Cotton in the Philippines

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Just came from a trip to the Ilocos pursuing our textile advocacy.  (Disclosure: I am the Chair of HABI:  The Philippine Textile Council). Our thrust at the moment is persuading weavers to go back to cotton.

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Cotton, a natural fiber, whose use in fabric brings in higher prices than synthetic thread, should be the future of our indigenous textile weaving industry. It used to be the fiber of choice among our traditional weavers (together with abaca and piña) but with the scarcity of the material in the last decades, weavers have switched to synthetic threads.

The modern world of gadgets, plastic and throwaway material is now valuing natural fibers and they are in demand and command high-end prices. This is the niche that our traditonal textile weavers can fill using cotton for a higher return on their labor.

We visited the Cotton Development Administration (CODA) in Batac, Ilocos Norte and were graciously given information on the current state of our now dormant cotton industry.

History tells us that the Philipines was a cotton exporter in the time of the galleons  In fact, the galleon sails were woven in the Ilocos, some of whose weaving patterns echo the sails in their design of stripes (banderado).

CODA personnel led by their Director Dr Edison Riñen showed us cotton plants growing in their premises. It takes more than 100 days from planting to harvest.  The cotton plant is related to the hibiscus (gumamela) and to okra, the vegetable.  You can note it in the flower that it produces, a miniature gumamela, so to speak.  It is prone to several pests, notably the bollworm. But they can be controlled with the use of natural and chemical pesticides. It was the first time for me to see close up and personal a cotton plant which is about waist high, has deep roots and many leaves. The flower turns into a firm square covered by a green leaf which grows into a green ball and eventually bursts open with cotton fiber. The harvester picks that out of the bloom which is underlined with a hard material called a bracket which is in effect a secondary product.

Decorators use it for dry natural still life arrangements.

According to CODA our cotton production has been in decline since the early 90’s when we had 38,000 hectares planted to cotton. Now we have about 1,000 hectares which is a big comedown.  Reasons are fluctuating cotton prices in the world market, lack of knowhow or experience in growing it as it is fast losing its place as a regular field plant in this country. And I suspect, weak demand from weavers who seamlessly went on to use synthetics when they could not easily find cotton or afford it, synthetic thread being cheaper.

Yet we have one of the best if not the best cotton variety in the world—barbadense which is up there with Pima cotton and Egyptian cotton and all the other well-known quality cotton varieties.  Whatever the future holds, we must hold on to barbadense.

At present coton is still grown in the Negros provinces, in Iloilo, in Ilocos and Benguet.  Some enterprising local thread suppliers who sell to traditional textile weavers are buying what they can in competition with an Israeli buyer who buys all the barbadense he can get and ships it out of the country.

Meanwhile, we import lower quality cotton thread. That should give us an inkling of what a valued product  our barbadense is.

CODA following its mandate to propagate and assist in cotton production is looking to the future with the advent of Bt cotton seeds. Bt cotton would need less inputs, therefore not be polluting or environmentally destructive or affect farmers’ health while being a reliable crop. Of course Bt cotton seeds are not propagated, they have to be new each time and there has to be a supplier. CODA is working with Bt cotton seeds from India as well as looking for a local partner (of which there are possibilities) to handle local manufacture and distribution.

Meanwhile in our stops at Ilocos weaving communities in Bangar, Santa, Paoay and Vigan we distributed cotton thread to the weavers there. Manang Benny from Bangar, La Union, Manang Charito of Paoay and Manang Ibing of Barangay Mindoro in Vigan were quite excited to receive them and try them out immediately. Manang Ibing said she was looking for cotton for such a long time and had almost given up hope of finding it. Thank goodness for Emily and Elsie of Nooks International who are tirelessly roaming the country and buying up cotton from small farmers. Now they can supply local cotton and our mission was to tell that to the weavers.

But there are many obstacles to our cotton production. Lack of cotton gins or cotton gins that are so huge they need huge amounts of cotton fiber to process economically. Or, scarcity of spinning machines as well as baling machines. At least CODA in Batac City was aware of the lack and trying to solve the problems albeit hampered by budgetary constraints. They have acquired the equipment—gins, baling machine, spinners but have to get funds to put them into operating order.

All in all, the Department of Agriculture under whom the CODA and other fiber agencies are placed, has to pay serious attention to cotton, provide the support that cotton farmers need from seeds to knowhow, from post harvest facilities with the right working equipment, to opening markets. There is a future here for farmers, for traditional textile weavers and for Philippine exports.

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