The Carabao mango’s clash with climate change

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Mangoes being sold at a market in Masinloc, the "capital of mangoes" in Zambales. The Zambales mangoes were certified by Guinness Records in 1995 as the sweetest in the world. Photos by PAOLO LORENZANA

Long before her mangoes were recognized as the sweetest in the world, Nida Malabed tasted something much more vital in them: survival.

For Malabed, living off the land was one of her first lessons growing up in Sabang, Santa Cruz, a coastal town at the tip of Zambales. Next to her father’s job mining ore, farming was what put food on the table. A lesson so fundamental, she knew it before learning to talk.

“Dito na ako nagka-isip, nag-mature,” says Malabed, 63, sitting under a mango tree as tall as a three-story building, its canopy as wide as a lap pool. The 126-year-old tree came with the land her father Rodolfo bought almost a century ago. Her parents are long gone now but she speaks of the tree as if it, too, had raised her.

What their family could grow on their property, Malabed’s mother Elena sold at the public market. Vegetables were a constant, but rice and mangoes were what put her and her four siblings through school. Particularly the hefty, ambrosial Carabao mangoes their family picked from the old tree. “₱15 sa isang kilo, ₱10 — masaya na kami dun,” Malabed says of how much their mangoes fetched then. In the 1960s, modern inducers and insecticides were decades from penetrating their province. Malabed recalls that at seven, she was already gathering leaves to build fires for smudging, the traditional method of goading mango trees to bear fruit in the off season.

At the mining site in Pangasinan, her father managed to collect the seeds of the sweetest mangoes he devoured during breaks. From those he planted at home, the family’s harvest grew enough to supply mango orders all the way from Manila.

Nida Malabed's family history is entwined with mangoes. The Carabao strain Sweet Elena was named after her mother which registers 19 degrees Brix in sugar content and over 80% of its half-kilo weight offering edible, nearly fiber-free flesh. Photo by PAOLO LORENZANA

The crop pushed Malabed toward college, where majoring in Agriculture was the most obvious path. But even without the degree, she already knew there was something special about the mangoes she grew up with. Even for the standards of Zambales, where its Carabao variant was declared the “world’s sweetest mango” by the Guinness World Records in 1995. She scoffs at the title, awarded to kinalabaw grown in the town of Masinloc. An hour and a half drive from Santa Cruz, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you read “Home of the sweetest mangoes'' embossed across its welcome arch. “Wala silang proof,” she says.

Sweetness has been so entwined with Zambales’s Carabao variant that when the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) launched an annual mango festival in Iba, the province’s capital, it held a contest for the sweetest of the lot. The first festival was held in 1999, capping off a decade where Philippine mango exports soared. The contest caught Malabed’s eye. It had been a year since her parents passed away. She and her siblings had inherited her father’s farmland, where 10 hectares including the old mango tree were left to her.

Their mangoes were awarded the sweetest mango that year, decided by panelists from the Department of Agriculture (DA) aided by a refractometer, a device that measures sugar content. She topped other categories: “Pinaka Malaki” and “Best Quality.” Her mangoes would win the following year, and the year after that, besting even the glorified mangoes of Masinloc.

Professor Ester Mariñas, a researcher at Zambales’s President Ramon Magsaysay State University (PRMSU) caught word about the consecutively crowned mangoes from Santa Cruz. Like Malabed, Mariñas’s future was dictated by the dirt surrounding her. She was born at the university, where both her parents taught agriculture. Her mother, Eugenia De la Rosa, pioneered the evaluation of Zambales fruits in the 1970s. To Ester, the campus nursery was where she and her siblings were urged to eat as many mangoes as possible for quicker seed assembly. Eventually, Mariñas took up where her mother’s research left off. In the 1980s, the Philippines had begun to export its mangoes, spurring government-mandated research by the Institute of Plant Breeding in U.P. Los Baños. She would train under foremost fruit expert Dr. Roberto Coronel. He confirmed what she’d heard all her life. “‘You have the sweetest mangoes,’ ang sinasabi niya,’” recalls Mariñas, her professor encouraging her to specialize in her hometown’s banner crop. “'Yung mga mangga daw sa ibang lugar like Guimaras is from Zambales.”

Nida Malabed under the 126-year-old Sweet Elena tree, which is as tall as a three-story building, its canopy as wide as a lap pool.. Photo by PAOLO LORENZANA

Three years after Mariñas approached Malabed to evaluate her prized mangoes, both women finally held proof to back up the pride of their province. In 2002, the DA’s National Seed Industry Council registered the Sweet Elena, named after Malabed’s mother, as a new Carabao strain. Boasting 19 degrees Brix in sugar content and over 80% of its half-kilo weight offering edible, nearly fiber-free flesh, the mango was unrivaled.

