A walk on the ‘wild side’ of Atok

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By Robert L. Domoguen

Mountain Light

Monday, May 26, 2014

UNDER a dusk sky, Meldina Calupsing (81) stoked the chimney fire, added wood to the dying embers that would keep the brewed coffee boiling hot longer tonight.

“It is a rural recreation,” she says,“ to sit here beside the fire after the day’s work and enjoy cups of our native coffee.” I imagine myself doing that already while the young folks with me wearily bedded down for the night. I hope the young knows what they got in our mountain abodes.

Lola to the younger folks, Meldina to peers lives here in between the sitios of Catingel and Caliking Proper, Atok, Benguet. It is accessible by car, in just an hour from Baguio City. Both villages, I have not known to exist until now.


I know Atok is a major vegetable producing town, and Caliking is that Barangay where a place popularly known as Guerrilla Saddle is located.

Travellers to the northern part of Benguet and Mountain Province pass by that place. It hosts a famous restaurant that thrived long, serving a native delicacy called “pinoneg,” or ground meat packed into the intestine of a butchered swine, like a giant sausage.

From Guerrilla Saddle, you move up north to the junction going to the old Atok Poblacion. Take that route. Some 500 meters away from the Halsema junction, find an almost inconspicuous road that separates from the Halsema-Old Atok Poblacion road. Swerve left to this single lane road to Caliking Proper, on to the other side of Atok, its remaining Edenic side, I should say. The environment here is green all over, still resembling its original cloud forest nature, even if the mountain slopes thrive with sayote plantations. This is where Lola Meldina and her generation that grows Typica Arabica coffee lives.

Mr. Oliver Odiem, Manager of the Atok Arabica Coffee Growers Marketing Cooperative (AACGM) brought us to Lola Meldina’s place, after spending time at the cooperative’s current processing house. According to Odiem, Lola Meldina maintains a groove of century old Arabica coffee. We are encouraged to take “that walk along the bends and steep rolls of the terrain, road and slippery trails, if we want to see her and others who are as old as she is.”

The AAGMC, by the way, is a self-help grassroots institution whose efforts lends a noble commentary to an agricultural extension service trying its best to organize, unite, market and link community development and farmers products to the market. The local folks, instead of doing nothing or harping against the government for not doing enough to address critical development needs and concerns, organized the AAGM to link with government development institutions and other interested supporters.

It was a leisurely walk that we took actually going down to Lola Meldina’s place. We found her beside the road drying coffee beans. She looks young and sprite in her age with a smile that glows with the mountain’s morning sunshine.

“Hi Lola,” Oliver greeted her. “You have visitors who came to see you and your groove of century-old coffee,” he added. Lola Medlina was forthcoming in her ways. After returning our greetings, she took over, and led us home like family who came for a visit. She told us about her coffee groove, as if rendering a progress report.

Along the road to her house, she pointed our attention to her coffee trees, intercropped with other fruit trees, pine, alnus and sayote all growing in a multi-storey on the slope of the mountain. As we reach the house, she talks about the new seedlings of Typica Arabica coffee in a small nursery that she maintains under the shade of the trees. In her experience, Typica coffee has always been part of the home and their community. “This variety lives with us. The tree simply die, disappear, if grown some distance away from the community,” she said.

In the house, Lola Meldina has a collection of processing equipment including a mortar and pestle, dehulling and roasting equipment. I like the boiling kettle of coffee best that settles you beside the hearth, poured into tin cups, Typica the queen of all Arabica varieties, sipped with its familiar aroma makes this experience in Atok truly one of the best I got, and talk about, so far.

Aside from Lola Meldina, other old folks grow backyard Typica grooves of 20-50 trees. In this village, the coffee product is an ancestral legacy, the brewed drink being part of traditional social occasions and entertainment. People do not need to frequent business establishments and part with their cash to sip quality coffee and enjoy a good chat. On occasions, boiled camote and fruits comes with the coffee served by your host. Oliver reported that the surplus coffee beans, after setting aside family requirements for the year, go to AACGM for processing and marketing outside of the community.

Coffee grown in Caliking as a cash crop along with sayote, is what interested me most in coming here. The way the people practice their multi-story and intercropping system of coffee and sayote commodities with the trees emerged an agricultural livelihood that is environment-friendly. It needs support and encouragement indeed – in terms of investment, a reward for a good practice that we all seek for, and wish to be sustained to benefit others, if not enhance the quality of the globe’s climate in a time of radical changes.

Caliking actually finds itself in that enviable position now, being the headwaters of Ambuclao, Binga and San Roque dams. The locals here can live in their villages and have income from agriculture that at the same time ensures the flow of water that sustains power generation and irrigation downstream.

I am glad the government and its agencies is not late in recognizing this reality although the assistance extended need more focus, close monitoring and sustained engagement to realize benefits and create impact. For instance, the locals appreciate the DA’s provision of some P3 million to improve the six kilometres Halsema-Caliking Proper Farm-to-Market Road (FMR). The amount was good only for three (3)) kilometres. DA livelihood programs brought to the area, several coffee postharvest and processing equipment but the specification of some of these inputs do not fit with the needs of the farmers. Perhaps better coordination and supervisory work with additional extension workforce can alleviate these kinds of problems. The DA provided PhP 1.3 million for the construction of a village level processing house to the municipal LGU but the facility’s completion is far behind in schedule.

The Barangay LGU reported thousands of coffee seedlings distributed and planted in the mountains of Caliking by the local folks under the National Greening Program (NGP). However, a follow through monitoring and management of the distributed coffee seedlings by the involved agencies must ensure the survival of the trees, and not end up in planting activities only.

Overall, sustained development interventions should make the communities there become tourism, business and learning sites for community agroreforestation, good practices, even the production of organic coffee by the whole community to preserve what remains of the wilds and green covering of the mountains in Caliking, Atok, in a fast changing and modernized world.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on May 27, 2014.


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