By Vladimir B. Caliguiran

From afar, the high and foliage-dense mountains of Roxas, Palawan seem to be uninhabited. But a closer glance will show that there are farmers growing the shade-loving abaca plant underneath the green canopy of the forest.

Yes, abaca is a very good intercrop for a rainforest, and the best livelihood alternative for forestland owners, too.

An instant passion

Ruel Gabo became fascinated with abaca farming during a seminar conducted by the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA) through its provincial fiber officer Rey Mangaccat. Comparing his interest in learning more about abaca processing to that of a man who falls in love with a woman at first sight, Gabo expressed his gratitude to Mangaccat for introducing him to abaca, which he considers a good source of income.

In the hope that the abaca plant would be the answer to their quest for progress, Gabo—then 65 and a member of his local barangay council—representing his fellow farmers, asked for assistance from the Roxas local government unit (LGU) in starting up abaca farming in his area. He drafted a resolution addressed to the mayor requesting the provision of 3,000 seedlings for 60 persons, so that each of them would have 50 seedlings each.

Gabo then encouraged his colleagues to grow abaca, but he was met with opposition. He even remembers how someone said that the idea was nonsense, but a few took him up on it. However, when the 3,000 seedlings he requested were delivered to his door, most of the plants were damaged due to the long trip on the rugged road from Brookes Point to Roxas. He chose to look on the bright side, though, and distributed 50 seedlings
to those who were willing to grow abaca.

And so, with less than 15 seedlings, Gabo began planting abaca in the summer of 2005.
After eight years of patience and diligence, the seedlings became 700 plants, thus enabling him to plant his other crops nearby.

“I will show them that abaca is better than gold,” Gabo said confidently about his detractors, some of whom were more interested in gold mining because it had made their barangay the richest in their area. He was convinced that the key selling point to abaca farming was that it does not destroy the land. Land destroyed by gold mining, he says, is useless forever.

Now, he owns one of the largest abaca farms in their neighborhood. Last December 2012, the Roxas LGU gave Gabo P14,000 as a reward for his abaca farm. As part of the LGU’s program to promote abaca farming, it is paying farmers for every abaca tree planted on their farms.

A learning process

Reviewing his old blue logbook, Gabo recalls the first time he harvested abaca on October 10, 2006, after 18 months. His logbook notes that an average of one kilo of fiber can be harvested from three abaca plants.

Gabo makes various products from his abaca fiber and sells these
to local handicraft stores in Puerto Princesa City.

Gabo now uses the FIDA-designed improved hand stripping device for detaching fibers from abaca sheath. He received four units of this stripping device from FIDA; one is located in his backyard while the other units can be found right on his farms. With these machines, he can easily strip his produce right after tumbling (cutting) and tuxying (extracting the fiber from the leaf sheaths). These strippers proved to be a big help; in just two days of stripping, Gabo shares, he can make enough to buy one salop of rice. Thus he no longer needs to borrow money to sustain his operations.

He studied how to generate income from abaca, initially selling the fibers in Puerto Princesa. After several harvests, he was able to produce his first product: a soft broom. Later, he started to make soft brooms, doormats, baskets, pan supporters, dusters, ropes, and other fibercrafts. Gabo has no formal training on handicraft making; his creations are the products of his imagination. He shares that he often thinks up of products to develop while resting, and once a prototype is made, he brings it to Puerto Princesa. If his buyers like what they see, he can make an income from it. He sells abaca crafts to local native product stores in Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa City, and also accepts orders for custom handicrafts from his customers.

His dream is to have his own processing center, and outside his house, he has a poster advertising that he buys abaca fiber.

As advertised, Gabo also buys abaca fiber from his
fellow farmers.

Because of his passion for abaca, he has been invited to talk during seminars on abaca processing conducted by his LGU, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), and Palawan State University, among others.

Today, the old man is happy to see his efforts bear fruit through the formation of the Maharlika-Little Caramay Abaca Growers Association. Their first project is a nursery for the reproduction of abaca seedlings. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gabo continues to motivate his 26 members; using the back pages of their old calendar and a marker, he explains how to earn money from abaca using his own data, generated from his experience.

Hopeful farmers

A group of farmers in Roxas, Palawan is also hoping that abaca will lift their community from poverty and become a better option to gold mining. They are the members of the Little Caramay Farmers Multi-Purpose Cooperative, which was formally organized last year.

Some of the members admitted that they were among the recipients of the abaca seedlings in 2005. However, after planting, only few of them harvested their crop because they had difficulty looking for buyers. But now that they are organized, the FIDA, through Mangaccat, can easily link them to potential markets and other fiber processors in Palawan.

Member Joel Matin shared that while they are just starting out, the training sessions and seminars they attend encourage them to keep going, and that they can see that abaca farming will be beneficial to them. He adds that Mangaccat helped arrange for them to train in handicraft making, which they eagerly took up.

A respected and trusted community leader, Matin is an advocate for the increase of abaca production in his area, and he studied how to maximize their abaca planting for the benefit of their livelihoods. He says that the abaca plant is very good for intercropping, and it gives them an additional source of income. A bright future is in store with abaca, Matin believes, especially since it is not just them but also their community that will benefit from it.

Just a few years ago, no one seemed to be interested in planting abaca. These days, the cooperative’s problem is the scarcity in seedlings because everyone wants to plant abaca. At present, there are now about five hectares of abaca thriving in the forest and planted between calamansi, banana, and coconut trees. Also, last year, members of the cooperative attended the Farmers Field School on abaca farming.

Because of the renewed interest in abaca, FIDA provided the cooperative with a mobile spindle stripping machine and an abaca fiber dryer. Training on the operation and maintenance of the equipment was also conducted by FIDA. Member Rosalinda Delgua can attest to the efficiency of the stripping machine; last year, she harvested 198 kilograms of fiber from her 500 grown abaca plants.

While the others are waiting for their plants to mature, FIDA Palawan is organizing training on handicraft making and other fiber processing technologies.

Ten years from now, with his passion and dedication in abaca farming, it’s not impossible for Gabo to achieve his vision—a progressive abaca industry in their community and a time when farmers will dig the soil not to search for gold but to plant more abaca.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s September 2013 issue.