FAST BACKWARD: Abaca drought of 1931

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

Cultivation of abaca in Mindanao, according to English explorer William Dampier (1651-1715), the first person to circumnavigate the world thrice, started in 1686. This information was chiefly based on his brief stay in southern Philippines.

Since 1893 when hemp was started to be grown in plantations in Davao, growers were optimistic in having huge paydays, especially with the expanding demand for abaca fiber in the world market. This was further highlighted with the opening of new farms owned and operated by foreigners in the first decade of American colonial rule, chiefly honorably discharged American servicemen and migrant Japanese from Okinawa.

An August 1908 report in The Philippine Agriculture Review, already cited drought as the top threat to the hemp industry, followed by wind. Essentially, abaca survival during drought has something to do with the introduction of best farming practices, from land preparation to crop establishment, including the use of fertilizer, which was first tested in 1895.

Big profits from abaca farms was also dependent in the way the hills were chosen and the way plantations were prepared. Although reproduction was almost exclusively by suckers, the use of tubercles and seeds was also strongly recommended. Interestingly, the article noted in passing that “the use of an American plow in preparing plots… enabled young plants to thrive during the dry season better than they could do where the native plow was used.” 

Aside from fires and strong winds, hemp farms are also susceptible to larva attacks, such as the tamilok (woodworms). But it is in drought that abaca, which thrives up to 400 meters in altitude, can be destroyed, often resulting in low production and inferior fiber. The most devastating drought took place in 1931. According a report in The American Chamber of Commerce Journal, around 20 million hills were affected in Davao region alone.

In estimation, the Davao Japanese Association had it on record that the drought, which started in January 1931, damaged as much as 90 percent of the affected farms, aged one year old and older, and reduced the monetary returns from the leftover of the calamity to an average of 52.79 percent. The report added:

“Beginning in May 1931 when the dry spell was broken, and up to November 1932 production should gradually approach normal. Since the drought began in January 1931, there must have been a decrease in production between that date and May 1931, when it began to rain. This is put at about 25 per cent. The average harvest per thousand hills for all Davao is very slightly below 16 piculs, so that 16 piculs is a very convenient figure to use as a basis of estimates. The total in piculs is placed at 206,200. Considering the average abaca of Davao as of grade I, the total value of this loss at P12.52 per picul or $0.412 per pound is P2,581,624.”

More devastating than drought was the forced entry of Davao in the World War II theatre, which brought down hemp. Although efforts were initially made by the government to salvage whatever was left of the abaca industry, the reduced demand for Manila fiber was a real pain.

On June 17, 1961, Republic Act 3045, the Abaca Development Program Act, was signed into law; it allotted P20 million for a period of five years for the development of the abaca industry. 

The program was placed under the office of the Agriculture and Natural Resources secretary, through a Board composed of the  directors of the Bureau of Agricultural Extension and Bureau of Plant Industry, the Fiber Inspection Service manager, one representative each from the three abaca-producing regions and one from the Philippine Abaca Federation, Inc.

Central to the program was “the primary objective to bring to at least the pre-war level the production of abaca fiber, popularly known as Manila hemp.” 

The statute also cited factors that would help revive the industry, namely: (i) abaca seed production and distribution; (ii) improvement of fiber extraction methods; (iii) development and promotion of cottage industries using abaca as raw material; (iv) abaca research; (v) abaca foreign trade promotion; and (vi) general administration. 

More specifically, RA 3045 stipulated that funds for the program come from the unappropriated funds of the National Treasury to be disbursed every fiscal year, or P4 million per annum, divided, unless adjusted, under the following schedule, namely: (i) planting materials, P900,000; (ii) improvement of fiber extraction methods, P800,000; (iii) development and promotion of cottage industries using abaca as raw materials, P800,000; (iv) abaca research, P800,000; (v) abaca foreign trade promotion, P200,000; and (vii) general administration, P500,000.

In the second year, the budget under the statute was automatically included in the General Appropriations Act and to continue beyond five years to ensure the continuity of the program.