Abaca, the country’s premier fiber and known worldwide as Manila hemp, has come a long way from its humble beginning as raw material for our ancestors’ coarse and stiff clothing as well as footwear. While abaca is still being used for these purposes, its application has expanded to sophisticated industrial uses. It is now a preferred material in the production of pulp for specialty papers like tea bags, meat/sausage casings, cigarette paper, filter papers, currency notes, stencil papers and a host of non-woven product applications.
With the growing concern worldwide for the preservation of the natural environment and conservation of forest resources, the importance of abaca in the industrial sector is envisioned to further heighten in the next decades.
Beginning of the Abaca Industry
The abaca plant is indigenous to the Philippines whose warm, wet climate and volcanic soils are particularly suited to its cultivation. It has been grown in the Philippines for centuries, long before the Spanish occupation. When 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.
Abaca in Cordage Use
It was, however, only much later that the commercial or export importance of abaca was discovered. According to historical accounts, an American lieutenant of the U.S. Navy brought a sample of abaca fiber to the United States in 1820. This gave the initial impetus to Philippine abaca trade with the United States that five years later, the first exportation of abaca was made. Since then, abaca became well known as one of the strongest materials for marine cordage because of its superior tensile strength and proven durability under water. With the onset of the 20th century, abaca fiber has become the premier export commodity of the Philippines.
Because of its importance, the United States Department of Agriculture sent its top agricultural and fiber experts to the Philippines to provide impetus to the production of the fiber for their consumption. Many Americans were encouraged to establish plantations in the Philippines such that in 1909, Davao was chosen as the most suitable area for abaca. At the close of the First World War, the Japanese also took keen interest in abaca for its navy, also choosing Davao as the plantation site. They improved the method of production introduced by the Americans. This put the industry to a higher level of efficiency.
The Philippines has a monopoly in the production of abaca fiber in the 1920s. Since this period, wars were won by countries with superior navies and considering that cordage was vital to naval operation, the Philippine monopoly in abaca production alarmed the Americans. 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.
This was to be the beginning of the end of our abaca monopoly. It was after World War II that a Japanese national, Furukawa, one of the pre-war 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.
Incursion of Synthetics in Cordage Use
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. Thus, the Philippine abaca industry suffered a slump as prices hit rock bottom that several farmers eventually phased out their plantations.
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. In 1968, the Canlubang Pulp Manufacturing Company, the first local company to embark on the development of the technology for producing pulp using abaca, made its first exportation. As demand for abaca for pulp use increased, Filipino investors became interested in domestically producing abaca pulp. Other investors followed suit with most of them tied-up with foreign companies, which, due to strict anti-pollution laws in their respective countries, transferred their pulp operations in the Philippines.
Demand for these kinds of paper increased from year to year, and in time, stimulated a revival in the demand for the fiber. By the middle of the ’70s, abaca pulp had become a tested material for making various kinds of specialty papers and other non-woven disposables.
Abaca in Fibercraft
At the time when demand for abaca was declining, the Philippine government encouraged the development of the fibercraft industry. Fibercraft products like abaca rugs, doormats, hats, coasters, hot pads, linen and handbags became very much in demand abroad. By mid-70s, the fibercraft industry became the second biggest foreign exchange earner for the abaca industry, next to raw fiber exports.
Importance of Abaca in the Philippine Economy
Abaca is one fiber that has made the Philippines known all over the world. Abaca has, for centuries, been practically synonymous to the Philippines because it is known the world over as Manila hemp. Before the advent of synthetics in the ‘60s, abaca was the principal raw material for the manufacture of the world-renowned Manila rope. In fact, since the turn of the century, abaca was the top export earner of the country.
As of 2010, the Philippines supplies about 85.0 percent of the total world abaca requirement and the rest, by Ecuador.
The abaca industry continues to be one of the country’s major pillars in terms of employment generation and foreign exchange earnings. The industry sustains more than 1.5 million Filipinos who, directly or indirectly, depend on it for a living. Direct dependents include abaca farmers, classifiers/sorters, manufacturers, traders, exporters and hundreds of fibercraft processors who provide employment to thousands of Filipinos.
From 2001 to 2010, the abaca industry generated some US$82.1million per year from the exports of raw fiber and manufactures.