The Sweet Elena made a splash across national newspapers. A year after the strain’s certification, government funding poured into planting its seedlings across 1.5 hectares of the PRMSU San Marcelino campus. A scion grove would also produce up to 5,000 grafted Sweet Elena seedlings for propagation. In Manila, the Sweet Elena would make its debut with 1,000 seedlings allotted to the Dizon Botanic Fruit Garden under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Parks and Wildlife Bureau. Overseen by Bernie Dizon, the seedlings would be grafted with other superior mango strains to produce the magnum opus of mangoes: a strain resistant to pests and disease.

Tasting the Sweet Elena, I wonder why it never achieved supermarket stardom. Sweetness is its calling card, no doubt. But what a refractometer cannot measure are its subtleties. How it tickles your tongue like honey and relaxes onto it like vanilla, a mild tropical tang chirping in the distance. At its ripest, it slides cleanly from its skin like silky custard, while a sliver carved from the side sparks of milky pastillas popped in your mouth. This mango isn’t just dessert, however. This is mango as a meal — pulp in some parts, a generous serving of flesh, and enough juice to wash it all down.

If the avocado could become a western brunch staple, and coconuts are enjoying global ubiquity that spans beverages to baking, you’d think mangoes, especially those as memorable as ours, would have had their moment by now. But even locally, it seems, our national fruit barely has an identity.

Some Philippine supermarkets don’t bother to market homegrown produce. At one Robinson’s Marketplace in BGC, a “Japanese pear” shares an aisle with “Australian celery,” but the bins bearing mangoes offer no classification, settling simply on “Mango Yellow.” I’m met with shrugs when I inquire about the mangoes’ provenance, or any distinguishing qualities. “Small or large,” I’m told by one supermarket stocker.

Given how svelte even the larger mangoes in the lot are, I’m certain they’re not the plump and once-promising Sweet Elena. That they’re even the Carabao variant our country is known for also seems unlikely.

“Tasting the Sweet Elena, I wonder why it never achieved supermarket stardom. Sweetness is its calling card, no doubt. But what a refractometer cannot measure are its subtleties. How it tickles your tongue like honey and relaxes onto it like vanilla, a mild tropical tang chirping in the distance.”

Since the pandemic, operations at Malabed’s farm have been at a standstill, though productivity had slowed years before. In the 1990s, she could harvest up to 400 crates of mango, whereas today, she’s lucky if her trees yield even half of that. “In the past three or four years, halos break-even,” she says.

Even Dizon Botanic Fruit Garden’s Bernie Dizon, who once dedicated his Manila nursery to grafting Sweet Elena seedlings and prodded Malabed to do the same, is less optimistic. “Mrs. Malabed, I will teach you how to lose money in mangoes,” he joked recently, parroting the industry’s problems. Chief among which, Malabed says, are the unpredictable rains.

“Nag-decline ang production, hindi lang sa Zambales but sa buong Central Luzon,” says Flor Domingo, a researcher at the Regional Mango Center in Zambales, who notes the plummeting productivity of Carabao mango trees since 2004. The Bureau of Agricultural Statistics detailed the decrease on a national level more recently, reporting a 19% drop in Carabao mango production in 2017.

Lower productivity echoes in lower exports, of course. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the Philippines contributed 10% of the global mango trade in the 1990s. In a U.N. Comtrade report from 2016, that number has dwindled to 4%.

To Engineer Dinah Abugoh, director of Central Luzon’s mango center, the changing climate is one clear culprit among a confluence of factors: “Matagal nang na-observe ng farmers ang problema — mahirap makipag-laban sa ulan.”

However, the unpredictable rains brought on by climate change have only exposed issues long ailing the mango industry. “Productivity is affected by several factors,” says Yondre Yonder, who heads the National Mango Research & Development Center in Guimaras. “Carabao mangoes really need three to four months dry period to be assured maximum productivity,” he says of a stretch that traditionally falls between December through May. Though he cites climactic conditions, as well as pests and diseases, as significant factors, “Number one is the management of the crop.”

Professor Ester Mariñas, a researcher at Zambales’s President Ramon Magsaysay State University (PRMSU) who caught word about the consecutively crowned mangoes from Santa Cruz. Photo by PAOLO LORENZANA

In Central Luzon, the mango center has scrambled to confront the general attitude of complacency that dooms orchards early on. “Dati kasi, hindi pinapansin ang pre-production practices like pruning and fertilizer application, but that’s the most critical part of mango production,” says Flor. Last February, she and her husband Fritz began training mango farmers across the region. Unlike the occasional seminar conducted by the center in the past, season-long supervision funded by the DA’s Bureau of Agricultural Research would ensure application on the field.

