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Help.NGO's abaca project in Catanduanes

Updated: Apr 1

In an initiative focused on enhancing agricultural sustainability, Help.NGO has forged a strategic partnership with Catanduanes State University to carry out detailed scientific evaluations of abaca plantations using cutting-edge UAS (drone) technology. This collaborative effort aims to collect essential data that will deepen our understanding of abaca cultivation practices in the region, ultimately supporting local farmers in achieving communal prosperity. This project is a key component of Help.NGO's Technology Advocacy and Resilience Program, conducted in collaboration with Amazon Web Services.


Abaca, also known as "Manila hemp", is derived from the leaf sheath surrounding the trunk of the abaca plant (Musa textilis), a species closely related to bananas and indigenous to the Philippines. Esteemed for its unparalleled mechanical strength, the world recognizes abaca as the strongest natural fiber available. Its remarkable resistance to saltwater damage and its extensive fiber length further contribute to its value. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) includes abaca in its Future Fibres initiative, highlighting natural fibers like abaca as preferred alternatives to synthetic materials, which rely on unsustainable inputs.


Presently, abaca finds application in the manufacture of specialty papers (including up to 30% of the Japanese yen's composition), specialty bags (such as those for tea and coffee), ropes, twines, fishing lines and nets, and sacks. Additionally, the automotive industry exhibits growing interest in abaca, notably with Mercedes Benz incorporating it as a substitute for glass fibers. This innovation aims to reduce vehicle weight, enhance sustainability, and improve mechanical strength, showcasing abaca's potential to revolutionize materials used in automotive manufacturing.


Why is Catanduanes important in the abaca industry


The Philippines stands as the leading exporter of abaca, commanding an impressive 86.1% of the global market share, with the province of Catanduanes contributing significantly to this dominance. Accounting for 30.9% of the Philippines' total abaca production, Catanduanes outpaces the second-highest producing region in the country, which holds a mere 8.3% share. Remarkably, Catanduanes alone is responsible for 26.60% of the world's abaca output, surpassing the entire production of Ecuador, the second-largest exporting country, which contributes 13.7% to global production. This prodigious output has earned Catanduanes the title of the world's abaca Capital, a designation formalized by Philippine Republic Act No. 11700, which officially recognizes Catanduanes province as the Philippines' Abaca Capital.


Why is Abaca important in Catanduanes?


Despite its prestigious status as the world's Abaca Capital, Catanduanes yields a modest revenue of 2.3 billion pesos from agriculture, forestry, and fishing. This contribution represents merely 4.9% of the region's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2022, positioning it with the smallest share in the region's industry and marking it with the lowest growth rate of 6% for the same year.


The geographical constraints of Catanduanes, which spans only 1,512 square kilometers—of which a mere 37.7 square kilometers are irrigable—pose significant challenges to traditional agriculture. These limitations underscore the importance of abaca as not only a key agricultural product but potentially the most vital crop for the province's economy. Given the scarcity of arable land, the cultivation of abaca emerges as a crucial economic activity, further emphasizing the importance of sustainable practices and innovations in enhancing its productivity and profitability for the local community.


What are the challenges of the Abaca Industry in Catanduanes?


Glatfelter, the leading global manufacturer of specialty paper, has observed a decline in the quality of Philippine abaca fibers in comparison to those from Ecuador and Costa Rica. This deterioration has been significantly attributed to the devastating impact of strong typhoons, particularly Typhoon Rolly, which inflicted substantial damage on abaca farms, local infrastructure, and led to the spread of diseases, as well as the displacement of local farmers. In response to these calamities, Help.NGO has been actively involved in recovery efforts, highlighting the vulnerability of abaca production to environmental challenges.


The necessity for substantial improvement is evident in Catanduanes, where the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is crucial yet hindered by the high costs associated with proper assessment, including both time and manpower. Implementing GAP can markedly benefit Catanduanes' abaca farmers, enhancing their annual net cash flow from Php 15,468 (approximately $275.53 USD) to Php 272,708 (about $4,857.68 USD), with the internal rate of return soaring from 46% to 209%. This dramatic increase underscores the potential for sustainable practices to not only improve the quality of abaca fiber but also significantly boost the economic wellbeing of the local farming communities.


