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Manila, Mr Poon and club Elegante

And so week two begins. We woke up at 5:30 am bright and early to catch our flight to Manila. Our time in Davao was over and we had to now reconcile what we had learned with our initial thoughts and ideas on the project.

We arrived at the airport in Manila in good spirits with SuHan and Drew leading some flash mob dancing to rally the troops. Nothing like a little random dancing in the airport to get the day started. While driving to the hotel we discovered a hotel called the Lerato (yeah, I’m international) and a club called club Elegante. Seems like we have certainly left our mark here!

The team was also excited to be close to Mr. Poon again – the restaurant close to our hotel, for Mr. Poon had the best mango shakes in the whole of the Philippines (or so we think). Our visit to Mr. Poon’s was further highlighted by the fact that we actually met with Mr. Poon, the owner of the restaurant and took a picture with him! (thanks to SuHan our PR).

Our afternoon meeting was with a small organisation called Revenue watch which deals with revenue transparency in mining. For the past couple of days we have been reflecting on the massive information gap that exists about mining issues. All the information that has been presented to us thus far seems to be tainted by the anti-mining or pro-mining bias of the group that we were speaking to. Meeting with this group was refreshing because they presented the raw facts on mining in the Philippines. What was most surprising for me was what little employment opportunities large-scale mining actually contributed to the economy.

Thereafter, we headed back to our hotels to debrief and plan for the next day. Tuesday should be a thriller for group one (Carole, Lidet and Drew) who will be meeting with the Chamber of Mines in the Philippines.


The Power of Thinking Big

Over the past couple of days, we have seen the entrepreneurial spirit of Egyptians, be it selling oranges from a cart on the corner, hocking small packets of tissues everywhere, or swindling MBAs.  We’ve also seen the truly mundane and hard work that people are capable of even while earning almost nothing.  The main problem that we’ve come across is SCALE.

There are, of course, a few Egyptian entrepreneurs that have made it big: Orascom and Sekem (as two examples).   But most Egyptian entrepreneurs think small.  In several meetings we have asked why people don’t think to pool resources so that they can access   different markets or why they don’t want to sell to more people than just their village.  And we are answered with curious looks and shrugging.

Last night, I was pondering just this. I came from a developing country from a family of farmers.  How did I get to think so BIG?

My father’s grandfather was a farm owner, growing mostly rice, yucca, bananas, and coconuts.  But he told all of his grandchildren that he did not want them to be just farmers.  He made every one of them (including my father, who was a petulant child and skipped school often) attend school.  My great-grandfather’s vehement belief that there was something more out there for all of his grandchildren and progeny is how I got to think so big.  My dad graduated from a great university; received degrees in law, business, and accountancy; moved to the United States; and forced me to read The Power of Thinking Big at the age of 10.

I think this same story is true for a lot of other people: on the Egypt team, in the BOTFL class, and people succeeding and “living the American Dream.”  It takes only one person to start thinking big, shoving that in others’ faces, and start a domino effect of people that dream of something bigger than simply the small comfort that they currently have.

Postcards from Honduras

We ended our week with a presentation to the staff of Cooperativa Todos Hermanos to discuss our preliminary findings.

Team Notre Dame-Guatemala with Co-op and CRS staff

For our day off, we hopped across the border to Honduras to visit the Mayan ruins in Copan.

Taking a break while walking along the Mayan ruins


The Mayans also had a dancing Tigger

We feasted on a delicious dinner while listening to live music in a bohemian setting.

Copan is very student-budget friendly.

On the way back, we stopped by Esquipulas to visit the Cristo Negro.

Basilica de Esquipulas

Day of Rest

Yesterday (Saturday), we made the four-hour drive from Tacurong, where we had been based as we travelled to meet leaders from various local communities, and returned to Davao. The long drive was a great chance to look around and see the countryside. We passed through several military check points, but for the most part we were waved through. The one time we did get stopped, we think it was just so the guard could get a better look at Lidet’s hair. As Lidet put it, “He was delighted to see me!” Her hair has made her very popular in the Philippines.

