FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s greatest export

It’s a little known fact that Davao’s abaca, also known as the Manila hemp, is the region’s key contribution to the global agriculture economy. In fact, the abaca shoots that helped transform the Central American countries of Panama and Ecuador into international hemp giants were originally from Southern Philippines, i.e. Davao City! Scientifically known as Musa textilis, abaca is a species of banana native to the Philippines and was abundantly grown in Davao region for nearly six decades of the 20th century.

The project to bring abaca buds, suckers, and rhizomes to Panama started in 1923 with a small shipment sent to the Panama Canal Zone from Manila. A year later, at a time when the Philippines, then the world’s largest supplier of hemp, was producing annually close to 182 million kilos of fiber, 80 million kilos of which were consumed by the United States, another shipment was dispatched to Washington, D.C. “but none of these plants survived the climatic changes and other hardships incident to the long journey.”

In 1925, The American Chamber of Commerce Journal (October 1926) reported that a collection of roughly 1,400 selected plants from six leading abaca varieties were brought by H. T. Edwards of the Bureau of Plant Industry from the Province of Davao, to the Canal Zone and cultivated there. This was the first time the abaca from Davao was transplanted in the American tropics.

Arrangement for the direct transport of the cargo was started in the months of July and August 1925. This was loaded on the S. S. Ethan Allen at Malita, Davao Occidental, and arrived in Balboa, Panama on October 3. That same year the Dutch started cultivating abaca in Sumatra.

A 1926 article titled ‘How Edwards Got Manila Hemp to Panama’, reported:

“This collection of plants was obtained from five different plantations and includes the leading varieties of abaca in Davao Province. In order to determine the relative value of different kinds of propagating material, and also to ascertain the best methods of packing, the shipment included seed, buds suckers, and rhizomes. The seed was shipped both in cold storage and packed in charcoal. Approximately 500 buds, suckers, and rhizomes were planted either in soil or sphagnum, about 100 suckers and rhizomes were packed in charcoal, and between 800 and 900 rhizomes were wrapped in paper and excelsior and shipped in crates.”

Accordingly, of the overall shipment of 1,438 plants or 1,052 plants, the equivalent of 73.2% of the collection, arrived in their destination alive, and 769 plants, 53.5% of the cargo, were in good condition. Part of the collection was planted provisionally at a quarantine station near the town of Bocas del Toro on Columbus Island, on the eastern coast of Panama, while the rest were placed in the Plant Introduction Gardens at Summit, Canal Zone.

The successful planting of Davao abaca in Central America meant two things: first, the collection became the first abaca plants to be cultivated in tropical America; and, second, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Philippine farm monopoly of the Manila hemp ceased after abaca seedlings were almost introduced in Sumatra,

Interestingly, as early as mid-1920’s, Yoshizo Furukawa, a Japanese plantation owner in Davao, started testing hemp seedlings in South America using strains coming from the Philippines. For his contribution, he is recognized as ‘the father of Ecuadorean abaca industry.’

Furukawa’s breakthrough contribution to Ecuadoran  agriculture was confirmed by a 1953 U.S. research, which showed that the planting materials, mostly the Tangongon variety were first brought to Panama before these were exported to Ecuador, came from Davao. In fact, six rhizomes traced from a Philippine coconut variety were discovered in the seedlings.

Costa Rica later became a major player in the hemp export, with the Philippines, even until now, maintaining dominance in the global market supply of abaca fiber.

Commercial production of Ecuadorean hemp, though, did not start until 1965. In Furukawa’s plantations adjacent to Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a fourth of the 20,000 hectares set aside for abaca were owned by and planted with seedlings the Japanese investor provided. Compared to its Philippine counterpart, the Ecuadorean hemp, except for the benign nematode, is not susceptible to abaca mosaic, and the location of the plantations is storm-free.

Furukawa also introduced a five-point scale that resulted in improving “the quality of cleaning location of the fiber in the plant, and its texture and color.” Another aspect that helped South American plantations progress was the absence of government intervention. This means that fiber transactions there were conducted based on commitments, unlike in the Philippines where the control of hemp quality, pest control, and planting technology is exclusively handled by the state agency Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA).

Despite Furukawa’s early introduction of abaca in South America, the stability of the Ecuadorean hemp, like the Davao experience, has always been dependent on world market prices. After the war he shifted his investment focus in South America after his land concession were reverted to government ownership.

The more than 1,000 hectares of Furukawa hemp estate he left behind in Bago Oshiro have since been apportioned by informal settlers. Only 80 hectares are left in government hands and are now home to a state-run research laboratory established for detecting hemp diseases, and a nursery that cultivates different varieties of abaca.