Bicol’s treasured abaca earns RP dollars

DARAGA, ALBAY—Abaca is a wonder plant as far as Med Vallejo-Villanueva and husband Sheldon are concerned.

The thousands of workers who have helped make the couple’s Shelmed Cottage Treasures a successful abaca craft enterprise in the Bicol region over the past decades would agree.

The Vallejos, from Med’s grandparents to her parents, are among the pioneers in the abaca industry here. Shelmed started after Med’s parents, Antonio Vallejo and Leticia Punsalan-Vallejo, decided to quit and pass on the business to Med and Sheldon when the two got married in 1973.

P3,000 capital

Med, a teacher, and Don, a mechanical engineer, were probably the youngest exporters when they went into the production of abaca placemats and doormats.

The couple, who put up P3,000 as initial capital for Shelmed, later expanded their products into rattan and buri furniture, baskets and other handicrafts made from abaca fiber.

From three employees from the old Vallejo company, where Sheldon used to work as a technical assistant, Shelmed grew to an estimated 60 full-time employees, 1,200 in-house artisans and a community support base of 2,500 families at present.

Currently, Sheldon is president of Shelmed and Med is the executive vice president with Mesh, the couple’s eldest daughter who handles marketing, representing the fourth generation of the Vallejos in the abaca export industry.

A big number of abaca workers in the countryside continue to earn a living from the company’s ventures into the export of abaca handicraft, paper pulp, furniture pieces, cordage, the most saleable abroad, according to Med.

Fibercrafts, like handbags, carpets, pouches, mats, floral accessories, wrapping material, wall paper, houseware baskets, bins, sotrage containers, lighting fixtures, votive candles, curtains, coasters, hot pads, napkin rings and novelties are very much in demand, according to Mesh.

Exporters continue to fulfill an increasing demand for abaca products by the overseas market whose interests are sustained due to continuous enhancements in materials and innovations in the finished products by producers like Shelmed.

Challenges

Med says a major challenge to the abaca exporters is the attempt by developed countries to manufacture a synthetic material with similar properties to the abaca fiber.

“Abaca, an earth-grown material, is being challenged by the existence of other products that are also “earth-bound” and less expensive to produce in countries where exporters have better government support,” she adds.

Marlon Rebancos, public information officer of the Daraga-Albay-based Fiber Industry Development Authority (Fida), noted how the area being planted to abaca has become smaller.

She explained that due to the low price of the fiber in the local market there have been lesser people venturing in the production of abaca.

“This will mean that there will also be lesser lands tilled for abaca production,” she added.

The export market

Fida records showed that the Philippines dominated the world’s abaca export market, account for 83 percent of the supply, with the United States as the country’s biggest market for its cordage and raw fiber.

The Bicol region’s major markets for its raw fibers are the United Kingdom, Japan, and China while markets for its fibercrafts are the US, Germany, Japan, Australia and Europe.

In 2005, the Bicol region’s consumption of abaca reached 14,225 metric tons, 93.87 percent of which were used in pulp production, 5.33 percent in cordage, and .80 percent in fibercraft.

The country’s average annual production from 2001-2005 is 65,676 metric tons with Bicol’s annual average production placed at 11,750 metric tons.

In the region, 42,813 hectares are planted to abaca with average production per hectare at 383 kilograms.

The current market price for fine quality abaca fiber is P46 to P48 a kilo.

Catanduanes, with the biggest area planted to abaca at almost 22,384 hectares, remains the biggest abaca-producing province in the region and in the country.

The province supplies 20 percent of the abaca fiber production of the Philippines and accounts for 60 percent of Bicol’s fiber.

However, the impending ban on the gathering and trading of abaca leaf sheaths or “bakbak” to be imposed by the government soon is cause for worry by handmade paper makers, abaca processors and traders in the province.

In the Bicol region, about half of the 44 abaca-processing handicraft makers use abaca leaf sheaths or “bakbak.” In Catanduanes, small and medium enterprises, which include handicraft firms, generated $341,000 in export sales and P6.2 million in domestic revenues.

Existing processed abaca industry players include nine handmade paper makers, 11 using handmade paper products and combinations and two concentrating on the production of carpets and abaca “pinukpok” textiles.

Executive Order No. 502, signed by President Macapagal-Arroyo last Feb. 2, 2006, has banned the harvesting, gathering, buying, selling and mutilating of matured and young leaf sheaths of abaca plants (Musa taxtiles Nee) for commercial purposes.

The leaf sheaths form the solid mass that is the stalk or stem of the abaca plant.

The EO stated that the unabated harvesting of “bakbak” is slowly decimating the existence of abaca and threatens the source of fibers, known all over the world as Manila Hemp and contributing an average of P4.5 billion in revenues throughout the country.

The gathering of the raw material, the EO added, has aggravated the spread of abaca viral diseases by mechanical means and the transporting of the “bakbak” to other areas.

Perfecto Sambajon, officer in charge of the Fida in Catanduanes told the Inquirer that the removal of “bakbak,” widely practiced in Gigmoto and other towns, exposes the inner layer of the abaca plant.

With the removal of more than two layers of leaf sheaths, the plant’s growth would be affected and fiber production reduced.

The spread of abaca viral diseases has moved Fida to implement disease control and eradication projects and rehabilitation of affected areas.

After these preventive and suppressive measures against viral diseases in abaca, Rebancos added that perhaps after two to three years, there will be an increase in production.

Plight of traders, workers

Former Gigmoto vice mayor Edwin Tolledo, however, disputed Fida’s contention that the gathering of “bakbak” is detrimental to plant growth.

Tolledo, who has shipped 20 truckloads of dried “bakbak” to processors based in Angeles City, buys the raw material at P7 a kilo from more than 200 gatherers composed mostly of women and children.

Each truckload contains at least 4,000 kilos of “bakbak” which he sells to the Angeles processors for P17 to P20 per kilo to be used as bed covers, wall decorations and other items geared towards the export market.

He said that the gatherers in Bato and San Miguel deliver as much as 300 kilos of dried leaf sheaths every two days, the proceeds of which go to their daily needs and to pay off microfinance loans.

“It would be foolish for me to buy young leaf sheaths which are still wet,” Tolledo said, adding the “bakbak” is normally removed by the abaca farmer prior to stripping.

Two other buyers of “bakbak” operate in Gigmoto and Pandan towns, buying the material from abaca farmers for P4 to P6 per kilo while a Tabaco City-based buyer collects the material via a roving cargo truck for the same price.

On the other hand, Simplicio Mendoza, president of the Catanduanes Producers Association, lamented the ban, arguing that the “bakbak” would now be allowed to rot away instead of being used in handmade paper-making as well as for decorative accents in handicrafts.

Belen Tenoria of Summit Handmade Paper & Handicraft said that while she uses only a small amount of “bakbak” for the manufacture of brown paper, it would be impractical for the government to completely prohibit the use of the raw materials especially as she plans to venture in wall décor production.

For her part, Lynn Molina, who has been making gift items for five years under her own Lynn’s Arts & Crafts, suggested that the government should instead concentrate on developing skills and providing financing for abaca farmers so that they could exploit to the fullest the many uses of abaca.

Authors: Ephraim Aguilar and Fernan Gianan
Philippine Daily Inquirer Southern Luzon Bureau

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Published in: on April 24, 2006 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off on Bicol’s treasured abaca earns RP dollars  
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