Abaca used to be called “Manila hemp,” but it is not actually a hemp.  Unlike the Russian hemp or American hemp, both of which are derived from Cannabis sativa, abaca is a member of the banana family.

On how it got its moniker, American educator Elizabeth Potter Sievert explained her book, The Story of Abaca: Manila Hemp’s Transformation from Textile to Marine Cordage and Specialty Paper. “What makes abaca so exceptional that it was the most sought-after fiber for marine cordage by the U.S. Navy and that, today, this same fiber is essential to the production of such specialty papers as a simple teabag?” she asked.

It was in the 1800s when abaca was popular for rope-making, particularly those used in ships and boats.  “Actually, all rope makers of the time made little distinction regarding the biological family of the fibers they chose to use, but instead called them all hemp and sometimes differentiated among them according to their country or port of origin,” Sievert wrote.

“It seems likely that the traders and consumers of abaca had little concern for the botanical derivation of the fiber,” she further wrote.  “Rather, they saw its importance only as a one of a class of fibers that could be spin into rope and would identify abaca the port from which they received it: Manila.  Hence, the term, ‘manila hemp’ or simply ‘manila.’”

“Abaca has been grown in the Philippines for centuries, long before the Spanish occupation,” the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFida) reports.  “When (Ferdinand) Magellan and his companions arrived in Cebu in 1521, they noticed that the natives were wearing clothes made from the fiber of abaca plant, noting further that the weaving of the fiber was already widespread in the island.”

However, it was not until 1685 that abaca was known in the Western world.  Then, in 1820, John White, an American Navy lieutenant brought abaca fiber samples to the US.  A cargo of abaca was sent to Salem, Massachusetts under the label “Manila.”  The Americans later became the largest abaca importers as the port of Manila was opened for international trade in 1834.

“The Japanese also took keen interest in abaca for naval use,” wrote Ernee Lawagan in an article which appeared in the defunct Mod.  “They improved the method of production introduced by the Americans and put the abaca industry in the Philippines to a higher level of efficiency.”

It was in the 1920s when the Philippines monopolized the world production of abaca fibers, which are obtained from the plant leaves.  “In 1921, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to cultivate abaca in Central America, particularly in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras, using the most outstanding Philippine abaca varieties. Much of these resulted in failure,” Lawagan wrote.

After World War II, Furukawa Yoshizo, one of the prewar abaca plantation owners in Davao, started field-testing and successfully cultivating abaca in Ecuador.  “Today, Ecuador is the only other country commercially producing abaca in the world,” Lawagan noted. “Costa Rica, on the other hand, is now developing modern harvest facilities as studies indicated that its land could accommodate high yields of the crop.”

In later years, on the onrush of modern technology, abaca was no longer given importance.  relegated to the background.  “The advent of oil-based synthetic fibers in the mid-1950s, which rapidly replaced the traditional usage of natural fibers, displaced abaca as prime cordage material and precipitated its almost total collapse,” Lawagan wrote. The Philippine abaca industry suffered a slump as prices hit rock-bottom that several farmers eventually phased out their plantations.”

But thanks to the global shortage of many natural resources and the pollution being wrought by synthetic products on the environment, abaca stages a comeback.  “Significant breakthroughs in technology and processes took place in the ‘60s that brought about development of new uses for abaca, particularly in the use of pulp for the production of specialty paper products,” PhilFida reported.

But despite the good news, bad news still looms.  The future of Philippine abaca industry is challenged by three complex virus diseases: bunchy top, mosaic and bract mosaic.  “Of the three viruses, bunchy top is the most destructive – reducing fiber yield by 13% to 70%,” said Dr. Antonio. C Lalusin, a researcher from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB).

Since the abaca industry plays a vital role for the Philippine economy, the Biotechnology Program Office of the Department of Agriculture teamed up with PhilFida and the Institute of Plant Breeding of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños conducted studies on the production of virus-resistant abaca plants.

The first batch of the experiment was conducted through conventional breeding, assisted by molecular markers of the plant.  The process of determining molecular markers is similar to that of fingerprint matching.  It is used to identify a particular genetic sequence.

The researchers used a native variety of banana as a parent of the abaca, since it has virus-free characteristics.  However, they needed to conduct more studies since the one they produced was poor in fiber quality.  To secure the good fiber quality of the abaca, they rebred the abaca plant they produced with another abaca plant.  The abaca being produced reportedly contain almost 87.5% of abaca gene.

Last year, it was reported that rehabilitation of abaca farms in Southern Leyte had already started.  An initial fund of P50 million was released for the establishment of nurseries which produce healthy planting materials.

Production loans for abaca farmers were also made available through the Agricultural Credit Policy Council amounting to at least P15,000 per hectare, the report added.

Agriculturists say the country’s agroclimatic conditions are perfect to grow abaca, which many people still mistake for banana plant.  In the Philippines, abaca has been found growing in virtually all types of soils and climate. But it is found most productive in areas where the soil is volcanic in origin, rich in organic matter, loose, friable, and well-drained, clay loam type.

Abaca is prized for its great mechanical strength, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fiber length – up to 30 meters.  The best grades of abaca are fine, lustrous, light beige in color and very strong.

These days, most abaca fibers are pulped and processed into specialty papers.  This includes: tea and coffee bags, sausage casing paper, currency notes (the country’s Central Bank is using 20% abaca for peso bills: 200, 500 and 1,000), cigarette filter papers, medical/food preparation/disposal papers, high-quality writing paper, vacuum bags and more. — ###