The drive back to Davao also reinforced our gratitude for smooth, paved roads. We have been thoroughly impressed with our driver’s ability to weave through all kinds of traffic (cars, trucks, pedestrians, motorcycles, you name it), and all kinds of road conditions. He has been driving for CRS for over twenty years now, so he’s definitely had time to become an expert.

Now that we’re back at our hotel in Davao, we are enjoying a peaceful Sunday. After attending church in the morning, we took a Jeepney (sort of a minibus taxi – read more here) to the beach where we took a boat to Paradise Island! It was a great day at the beach, filled with lovely views and delicious treats like Halo Halo.

Jeepney Ride

The Jeepney may have been designed for people who are a little shorter than Chris.

Paradise Island

Drew relaxing after a strenuous week of peacebuilding.

Halo Halo

Carole enjoying some Halo-halo, a delicious Filipino dessert.

Tomorrow, we’ll fly back to Manila to continue with our packed schedule of meetings with business, government, and NGO leaders. Hard to believe our time in the Philippines is half-way gone. We still have a lot of learning ahead of us!

Overcoming Barriers… Road blocks and otherwise

We spent the first four days of the week interviewing individuals both in CRS and HCS diving into the Human Relations, Relationship Management, and Reporting sections of both organizations.  Friday and Saturday were all about getting out and seeing the work on the ground and having conversations with the workers and beneficiaries.

You haven’t seen bad roads until you have seen some of the “roads” we traveled during our Friday trek.  A couple hours outside of Dire Dawa and a few bruises later we spent time in a handful of communities all engaging in one or more of the following projects:

–       Domestic water use/access – tapping springs and creating pipelines and water sources for communities.  One woman said that she had to walk a total 4 hours in order to get water prior to the water source in her community. Talk about easing access to water.

–       Terracing – Creating numerous terraces/plateaus that cascade down the side of a hill or mountain.  This allows communities to 1.) plant and harvest on a hillside and 2.) prevent soil erosion and destruction of crops if flooding occurs.

–       Sanitation/hygiene – Creating movable pit/latrines that eventually become the site for a new tree to be planted.

The benefits behind these endeavors include not only the outcomes such as access to water sources and increased crop yields, but community involvement in the development, construction and continued sustainability of the projects.  Community organizations/management systems are created for implementation and maintenance.  For example, there is a whole payment system and management committee developed within the communities that allows the water source in a community to have continued functionality.

Saturday was spent in different communities that were engaged in more integrated programs- a terracing project, a water project and livelihood programs (savings and credit groups, access to livestock, revolving seed bank) were all taking place in some of the communities we visited.

We were fortunate to close out our adventures on Saturday with a visit to a Coptic Christian Church in Dire Dawa. We enjoyed the chance to reflect on our day and take in the beauty and community that defined the church, as well as the people of Ethiopia as a whole.


Trading in the Taxis for Camels

Our first two days to relax and day 1 we headed for the sandy slopes of the Giza plateau and the last remaining of the original Seven Wonders of the World.  It’s amazing and a little worrisome to see just how close Cairo has encroached upon one of the world’s greatest historic sites.  Even more impressive than the pyramids themselves are the uncanny ability of the locals to separate educated MBAs from their money at almost every opportunity.  What can we say….it’s the cost of doing business.

Seeing the pyramids up-close for the first time is a great experience.  It’s hard to imagine these monuments were the tallest man-made structures on Earth until the Lincoln Cathedral was completed almost 3800 years later.  We found an “official” guide almost immediately who walked us around the Great Pyramid and over to the tombs of the Pyramid engineers.  Many of the heiro-glyphs on the walls still had the original coloring.

Our tribute to one the worst ever 80’s music videos.

So not to be one-upped now or in the future by any of the other BOTFL teams, we decided to rent a caravan of camels for a treck into the desert to view the necropolis from a distance. Bets were made on who would be the first to fall off their trusted steeds, but sadly, no one did, despite a few close calls.

