FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s cotton industry

As early as 1901, American efforts to introduce cotton farming in Davao were already in effect. Imported cotton goods cost $7 million, a princely amount that was nearly one-fourth of the total merchandise brought to the country from the US, United Kingdom, Spain, British east Indies, and Germany that same year.

In fact, the US, given the abundance of water in the islands, had already projected the possible development of the country into a major source of cotton for the Asian continent. Achieving this goal, though, was not just about planting the crop but also getting the patronage of the natives and local residents.

The holding of cotton farm tests was reported in the December 1902 Monthly Summary of the Commerce of the Philippines (No. 2, Series of 1901-1902) which the Division of Insular Affairs of the US War Department issued the previous year:

“Experiments in growing cotton from seed procured in the United States have been made in the province of Davao in Mindanao with such success that the culture of cotton will be tested fully, and if the results proved as successful as the persons interested in the trial believe, the consequences will be far reaching in their effect upon the future cotton trade of the Orient.”

A 1901 report published in Manila Times, the country’s oldest newspaper daily, disputed the adaptability of the crop to local conditions. But a letter from a Bagobo native who was asked to plant cotton seeds acquired a year earlier from the US showed the crop was growing satisfactorily, saying the plant was “as fair a sample as one in the bottoms of the Mississippi.”

This account, which appeared in the same monthly summary, gave rise to optimism “the soil of the Philippines, from seed imported from America, adds still more to the vast and almost unlimited potentials lying hidden in this archipelago.

That same year, Philippine Exploration Company, with a capital stock of US$500,000, filed its Articles of Incorporation, with US$180,000 in subscribed stocks. The incorporation was a prelude to the “formation of a company of millionaires with a capital of $250,000,000.”

Aside from mining and agricultural ventures, the firm, which should have an initial capitalization of US$6.9 billion in 2017 figures, was also into colonization.

“The principal objects of the concern will be to colonize the island of Mindanao, the largest of the Philippine group, build trading posts, acquire lands for agricultural and mining purposes, build railways, erect sugar and other manufactories, construct water works, and to inaugurate a steamship line between San Francisco [USA] and the [Philippine] islands.”

The 1901 War Department report identified the board of directors of the mammoth company as: William H. Crocker, millionaire banker; William G. Henshaw, an Oakland banker; ex-Congressman T.J. Clunie, and F.M. Smith, principal owners of the street railway system of Oakland. The stockholders included Stuyvesant Fish, of New York; F.F. Watts, of Chicago, and former Mayor T.D. Phelan, of San Francisco.

Curiously, nothing came out positively of these encouraging developments.

Over a century later, encouraged by the growing global demand for cotton products, especially shirts and other apparels, interest in cotton was revived. For instance, Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M), the world’s second largest fashion retailer, started looking for partners in the country to sustain its cotton requirements for its garments in 2013.

Two years thereafter, Cotton USA, a popular garment brand, came out with its grand plant to grow 5% in the country. The idea here is for products to be produced locally and carry indigenous labels. USA Cotton was first introduced its products to garment manufacturers and consumers in the country in 1994.

The Cotton Council International ASEAN reported the Philippines consumes an average of 40,000 metric tons (MT) of lint every year, which is valued at PhP3 billion ($66.57 million). Ninety-seven percent of the cotton it uses is imported mainly from the US.

A 2015 report that appeared in underscored the major setback the Philippine cotton industry has been confronting:

“Although the Philippines has a favorable soil and climate to grow cotton, the local industry has been enduring a major setback because of several socio-economic and technical factors, such as the cotton bollworm issue. Bollworm is any larva or moth that attacks the fruiting bodies of certain crops, especially cotton. Thus genetically-engineered Bt cotton was introduced to reduce the use of synthetic insecticides in fighting such pest.”

A decade earlier, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and major clothing brands, introduced cotton to reach farmers and taught them how to farm this water-wasting crop, using less pesticides and water.

The Initiative defines ‘better cotton’ as a crop that adopts a six-point agenda, namely: to minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices, use water efficiently and care for the availability of water, care for the health of the soil, conserve natural habitats, care for and preserve the quality of the fibre, and promote decent work.