Though the pandemic stunted their efforts, Fritz says that the technologies disseminated to some 200 farmer participants have shown promise — pruning and dwarfing, in particular. By limiting the growth of trees, the dreaded “kurikong” (or cecid fly) has less real estate to get cozy in. Besides better pest management, downsized canopies make fruit more accessible to farmers come harvest time.

Fritz notes the boom in Bulacan’s mango industry since the center stepped in. Now, even farms in Zambales have sought assistance. “Before, hindi kami welcome dito,” says Fritz of growers once resistant to the center’s efforts. “It’s only now that they’re listening because talagang affected 'yung industry natin. 'Yung mga magagaling na contractor natin are now approaching, ‘Please help us.’”

For some, the support can’t come fast enough. As director of research at PRMSU since 2002, Elizabeth Farin has noticed morale sink when it comes to planting Carabao mangoes, and greater pressure to reverse it. “Nagagalit na nga ang DOST (Department of Science & Technology) sa amin eh — parang wala daw kaming ginagawa,” Farin says, explaining that current funding and the center’s minuscule staff can barely cover technical assistance for the entire region.

Disheartened, some growers have considered planting Indian mangoes and other resilient varieties that don’t require induction, or the use of chemicals to hasten a tree’s flowering. Oftentimes, the management of a Carabao mango orchard is so finicky that contractual outsourcing is necessary. Yet as a 2013 study by UPLB’s College of Economics & Management found, even contract sprayers have begun to shun an industry where maintenance costs, from fertilizer to fungicides, are rising beyond any foreseeable profit. Not to mention the damage that spraying incurs upon the environment, or pesticides’ role in generating new hosts of pests. “Parang COVID yan eh — andaming lumalabas na bagong variant,” Farin says of pests that continuously mutate, eventually adapting to the chemicals used to combat them.

An old photo of Nida Malabed and her husband under the 126-year-old Sweet Elena tree. Photo by PAOLO LORENZANA

Other growers have considered switching to different crops altogether — rice, papaya, and tamarind included. After all, why stand by a tree so temperamental? And one whose fruit — prone to both bruising and pests, post-harvest—doesn’t even travel well. In recent years, stricter sanitary standards imposed by importing countries and the demand for pesticide-free produce make it even harder for Philippine Carabao mangoes to pass muster. Though Farin is eager to divert research to fruits such as avocados or lansones, mangoes are what continue to bring in government funding. And though the hulking Kinalabaw casts a heavy burden on those who grow it, its value still carries significant weight on the market. “Kaunting suntok sa buwan,” says Farin, sighing. “Kasi kapag sinabi mong Pilipinas, ang gusto pa rin talaga ay ang Carabao mango natin.”

In his chronicles from 1734, Franciscan priest Juan Francisco de San Antonio compared the mangga’s taste to that “of a good peach but with greater fragrance” and lauded it as “the most sensuous fruit there is.” Food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria recalls further praise from Fr. San Antonio: “‘The tree was brought in from abroad,’” he said, but ‘here, it grows so well that it seems to be in its own native environment.’”

In a bulletin published for the Philippines’s Bureau of Agriculture in 1911, horticulturist PJ Wester surmises that the mango as we know it today arrived on our shores between 1600 and 1650. Its provenance is just as uncertain, as historians and explorers suspected that this new mango, larger and sweeter than the native paho, came from Macao or what was then Siam.

Wherever it hailed from, what Wester was sure of was that our Carabao variant was “the best flavored mango in the world,” certainly over Pico or Indian variants.

The variety was deemed so superior that seedlings wound up in Mexico via the galleon trade some 200 years earlier, making its name there as the “Manila Mango.” Advising the DA then, Wester asserted the “good prospect of success” should the Philippines export its mango to neighboring countries, noting a trip to Singapore where residents were convinced it would “outsell” their own “without difficulty.”

Today, Mexico is the world’s largest mango exporter. Like the Philippines, mango export for the country began in the 1980s and flourished a decade later. But in a study conducted by Duke University in 2017, Mexico’s prominence today results from “a coordinated effort by the government, private sector, and universities” in supporting its mango industry. The Secretary of Agriculture leads the way, funding programs that offer training for best practices (post-harvest handling, for instance) and new technologies to increase productivity.

By 1999, the country began strutting “Mexico Supreme Quality” on its produce, a self-congratulatory mark that established high standards as it aggressively pursued international certifications for export. Just as well, it continued to diversify its products, stepping in to meet greater demand for organic produce in the U.S. In 2005, it sought to further cash in on its Manila Mango by securing a domain of origin. Just as champagne is only truly from its namesake French province, genuine Manila Mangoes would only come from Mexico, prohibiting the Philippines from marketing its produce as such.

In his chronicles from 1734, Franciscan priest Juan Francisco de San Antonio compared the mangga’s taste to that “of a good peach but with greater fragrance” and lauded it as “the most sensuous fruit there is.”