Joe, Manasi, Ed, Meg, Cory. Up front we got Poncho (Rob) and Lefty (Joe).

We spent Friday evening with one of our CRS colleagues and a few of her friends, enjoying dinner and drinks at one of the few bars this country has to offer.

Saturday was a full tourist day.  We spent the morning at the Egyptian museum – which houses over 120,000 items, including a number from King Tut’s tomb.  Despite the lack of organization and little description on each item, we were all in awe of the detail and thought taken in each piece dating all the way back to 1300 BC!  Next, we visited both the Hanging Church and Saint Sergius Church in Coptic Cairo which is a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt and spent the afternoon haggling with Egyptians at Khan el-Khalili, the great market of Cairo.  We are all back relaxing this evening before our team splits up tomorrow – with half of us remaining in Cairo while the others head to Upper Egypt to visit some local farmers…


Bananas, as far as the eye can see.

Today some of us went to a large multinational corporation’s banana plantation and confirmed our suspicion that export-quality is a long way away from the farmers on the mountain.

The road into the plantation

Some differences:

Conveyor belts – nobody has to carry bananas farther than fifty meters, as compared to the farmers carrying them up a mountain on their backs.

Fertlizer – the MNC fertilizes constantly, often complemented by aerial fumigation. None of the farmers we spoke to fertilized their bananas.

Irrigation – the MNC has primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary canals that carry 4 cubic meters of water per second to the banana plants. The pumps burn through 15,000 gallons of diesel per day. The farmers rely on the rain.

The river the MNC uses as a water source

Many of the farmers only produce enough bananas for personal consumption. This plantation grows millions of pounds per year, and the company has several in Guatemala alone. Their crops are sent to Asia, Europe, and North America.

Today taught us just how powerful economies of scale can be.

Conveniently located next door, there was a UNESCO world heritage site Mayan ruin, so we took a little detour. It was awesome.

Quiringua Acropolis

The other half of us went into a town called Olopa in order to interview banana intermediaries (the men who buy and transport the bananas to market).  We met with three different movers.  The first man was the original banana mover in town and had taught the second intermediary (his brother) about the business.  We learned the prices at which bananas are bought and sold among middle men before being sold to consumers at market.  We now have a clearer picture of the value chain and just what goes into getting a banana from a small farm to a market in Guatemala City.  Tonight we will have the opportunity to present our initial findings to the co-op team and CRS.  We are looking forward to getting their feedback!

Anton and Jia enjoying the view of Olopa from the church.

Bananas getting ready to make the trip to Guatemala City

Reunited and mining for solutions….

After two days of being separated, Team Mindanao was excited to reunite and share our learnings.  Team 2 (Chris, Suhan and Lerato) was able to learn several valuable insights into the mining industry and even a bit about the Filipino culture.

Yesterday we spent the morning meeting with the Bishop of Marbel.  He shared with us his concerns on mining and the implications that he sees the industry having.  In his eyes, mining is a divisive industry which has great adverse effects both socially and environmentally.

In the afternoon we had the privilege to sit down with the governor of the province of South Cotabato.  Up to this point, everyone we had talked to was either strongly opposed of in favor of mining.  The governor however was opposed to mining only when its benefits didn’t outweigh the overall costs.  For example, his province passed an ordinance to ban open pit mining.  This halted the progress of the largest proposed mine in the Philippines, the Sagatarius Tampakan mine project.  However, the governor was taking action to regulate small scale mining in his province by shutting down illegal miners and requiring processing plants to register with the province.  He took a liking to our group and treated us to a meal of delicious crab that evening.  SuHan was in heaven.

Suhan's Heavenly Crab Courtesy of the Governor

Today we had the opportunity to visit the barangay (town) of T’Boli.  In this region there is a tremendous amount of small scale mining and a large scale mine, right next to each other (their tunnels even connect inside the mountain).   Basically the mine is a tunnel that goes into the mountain 2km.  A few miners manually knock off dirt and rock and other people pack it into 15kg sacks. Then crews carry it out of the tunnel for processing to collect the gold particles.  We are still understanding the economics but we think each transporter makes about $2 a day and the actual miner takes a cut of the oar found which can be much more lucrative.

