FAST BACKWARD: Davao abaca and the US defense

Years before World War II, during the Commonwealth period, the US Defense establishment conducted a “special study” to determine American dependence on other countries for “essential raw materials.” The analysis yielded an incontrovertible fact: 75 percent of US hemp supply came from Davao! While American demand for abaca fiber was not limited to marine and naval use, the abaca fiber was regarded as “an essential sinew of [US] national defense.”

The tactical role the hemp played in the US defense arsenal was articulated by Rep. Fred L. Crawford of Michigan, USA, who supported the Commonwealth special commission that conducted a probe on reports the Japanese were on a binge of acquiring new lands.

In 1935, as a member of the US congressional committee that participated in the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth, the American legislator, along with another visiting dignitary, toured the Davao plantations and made inquiries on the ownership of abaca lands.

The Commonwealth commission was primarily organized in 1940, in the words of Crawford, “to decide a very controversial subject, whether and to what extent certain lands in Davao have been acquired by the Japanese in defiance of Philippine law.”

In his 1941 article titled “Strategic Manila Hemp: Is America’s Supply of Precious Abaca Fiber in Danger?,” which appeared in Philippines, magazine, he favored the move to “institute prosecution against Japanese… found to hold title or control of land in violation of Insular law designed to prevent the concentration of these lands in the hands of a nationality potentially hostile to Filipinos and Americans.”

Although the 1935 Constitution, at the instance of Pantaleon Pelayo, Sr., a feisty Davao delegate to the 1934 Constitutional Convention, adopted the provisions prohibiting foreigners from owning lands in the country, the Japanese, using clever schemes in protecting their investments, resorted to dummies in maintaining their control of abaca farms.

Article XII of the 1935 Constitution titled ‘Conservation and Utilization of National Resources, particularly sections 1 and 2, stipulates:

“Section 1. All agricultural, timber, and mineral lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum, and other mineral oils, all forces or potential energy, and other natural resources of the Philippines belong to the State, and their disposition, exploitation, development, or utilization shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations or associations at least sixty per centum of the capital of which is owned by such citizens, subject to any existing right, grant, lease, or concession at the time of the inauguration of the Government established under this Constitution…

“Section 2. No private corporation or association may acquire, lease, or hold public agricultural lands in excess of one thousand and twenty-four hectares, nor may any individual acquire such lands by purchase in excess of one hundred and forty-four hectares, or by lease in excess of one thousand and twenty-four hectares, or by homestead in excess of twenty-four hectares. Lands adapted to grazing, not exceeding two thousand hectares, may be leased to an individual, private corporation, or association.”

Moreover, Crawford wrote “the extremely clever Nipponese had hit upon new devices for acquiring additional land (sic). They married, temporarily or otherwise, Filipino women in whose names title to the land was vested, or they bought land through corporations ostensibly owned by Filipinos but actually controlled by Japanese.”

He even criticized the Japanese control of the abaca industry in Davao as “an important bottleneck of a vital insular industry,” and observed the palpable change in the attitude of Filipinos in recent years towards Japanese land ownership, which he labeled as “healthy one.” He wrote:

“People have become aware of the economic danger inherent in the control of a vital commodity by possibly hostile nationals. The Commonwealth Government’s action [to probe the Japanese’s land-acquiring activities] indicates a new and praiseworthy awareness of the perilous factors involved, and this, in turn indicates an awareness of the larger international and strategic considerations.”

Apprised of the result of the Washington-commissioned special study on the natural resources available to the US, both in the mainland and abroad, which reported the US was importing three-fourths of its fiber supply from Davao, the Michigan congressman expressed apprehension the Japanese domination would become a drawback to the American defense agenda. In retrospect, he wrote:

“We must continue to look to the Philippines for our supply of this [abaca] vital commodity. It is one of the reasons Philippine trade is so valuable to us. No other part of the world raises abaca in any considerable quantity. Davao, of course, is not the only Philippine province where hemp is cultivated, but Davao is the keystone of the abaca industry. As long as it remains so, Davao is of vital interest and concern to us. We cannot afford to be complaisant about a potential danger to our industry and defense.”

For all we know, it could have been the abaca fiber from Davao that influenced, even if partially, the US government to forge a mutual defense agreement with the country!