Thankfully, Mexico’s dominion over the “Manila Mango” name — what we know as the Carabao — never came to fruition. Though Mexico’s mango sector wrestled with the fragility and pest problem that the Carabao mango was notorious for, two decades later, advancements — a longer shelf life and achievement of USDA standards, leading to increased exports — have been made.

These days, Ester Mariñas’s worries are more personal, but ladder up to the country’s entire agricultural policy: the absence of agriculturists to continue her work. Mariñas, 59, plans to retire as a researcher at PRMSU in November this year. Hopping across the second largest Philippine province in search of promising plant life isn’t as easy in the pandemic era, more so after you’ve suffered strokes in recent years.

What hasn’t waned, however, is her enthusiasm for discovery. She’ll urge younger professors, “‘Sayang, marami ka pang matatagpuang new varieties,’” sharing potential research sites for cashews or mangoes just as prolific, if not more so, than the Sweet Elena. Occasionally, she and her sister, an entomologist specializing in pest control, discuss the infinite strains yet to be identified and what insight could be gained on the purging of pests.

Last month, her mother, the woman who blazed the trail for fruit evaluation in Zambales, passed away. Now, Mariñas feels even greater pressure to transfer what she knows, just as was done to her.

Among PRMSU’s faculty, Mariñas looks to a former student of her mother’s. Back when he submitted a thesis on seedless mangoes, Fritz Domingo already showed he wasn’t interested in quick fixes — unlike some higher-ups in the university she’s dealt with.

After registering the strain, she had hoped to do more research on it, while PRMSU’s production department was already in a frenzy to scatter it across the country. A Sweet Elena nursery was set up on campus to spread grafted seedlings far and wide, but Nida Malabed never received so much as a notice.

Domingo, on the other hand, is an ally, when it comes to deepening the research (he’s studying how gamma radiation can produce seedless mangoes) rather than bringing a variety to market right away.“Siya talaga ang pinaka-concerned sa mango,” says Ester. “At gusto niyang buhayin ang Regional Mango Center.”

Whatever advancements are made by PRMSU, however, the future of local mango productivity still relies on policy. For the longest time, Domingo has pushed for the DA’s regulation of pesticides, specifically the training and accreditation of spraying contractors. “Mag-i-spray, pakikinabangan, and after that, wala na silang care after harvesting,” Domingo says of contractors who prioritize a big yield over lengthening the life of the land they’ve drowned in chemicals.

“Actually, ang proposal ko for the last two years is to stop mango production,” he says, his conviction as unwavering as the wide, welcoming grin he began our video call with. “Ang gagawin natin is massive rehabilitation with the support of local government units and the national government.”

Farin, who is in the same call, balks at the drastic act of putting farmers’ livelihoods on pause. “Eh basta may pondo tayo, ma’am, bakit hindi?” he quickly counters, eyes bright and spirits buoyant, belying his 55 years. “Basta ma-support ng nasa gobyerno, we can do it.”

Long gasping for innovation, the local mango industry may be ready for new, even radical, ideas to take root. Nearly a month after our call, Farin informs me that Engineer Abugoh has retired. “Our new director for the Regional Mango Center is Professor Ferdinand Domingo,” she says.

The 126-year-old tree came with the land Nida Malabed's father Rodolfo bought almost a century ago. Her parents are long gone now but she speaks of the tree as if it, too, had raised her. Photo by PAOLO LORENZANA

Nida Malabed acknowledges the aid she receives from the government. “Isa-dalawang sakong potassium nitrate,” a complimentary chainsaw — “pero kahit gamitin mo 'yung chainsaw, 'yung pesticide, kung andiyan ang bagyo, wala kang magagawa. Wala ka din naman magawa sa climate change.”

Still, Malabed vows to fight back. Just as her father protected the old tree, shoveling soil where storms nearly uprooted it, Nida takes care to prune her trees, and bag its fruit to protect it from pesticides. By June, she plans to graft her beloved Sweet Elena to 2,000 seedlings.

If the next harvest remains pitiful, she’ll consider sacrificing part of her mango plantation to make room for avocados. But like the mother tree’s roots gripping the ground, Nida holds out for hope.

As we chat under the vast shade of the 126-year-old tree, it hovers like a doting guardian as Malabed’s grandkids scurry around its trunk. Along lower branches, colorful hammocks are strewn about, while lightbulbs and a basketball ring are slung around those higher up.

She says that before COVID, the occasional group of students traveled from other provinces to see the tree. To her, it remains the sweetest memento of her long-gone parents; their legacy large and lush enough to offer the three homes close to it additional shelter.

As stubborn now as the old mango tree is to thrive, at least it’s just as stubborn to disappear.