In the afternoon we visited a processing plant.   In the plant they take the rock and dirt and put it into drums that they then spin (not fast) for 3 hours to break the pieces up into a sludge. They add mercury to the sludge to create a reaction with the gold and therefore collect all the little bits of gold.   From there the mercury gold mix is cooked to burn off the mercury to get the gold.  In all, 45kg (90lb +) ends up producing 3g of gold worth about $100.  This process only collects about 70% of the gold.  The processor will perform another process using cyanide to extract more ore, including silver.

One of the many gold processing plant and the contaminated water pool

The environmental impact of the operation was significant:  Workers were freely handling the toxic mercury. Mercury and cyanide contaminated water was able to flow back into the water supply.  It was only when I left that I realized we were in a neighborhood of about 20 different processors all performing the same operation and was taken aback by the size of the impact.  How many people relied on this water for agriculture and drinking water? How many workers would soon feel the effects of working with dangerous chemicals for their livelihood?

Finished gold product from 45kg of soil 

Once again our team began to draw understandings into the difficulties of the problem and the large environmental effect of the divisive mining industry.

A Whirlwind of Learning

If one term defines the past two days “whirlwind” would be it. We’ve begun to delve into the vast programs supported by HCS and CRS, as well as visited food distribution and agriculture co-ops that are the product of the more than $80 million in food aid these organizations provide in Ethiopia in response to emergency drought conditions.

Our inaugural day in Dire Dawa was initiated by Ato Bekele (“Ato” referring to Mr.) HCS’ Executive director, who quickly became our good friend, as well as by visits to two sites that left an indelible impression on us. The first site was Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, a clinic and residence that is dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. At the Mission Sr. Marie Tomas introduced us to mothers and their infants stricken with HIV/AIDS and walked us through the ward for handicapped children, many of whom will spend their entire lives solely among the Sisters because their families have abandoned them and society shuns them.  Although the Mission’s capacity is 600 individuals, its inhabitants often swell to 1800 plus. The second site was a CRS-led, multi-NGO Food Distribution Center that is the largest of its kind in Ethiopia and is situated within a stones throw from the Ethiopian Federal Prison.

More learning is to come as we trek to a university and NGO partner in Harer, a field office, and continue our internal interviews in order to dig into how HCS’ organizational structure works. All work and no play makes the Irish a dull group, so we’ll of course conclude the day as we have the past few with food (pizza for those of us seeking the familiar and injera for the adventurers in the group), drinks and chats about what we’ve tackled and what’s to come.

Choiceless Decisions

Today we learned a great deal about the way coffee and other crops are traded from the farmer’s mountainside plot to the local market. The presence of “intermediaries” (people with trucks and cash) allows the flow of goods, but at a substantial price. They are one of the most powerful brokers of debt in the area, and many farmers are forced to borrow against their future crop to survive.

Memorable quotes from today’s journey:

“We are diving into the co-operative with both feet; we hope that we don’t drown. We trust them.”

“We are basically working for them (the intermediaries)…If the rich man on the hill were to give me a car, I would take it and become an intermediary myself.”

When asked if they trust the intermediaries, they responded: “We have no other option. I have to trust them. What else are we supposed to do?”

When asked what gives them strength and hope, the campesinos replied: “The Monsenor. He shares his spirituality and encourages us to live in faith. He lives in our poverty with us. He is the only one who has walked in our shoes.”

At the end of our discussion, we were asked: “So you have just asked me many questions, and I have given you much information. How can you use this, how can your country help us?”

All of our time spent with the farmers in their homes and in their fields have added depth to our analysis and kept us aware of the hope and the responsibility that the co-operative represents in the families’ lives.

We have never appreciated a cup of coffee more than we do today.