FOR some reason I am in the Philippine Council of Agriculture and Fisheries, of the Department of Agriculture, the Subcommittee on Fibers.
As many of us do not know, the Philippines has a wealth of natural fibers, about 29 of which have utilitarian value that can be converted into export products or handicraft, even liquor (maguey).
In the past, each important fiber, such as abaca, cotton, piña, etc. had an agency of their own for purposes of development in order to realize their full potential and protect them as well from pests and indifference. But in the streamlining of government agencies for rationalization in order to speak and act in one voice in one organization, all these agencies have been bundled into one—The Philippine Fiber Development Agency or PhilFida.
PhilFida has a staff of scientists and agriculturists pursuing the above mission/vision to nurture and manage the natural fibers of this country, particularly the 29 fibers that are important for their potential or ongoing market value.
The top-of-the-line fiber in the Philippines, as it has been in centuries past, is abaca, the look-alike of a banana tree, which since the days of the Manila Galleon has worldwide fame as the strongest natural fiber in the world. Thus, there is Manila rope from abaca, a fiber endemic and unique to the Philippines. It continues to play a major role in our economy not only as cordage that is being exported, but also as pulp that is used for paper currency. In its fiber stage it is used for some gadgets and other necessities, from cell phones to cars as well as for decor, clothes, and materials used in many ways for being natural, not subject to burning or spontaneous combustion.
The Philippines is the premier abaca-exporting country in the world, a niche where it has been unchallenged and regarded with awe. Meanwhile, the modern world needs more and more abaca beyond the days of the Manila Galleon. With its many uses as part of modern day products (electronic gadgets, anti-erosion measures in agriculture and road building, for example) abaca prices are at an all-time high, ready to give the abaca farmer, the abaca processor and the abaca supplier a high return on investment; and the Philippines’ high export receipts, higher per capita income for farmers and taxes paid.
The sad story is that Philippine abaca has not met the demand or answered the challenge or grabbed the opportunity to meet it. It is in an emergency situation for years of neglect or organizational doldrums.
The failure translates to a loss of hectarage planted to abaca and to the lack of planting materials, as basic as that with huge consequences in loss of income, opportunity and export position. There are many reasons for this state of affairs as PhilFida will tell you, but it boils down to the two mentioned above. Filipino farmers are abandoning abaca because aside from planting materials, which they cannot source easily, they need guidance or what is known as agriculture extension in the fields to grow healthy and productive plants, proper cooperatives to maneuver through honest weighing procedures that will give them honest returns, local government units’ assistance in distributing and nurturing abaca plants and suitable advice on what land conditions are applicable for abaca-growing.
Meanwhile, the private-sector part of the abaca industry besides the farmers is composed of the processors of abaca, who export it and depend on its availability to capture the all-time high prices that come with a very high demand. The private sector of the abaca industry has seen it fit to get into the fields by providing capital to farmers, extending know-how and, most of all, providing planting materials. These last two actions are more proper to PhilFida, which complains of lack of funding and personnel. Meanwhile, they have roadmaps, strategy plans, laboratories to grow abaca tissues, experiments in pest-resistant abaca plants, etc. This is all very well but, in reality, they do not cohere and, therefore, are not effecting a higher production of abaca—to the chagrin of abaca suppliers and traders. Because of land reform that prevents the huge estates that would be ideal to abaca-growing, the only other way for economy of scale that is needed for abaca production (like sugar) is for farmers to form cooperatives and use their combined land resources to grow abaca. In the field, there is a telling lack of cooperatives, which does not help incentivize the farmers to put their efforts behind abaca. Here is where agricultural extension could work to achieve cooperatives.
If the abaca industry does not fill the vacuum that is growing, it will be the most natural thing for another product to be found, discovered or invented to fill it. The abaca industry here is running out of time to fill that vacuum. Meanwhile, Ecuador, with abaca plantations of more than 4,000 hectares, is seizing the opportunity of the demand for abaca. Indonesia, too, seems to be interested. While we should not begrudge them, we have to rise to their challenge.
After hearing all the details of the abaca industry crisis in several meetings now, we have agreed and resolved that an Abaca Task Force is needed as of yesterday to wade through the various agencies, the demands from the field, the need to coordinate with the private sector, the activation of the LGUs’ mandate in agriculture for their areas and everything else that is needed to put the abaca industry up to par with current demand.
Abaca is a traditional Philippine product. At this point the crying need is for planting materials and more land to plant them on. But with a host of other attention-demanding items on PhilFida’s plate, it may be time it constitutes a Task Force with the singular purpose of prioritizing producing plant materials and the hectarage needed for abaca.