Abaca, the country’s premier fiber and known worldwide as Manila hemp, has come a long way from its humble beginning as raw material for our ancestors’ coarse and stiff clothing as well as footwear. While abaca is still being used for these purposes, its application has expanded to sophisticated industrial uses. It is now a preferred material in the production of pulp for specialty papers like tea bags, meat/sausage casings, cigarette paper, filter papers, currency notes, stencil papers and a host of non-woven product applications. With the growing concern worldwide for the preservation of the natural environment and conservation of forest resources, the importance of abaca in the industrial sector is envisioned to further heighten in the next decades. Beginning of the Abaca Industry
The abaca plant is indigenous to the Philippines whose warm, wet climate and volcanic soils are particularly suited to its cultivation. It has been grown in the Philippines for centuries, long before the Spanish occupation. When 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. Abaca in Cordage Use
It was, however, only much later that the commercial or export importance of abaca was discovered. According to historical accounts, an American lieutenant of the U.S. Navy brought a sample of abaca fiber to the United States in 1820. This gave the initial impetus to Philippine abaca trade with the United States that five years later, the first exportation of abaca was made. Since then, abaca became well known as one of the strongest materials for marine cordage because of its superior tensile strength and proven durability under water. With the onset of the 20th century, abaca fiber has become the premier export commodity of the Philippines. Because of its importance, the United States Department of Agriculture sent its top agricultural and fiber experts to the Philippines to provide impetus to the production of the fiber for their consumption. Many Americans were encouraged to establish plantations in the Philippines such that in 1909, Davao was chosen as the most suitable area for abaca. At the close of the First World War, the Japanese also took keen interest in abaca for its navy, also choosing Davao as the plantation site. They improved the method of production introduced by the Americans. This put the industry to a higher level of efficiency. Abaca in the Americas
The Philippines has a monopoly in the production of abaca fiber in the 1920s. Since this period, wars were won by countries with superior navies and considering that cordage was vital to naval operation, the Philippine monopoly in abaca production alarmed the Americans. 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. This was to be the beginning of the end of our abaca monopoly. It was after World War II that a Japanese national, Furukawa, one of the pre-war 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.
Incursion of Synthetics in Cordage Use
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. Thus, the Philippine abaca industry suffered a slump as prices hit rock bottom that several farmers eventually phased out their plantations.
Abaca in Pulp and Paper
Significant breakthroughs in technology and processes took place in the ‘60s that brought about development of new uses for abaca, particularly in the...