Catanduanes abaca farmers defy the odds
VIRAC, Catanduanes, Philippines — Ayeen Acosta and her friends from Metro Manila did not mind the long and tiring trip by air, land, and sea just to reach this coastal town in time for the 7th Abaca Festival last month.
Acosta’s group was among the thousands of spectators who pushed their way through the throng of tourists and locals to witness how the province lives up to its reputation as the country’s top abaca (Manila hemp) producer.
The highlight of the festivity was a float parade involving 16 participants that marched from Sto. Domingo Bridge to the provincial capitol grounds while showing off their creativity using brightly colored abaca and indigenous materials to showcase the local abaca industry.
“I just wanted to capture the moment by taking photos and videos of the floats, which are really incredible because of their unique designs,” the 27-year-old Acosta told the Inquirer.
She said experiencing the festival for the first time and visiting the province, particularly its tourist destinations, was “a memorable journey that is worthy to be shared with family and friends.”
On April 25, 2022, Catanduanes, through Republic Act No. 11700, was declared the “abaca capital of the Philippines” to acknowledge the province’s role as the country’s top producer of the native fiber.
But unknown to many tourists, the province’s abaca industry has its own share of struggles, especially after reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a barrage of devastating typhoons in recent years.
Government records show Catanduanes (population in 2020: 271,879) has around 14,000 abaca farmers and 27,000 strippers who produce what many regard as first-class material due to its durability.
But most of the abaca farmers are getting old, while the younger generation is veering away from hard labor, threatening what was once a thriving fiber industry.
Abaca plantations in the province are located mostly in upland areas, requiring farmers and strippers to take almost two hours of trekking amid the heat or rain.
Another source of uncertainty for those who depend on the industry for their livelihood is the plan of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to replace abaca with polymer in making peso bills.
Industry officials believed this would have an adverse impact on the local abaca industry, with farmers and strippers facing huge income losses if the BSP would eventually stop using abaca fiber in Philippine currency.
In an earlier interview, Bert Lusuegro, provincial officer of the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (Philfida), said Catanduanes farmers were producing an average of 100 metric tons (MT) of abaca yearly. About 30 percent of this yield is used as raw material in the production of peso bills.
According to Lusuergo, losing a major market for Catanduanes’ main product will put the local abaca industry in peril.
Rep. Jose “Bong” Teves Jr. of Talino at Galing ng Pinoy (TGP) party list has been fighting the BSP’s plan, saying he has received reports that sale of abaca has dropped since the polymer banknote, particularly the P1,000 bill, was introduced last year.
During the May 22 festival, Gov. Joseph Cua acknowledged the challenges facing the province’s abaca industry and said his administration would introduce innovations, especially the mechanization of fiber production through a spindle stripping machine, to ease farmers’ burden. A spindle stripping machine can produce fiber up to 20 times faster than stripping by hand.
“We can’t deny that abacaleros (abaca farmers) are getting old and their children don’t want hard labor. So, with the new technology of fiber production, our output will be doubled,” Cua stressed.
Mary Anne Molina, Philfida director in Bicol region, said they fully supported mechanization, but admitted that funds were not enough to acquire a spindle stripping machine.
“The advantages of having the stripping machines are that we can produce the best quality and standard of fiber so that we can command a good price in both the local and international markets,” she told the Inquirer.
Molina said the farm gate price of low-grade fiber fetches between P32 and P35 per kilo, while the high-grade fiber is sold for P90 to P100 per kilo.Farmer Nestor Olaton of Gigmoto town is looking forward to mechanization.
“It’s a huge relief for abaca strippers like us. We’ll no longer be exhausted, and we’ll certainly earn more,” he said.
Cua said he would also prioritize the construction of farm-to-market roads to make it easy for farmers to transport the raw materials from the plantations to their buyers, noting that “abaca has been a stronghold of Catanduanes.”
Carmel Bonifacio-Garcia, provincial tourism officer, said the Abaca Festival was one way of honoring local abaca farmers and industry stakeholders.
“Everyone was excited about the festival, so we made the event extraordinary with the float parade competition, considering that everything is back to normal since COVID-19 restrictions were already eased,” she said.