What is the future and outlook to the Abaca industry?


The rising interest in natural fibers like Abaca is largely fueled by growing environmental concerns, underscored by stringent environmental legislation, corporate standards focused on sustainability, and increasing public pressure for eco-friendly products. This heightened awareness and demand for sustainable materials are driving a significant shift from synthetic to natural fibers across various industries.


Market outlooks forecast a promising future for the natural fiber sector, projecting an expansion from approximately 4.84.9 billion USD in 2022 to an estimated 9.19.2 billion USD by 2031. This anticipated growth reflects a global trend towards more sustainable materials, offering a favorable landscape for the development of the Catanduanes Abaca industry. However, the ability of Catanduanes to capitalize on this opportunity hinges on its capacity to address current challenges and align its production practices with the increasing demand for high-quality, sustainable natural fibers. Ensuring the quality of Abaca fibers and adopting sustainable agricultural practices will be key for Catanduanes to fully benefit from the global shift towards natural fibers.

Abaca's inherent qualities position it advantageously across multiple industries, aligning with current environmental and economic trends:


Automotive Demand: Abaca's mechanical strength and durability make it highly sought after in the automotive industry for components like door panels, seat backs, headliners, dashboards, trunk liners, and spare wheel covers. Automotive companies are drawn to Abaca for its potential in reducing vehicle weight, cutting costs, and adhering to corporate and legislative environmental standards.


Pulp and Paper: Abaca's use in currency notes, such as the Japanese Yen and, until recently, the Philippine Peso, underscores its viability as an alternative to traditional tree-based paper and pulp. The challenges here primarily revolve around meeting demand volumes, ensuring fiber quality, and managing logistical costs.


Maritime Industry: Historically utilized for ship rigging, maritime ropes, fishing lines, and nets, Abaca is re-emerging as a preferred material due to its durability and resistance to sea environment deterioration. This shift comes as the maritime industry seeks alternatives to plastics to address issues related to microplastics, sea pollution, and the weakening of plastic's mechanical properties over time in sea environments.


Textile Industry: While not traditionally considered a textile fiber, Abaca's unique characteristics have paved the way for its incorporation into the textile sector. It is being used in combination with other fibers for clothing items like denim and in furniture covers, as well as in distinct products such as carpets.


Other Uses: Beyond these industries, Abaca's versatility is being explored for a wide array of applications, including plastic replacements and unique products like Abaca wine and Abaca fertilizer. These innovations aim to enhance the value of Abaca, offering broader benefits for farmers and various industries alike.


Abaca's multifaceted applications and environmental benefits highlight its potential as a sustainable resource in a world increasingly focused on ecological conservation and sustainable development.


What is the program led by Help.NGO


Help.NGO is enhancing local capacity through a pivotal aspect of their program, which involves the detailed and scientific mapping of abaca fields across Catanduanes. This initiative is designed to assess the health and growth rates of abaca plants meticulously, providing essential data for the application of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and aiding local farmers in recognizing potential business opportunities within their reach. Additionally, this mapping supplies crucial information to the Abaca Research division of Catanduanes State University, facilitating a thorough analysis of abaca cultivation trends. Such comprehensive insights are instrumental in devising innovative solutions, processes, and products aimed at strengthening the economic resilience of the local community in the face of future challenges.

The collaborative endeavor between Help.NGO and Catanduanes State University marks a significant step forward in the systematic assessment and understanding of abaca fields in the region. By fostering informed decision-making, this partnership is setting the stage for building a more resilient and sustainable development pathway for Catanduanes. Furthermore, this initiative plays a vital role in empowering communities and safeguarding livelihoods through the promotion of sustainable abaca farming practices. In doing so, it significantly contributes to the socioeconomic prosperity of the area, ensuring the long-term sustainability of abaca cultivation and its benefits to the local populace.

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