Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
When she was interviewed some years back at her home in Bitaug, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, last Bagobo weaver Salinta Monon was apprehensive about the future of abaca. “I am very much concerned since we can’t find a good source of abaca fiber for our tinalak,” the national awardee said then.
The good news is: abaca is staging a comeback. In southern and central Mindanao, government officials are supporting abaca expansion. The recent interest in abaca production is due to its increasing demand both from the national and foreign markets.
Internationally known as Manila hemp, abaca is endemic to the Philippines. The country dominates the global abaca trade as it supplies about 87.5% of the world’s abaca fiber requirements. The remaining requirements are supplied by Ecuador and Costa Rica.
“Exports of abaca fiber and manufacture generated an average of US$97.1 million per year in the last ten years,” said The Philippine Abaca Industry Roadmap 2018-2022, published by the Department of Agriculture (DA).
“Our abaca is not only a source of income to many Filipino abaca farmers and strippers but more importantly, it is also a unique source of competitive advantage for local manufacturers and exporters,” said the National Abaca Research Center (NARC) based in Baybay, Leyte.
Abaca fiber ranks ninth among the country’s major agricultural exports – after coconut oil, banana, pineapple, tuna, shrimps, tobacco, and desiccated coconut. In 2016, abaca was planted on 180,302 hectares, with production reaching 72,000 metric tons (M.T.).
“Almost one-third of the abaca areas can be found in Region 5 or Bicol Region, with 52,493 hectares,” the abaca roadmap stated. “The land area is comparable to combined abaca areas of Regions 6, 11, 12 and 13.”
Most of the abaca areas in Bicol are heavily concentrated in Catanduanes, comprising more than 60% of the total area of the region. Currently, Catanduanes is the biggest abaca producing province contributing 35% of the total production, followed by Davao Oriental with about 8.5%.
Abaca is obtained from a tree-like plantain or banana plant, known in the science world as Musa textiles. It is indigenous to the Philippines but is also found in Borneo, Indonesia, and Central America.
Abaca is considered the country’s premier fiber. It is prized for its great mechanical strength, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fiber length – up to 30 meters. The best grades of abaca are fine, lustrous, light beige in color, and very strong.
These days, most abaca fibers are pulped and processed into specialty papers. This includes tea and coffee bags, sausage casing paper, currency notes (the country’s Central Bank is using 20% abaca for peso bills: 200, 500, and 1,000), cigarette filter papers, medical/food preparation/disposal papers, high-quality writing paper, vacuum bags and more.
It is also extensively used in the production of industrial papers – power cable papers, insulating boards for motors, vacuum cleaner bags, tape papers, absorbent saturating papers (used for gasket work), high strength rope, sack papers, and abrasive base paper.
The cottage industry makes abaca into footwear, placemats, doormats, curtains, wall overlap and decors, coasters, bags, rugs, and many other useful items.
“The very durable nature of abaca is not the only quality of this natural fiber that makes it in demand in the market,” said a report. “Its environment-friendly, biodegradable nature makes manufacturers, especially those in Europe, use abaca over synthetic fibers.
“Coffee cups and tea bags are among the products that make use of abaca. These food containers highlight abaca fiber’s sanitary nature,” the report added. “Many European institutions had already adopted a policy of turning away from non-biodegradables like plastics.”
The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France, and South Korea as the major consumers of abaca fiber. “The needs of these countries are predicted to surge,” says the United Nations food agency.
Abaca has many other uses. For one, fiber is used for many things, including handicrafts, high quality bags. “Our sinamay is used as a blade for wind mills,” said Dr. Editha O. Lomerio, the project leader of Abakayamanan, a project that combines farming of abaca with other crops like coconut. Sinamay is a natural fabric made from abaca.
Roots may be converted into fertilizer and feeds. The roots of abaca are of the primary shallow root compared to hardwood trees which have deep roots. These may be uprooted more easily and may be chopped down to be made into fertilizer and feed.
The FAO says that planting abaca has some environmental benefits. “Erosion control and biodiversity rehabilitation can be assisted by intercropping abaca in former monoculture plantations and rainforest areas, particularly with coconut palms,” the U.N. food agency explained.
“Planting abaca can also minimize erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are important breeding places for sea fishes. The water holding capacity of the soil will be improved and floods and landslides will also be prevented. Abaca waste materials are used as organic fertilizer,” FAO added.
Thanks to the Philippines, abaca has contributed something for the economy and environment. “Abaca has been grown in the Philippines for centuries, long before the Spanish occupation,” reports the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFida). “When (Ferdinand) Magellan and his companions arrived in Cebu in 1521, they noticed that the natives were wearing clothes made from the fiber of abaca plant, noting further that the weaving of the fiber was already widespread in the island.”
However, it was not until 1685 that abaca was known in the Western world. Then, in 1820, John White, an American Navy lieutenant brought abaca fiber samples to the U.S. A cargo of abaca was sent to Salem, Massachusetts, under the label “Manila.” The Americans later became the largest abaca importers as the port of Manila was opened for international trade in 1834.
“The Japanese also took keen interest in abaca for naval use,” wrote Ernee Lawagan in an article which appeared in the defunct Mod. “They improved the method of production introduced by the Americans and put the abaca industry in the Philippines to a higher level of efficiency.”
It was in the 1920s when the Philippines monopolized the world production of abaca fibers, which are obtained from the plant leaves. “In 1921, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to cultivate abaca in Central America, particularly in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras, using the most outstanding Philippine abaca varieties. Much of these resulted in failure,” Lawagan wrote.
After World War II, Furukawa Yoshizo, one of the prewar abaca plantation owners in Davao, started field-testing and successfully cultivating abaca in Ecuador. “Today, Ecuador is the only other country commercially producing abaca in the world,” Lawagan noted. “Costa Rica, on the other hand, is now developing modern harvest facilities as studies indicated that its land could accommodate high yields of the crop.”
In later years, on the onrush of modern technology, abaca was no longer given importance, relegated to the background. “The advent of oil-based synthetic fibers in the mid-1950s, which rapidly replaced the traditional usage of natural fibers, displaced abaca as prime cordage material and precipitated its almost total collapse,” Lawagan wrote. The Philippine abaca industry suffered a slump as prices hit rock-bottom that several farmers eventually phased out their plantations.”
But thanks to the global shortage of many natural resources and the pollution being wrought by synthetic products on the environment, abaca stages a comeback. “Significant breakthroughs in technology and processes took place in the ’60s that brought about development of new uses for abaca, particularly in the use of pulp for the production of specialty paper products,” PhilFida reported.
Abaca is a suitable plant that can be incorporated in the reforestation farming system. It can assist in improving biodiversity conditions if intercropped with coconut palms and other tree species within former monoculture plantations and forest areas.
Harvesting is done every six months for the typical farm and every three to four months for the good farm. The first harvest is done 18-24 months after planting.