Solon Hails Spain for Aid to RP's Abaca Industry - PIA

Virac, Catanduanes (28 May) -- Outgoing Rep. Joseph Santiago of the lone district of this abaca-rich island province has cited the Spanish government for its P30 million grant for the building up of the Philippines' abaca industry that he said remains an enormous potential driver of economic growth in the countryside.

Abaca (Musa textilis Nee) or Manila hemp, a fiber crop indigenous to the Philippines, as a main source of strong natural fibers for domestic and international markets, brings an annual US$.6 million to the country.

The fund assistance released late last year to the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA) by the Agencia EspaƱola de Cooperacion Internacional para Desarollo (AECID), was used for the acquisition of mechanized abaca-stripping machines as part of the aggressive abaca development program being undertaken by the government.

The amount covers this province, noted as the "abaca capital of the Philippines," and Caraga, also a promising abaca producing region in Mindanao.

Out of the grant, nine of Catanduanes' abaca-producing municipalities initially receive one unit each of the machine, Santiago said.

The mechanized stripping of abaca allows us to increase daily fiber output 10 to 20 times compared to what we produce from manual peeling," Santiago who would vacate his congressional seat on June 30 after completing a nine-year term said.

He ran for governor of the province but lost to incumbent Gov. Joseph Cua.

To fully develop the abaca industry, Santiago stressed the need to exploit all possible commercial uses of the plant's fiber, and enlarge its domestic as well as export markets.

Some 136,000 hectares nationwide are planted to abaca. Over 82,000 farmers directly subsist on abaca production. Annually, they produce some 70,000 metric tons of fiber, of which about 25 percent is shipped abroad, according to the FIDA.

Catanduanes is the country's largest producer of abaca, accounting for 20 percent of national output. Abaca provides livelihood to some 23,500 farmers in the province, where around 23,600 hectares are devoted to growing the plant.

FIDA said the production, however, dwindled to only 8,646 metric tons in January to May 2009 because of the series of typhoons that hit the province and the effects of plant diseases.

With the spread of two main viruses, abaca mosaic and abaca bunchy top, that inhibit growth, weaken the fibers, and result in profit loss among small abaca farmers.

The FIDA however in coordination with the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) and the Biotechnology Program Implementation Unit (BPIU), all attached agencies of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has been making use of the expertise of abaca experts in genetically engineering an abaca plant that are resistant to these diseases.

Former Department of Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap has approved a budget for this project before he left the Department to run for congressman unchallenged in Bohol.

Dr. Vermando Aquino of the UP-Diliman (UPD) National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) and Dr. Evalour Aspuria of the UP- Los Banos (UPLB) Department of Horticulture are into the project that was started in January this year and would be completed by 2011.

According to Aquino, who has been studying the abaca bunchy-top virus (ABTV) since 1997, he and Dr. Aspuria are working on isolating genes from the pathogens and inserting them directly into the abaca's DNA.

Once the genes are "expressed" by the abaca, the abaca will likely resist infection. Even with the reduced production, however, Catanduanes remains the country's top abaca-producing province, the FIDA said.

After Catanduanes, the other top producers are Southern Leyte, Leyte, Davao Oriental, Northern Samar, Davao del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Samar, Sulu, and Sorsogon.

Abaca is a species of banana native to the Philippines and cultivated in 26 provinces in Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Mindanao.

The abaca plant grows 20 feet tall and is harvested mainly for its large leaves and stems that produce natural fiber.

Used to make twines, ropes and carpets, abaca fiber also has multiple applications as raw material for various functional and decorative products.

The fiber is used in clothing material and handicraft like bags and baskets. The pulp is processed into tea bags, coffee filter, vacuum cleaner bags, currency notes and other specialty paper.

Abaca-based furniture and fixtures -- from settees to lounge chairs, from dividers to coffee tables, and from sofas to loveseats -- are also widely recognized for their elegance in Europe and North America.

Studies have likewise identified abaca enzymes for use in high-value cosmetic and dietary products. (PNA Bicol)

by Danny O. Calleja
Source: Philippine Information Agency - 28 May 2010