Special Report, Part 3: A Visit to Jewelmer’s Pearl Farms in the Philippines

This post is a continuation from Monday’s Part 2; JCK visited the Jewelmer pearl farms—some of which were hit by Typhoon Haiyan—earlier this year.

The next day we had a different sort of education: learning about the surrounding communities that Jewelmer supports. These weren’t employees, mind you, but Filipinos who happened to live on neighboring islands. And we’re not talking Key Biscayne, Fla.–type lifestyles; many residents had no fresh drinking water until Jewelmer came along. Poverty is pervasive throughout the Philippines, with many workers forced to leave the country to find employment (a fact that can be witnessed firsthand at the Manila airport, where a separate security line exists just for workers bound for foreign gigs).

For its neighbors, and through its Save Palawan Seas Foundation, Jewelmer sets up clinics and provides education about birth control, in addition to education and job training for families to learn sustainable and environmentally friendly forms of work, like bee, mango, coconut, cashew, seaweed, sea cucumber, and organic vegetable farming, as well as fishing without the use of cyanide or TNT (both common in the islands and incredibly harmful to the rich biodiversity). One other struggle: trying to convince islanders not to slash-and-burn the landscape in a misguided effort to grow crops; initially, the ash serves as nutrients for growth, but it quickly disappears and overall soil fertility declines. 

S.P.S.F. sign

S.P.S.F. sign

Shot of a slash-and-burn happenstance we caught on the flight to the pearl farms

Shot of a slash-and-burn happenstance we caught on the flight to the pearl farms

Our group went by boat to a nearby island that housed the S.P.S.F., whose goal is to provide “a better quality of life for all who rely on the marine and aquatic resources of the province of Palawan while maintaining the delicate balance and harmony with nature.” Meanwhile, its mission is to:

“Create workable livelihood alternatives that are economically rewarding and environmentally sustainable for coastal communities, and to develop effective conservation and management strategies that will facilitate long-term sustainable use of the marine and aquatic resources of the province of Palawan.”
Where are boat parked while we visited the S.P.S.F.

Where our boat parked while we visited the S.P.S.F.

Peoples from the indigenous tribe Molbog, among others, benefit from the S.P.S.F. and its activities. Plus, books are donated to island schools, islanders learn about waste management techniques and recycling, trees are replanted to replenish slash-and-burn landscapes, medical missions are conducted with the Northern Palawan Provincial Hospital, and environmental campaigns are carried out with local school children—a group of which was present on the day of our visit. Full-time employees keep operations robust.

High school students from a neighboring island vist S.P.S.F. on the day we were there

High school students from a neighboring island visit S.P.S.F. on the day of our visit

High school students from a neighboring island vist S.P.S.F. on the day we were there

High school students from a neighboring island visit S.P.S.F. on the day of our visit

“S.P.S.F. is funded by the pearl operations, and the pearl farms would not operate without S.P.S.F.,” explained JB. “If the environment is healthy, then so are our pearls.”

Donations are also accepted, and now, after Typhoon Haiyan, they are needed more than ever. Click here to donate to recovery efforts carried out by SPSF.

Back on Flower Island, I learned about generous moves unrelated to the local environment or pearl business profitability: JB and Jewelmer’s cofounder partner, Manuel Cojuangco, fronted four and a half years of salary to a Jewelmer security guard for a heart operation.

And if those moves weren’t inspiring enough, then the heavy spiritual presence in the Jewelmer community might be: an uplifting sign on T4 encourages workers to basically “get back on the horse” after falls and not to forget about Sunday service.

Uplifting sign at the T4 farm

Uplifting sign at the T4 farm

Sign in English and Tagalog reminding workers about Sunday worship services

Sign in English and Tagalog reminding workers about Sunday worship services

The Philippines is a Catholic country, and JB frequently references God—and leads prayer at mealtime—as well as divulging his own lessons in humility, one involving an “ugly” brooch 10 years ago that he was surprised to see sell. “My taste is not everybody’s taste,” he admitted sheepishly.

JB maintains that God is a big part of their lives. “Religion added to my sensitivity,” he explained. “The Filipinos have strong convictions. And there exists a symbiotic reciprocity among us; when you do things that come from a good place, the outcome is always good, and you get back more than you expect.”

Some farm staff, including Clara, had joined us for a special dinner that night. Asked what JB meant to the staff, Clara was eager to reply. “He is an advisor, teacher, and father, and he’s good at building people up,” she explained. “He tells us there is no limit to what we can achieve.” As proof, the T4 farm manager revealed that she started with the company as a diver.

JCB and me sharing laughs with the group in the bar hut on Flower Island

JCB and me sharing laughs with the group in the bar hut on Flower Island

(Photo: Ian Santos for Photos Graphos Inc.)

After we ate, our group was ushered out to an open, well-lit area on the beach. We were seated in the center, as if awaiting a show; what we witnessed next would put some Broadway musicals to shame. Dozens of Jewelmer staffers put on skits for us; they danced, sang, dressed in drag, tossed fiery sticks like batons, and poked fun at one another, eliciting big laughs from the audience. At the end, JB took a microphone and called up each guest individually to the front of the action, bestowing upon each a pearl pendant and certificate of stewardship on behalf of Jewelmer. After graciously showing us around his islands and introducing us to his beloved Jewelmer family, JB was actually thanking us for what we would do when we went home: spread the Jewelmer message and share word of the Filipino way of life. One retailer, a grown man, was so moved by JB’s speech that he started crying. At that moment, I felt so small, so humbled—who the heck was I, and how did I end up in the presence of such magnanimous people? This is the overwhelming experience of the Filipino philosophy of generosity, or utang na loob in tagalog, meaning debt of gratitude.

Our group on the night of the special dinner and presentation

Our group on the night of the special dinner and presentation. From left: Joe Meli, Gabriel Bobadilla Rodriquez, Consuelo Carrillo, Felix Bobadilla Rodriquez, Lourdes Cruz, JB, Lucy Okubo, Julio Yoshio Okubo, yours truly, and Patty de Brügger

(Photo: Ian Santos for Photos Graphos Inc.)

Stop back tomorrow for Part 4, the final installment in this blog series.

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