffee for the past ten years after undergoing training from Dr. Dimas. The harvests have been good and I am thankful”.
Having been an agricultural trainer and working companion of Dr. Dimas when he taught farmers from Benguet, Mountain province, Ifugao and Kalinga on coffee raising, I learned much from him. He inspired me to start my own coffee farm in Tublay in 1995.
When I have local and foreign visitors, I bring them to the BSUI Agroforestry Project because it is one of the better show-windows in the town.
Today, I found some changes but nothing spectacular has been added to what Dr. Dimas has started.
It was Dr. Dimas, with the help of funds from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) who carved out from the rugged mountainous slopes of BSU’s land in Longlong, La Trinidad and turned it to what it is now– a coffee plantation, fruit orchard, stamping ground of tourists and nature buffs’ hideout.
“It was hard work but it is what I love to do. Besides, there was no one willing to do the job before, someone had to do it,” he said.
And just do it, he did. He survived cuts in his budget, bureaucracy in the university, trimming of his workers. But do it, he did.
Being one of his frequent visitors in the past, I noticed he never had a clerk or office assistant to help in his paperwork. He worked as hard as all his laborers and did more than a yeoman’s job.
“When funds were low, many could have left but they stayed because Dr. Dimas is someone who does not only teach you what to do but makes it a discipline that you do your work because you have to love it and do it well”, Charlie Botengan, a project assistant told me.
Dr. Silvestre Aben who briefly held Dr. Dimas post quipped during a talk, “We owe the project here to Dr. Dimas. No one used to care about this project, now everyone wants to get a part to do something, even those who never helped at all in the past”, referring to no one in particular but casting a snide anyway.
Indeed, those who manage the project now, seldom mention the name of Dr. Dimas when visitors see the project.
But to loyal workers and the countless farmers who have learned and benefited from his teaching of coffee raising, his name is in their minds and hearts.
It is what Dr. Dimas would have wanted. To be obscure, away from recognition, even though he deserves it so much. /MICHAEL A. BENGWAYAN
(Note: The writer is a Feature Editor of Brunei Times, Asia Observer, and writer for London’s The Guardian, the US Environment News Service, Islamonline and the British Gemini News Service. He is an agriculturist, environmental specialist and the director of PINE TREE, the Cordillera Ecological Center)