SAN PEDRO, Laguna -- Back in the 1940s, cultivation of sampaguita was the townsfolk?s main occupation.
People love to tell stories of a man named David Amante, who sold sampaguita garlands to the American troops, and is credited for having started the sampaguita trade.
?Before, almost every alley here had a sampaguita plantation,? says Linda Sietereales of the Municipal Public Affairs and Information Office. ?When one entered San Pedro, one could smell [sampaguita] scent right away.?
Today, however, the town has been left with only two large sampaguita farms, and the others, if they are still existing, have become backyard affairs.
With the sampaguita industry on the wane, the people here are at risk of losing their jobs, and the town, its cultural heritage.
Sampaguita growers and vendors, whose everyday source of income depends on the bloom, fear that what San Pedro is known for will soon be history, unless town officials and residents act together to save it.
The day starts as early as 4 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. for flower pickers working on a hectare of sampaguita plantation belonging to the Ferrer family.
For more than 35 years, Victorio Ferrer had managed the oldest sampaguita plantation in San Pedro, until he passed it on to his stepson Reynaldo Ablen when he migrated to Canada last year.
?We owe a lot to this land,? says Reynaldo. ?By growing sampaguita, all of us (siblings) were able to attend school.?
No less than 10 people flock to their residence every morning to harvest sampaguita.
They carefully pluck only the ?supang? or ?bubot? (buds in their unopened stage but already whitish in color) because, unlike the flowers in full bloom, they do not wither easily when strung together into garlands.
A flower picker is paid P10 for every ?tabo? (plastic container) filled with flower buds.
Summer brings bountiful harvest of sampaguita while the cold and rainy seasons are lean months.
According to Reynaldo, the humid air causes the buds to wither and make them prone to pests.
Reynaldo says that, last November and December, there were times when only a single tabo of buds was harvested from the whole plantation.
This caused the market price to fluctuate from P20 per tabo, when there was an oversupply of sampaguita, to as high as P250 to P300 when there was almost none.
The average price is P50 per container of about 1,000 buds during normal days.
The price in the market is also dependent on the influx of sampaguita from other provinces.
Traders or suppliers coming from the neighboring towns of Cabuyao, Calamba, Calauan, Pila, Sta. Cruz and Victoria?as well as those from Cavite, Quezon, and Pampanga?bring their sampaguita to San Pedro, causing the market price to drop.
?It is probably because sampaguita is more marketable here since San Pedro is already known for producing them,? Reynaldo says.
While the remaining local producers struggle against traders from other towns, the everyday lives of the flower stringers or garland-makers, fixers, and peddlers continue to depend on the availability of the sampaguita, wherever it is sourced.
After harvesting the sampaguita, the buds are delivered to the ?fixers? (middle men or vendors) in the town proper.
They sell these per tabo, with prices marked up by P10.
As they work on the sale of the sampaguita, the fixers also reduce the hassle for the supplier dealing with those who often cannot pay cash upon delivery.
The garland-makers gather each morning to thread the buds in abaca fiber.
Rosita, Ricarda and Evelyn share cups of coffee and conversation to help them get through the menial job that usually takes half a day to finish.
?We have been doing this since we were young,? says Rosita, who has been in the business for 24 years.
Garland-makers are paid P15 for every 100 buds they string up. They are hired by the garland-contractor, who is also often the peddler, providing all the materials a garland-maker needs.
The sampaguita garlands, commonly used as religious adornments or decorative ornaments for events, ranging from graduations to vigils, are brought to Las Piñas, Baclaran, and Antipolo, where most churchgoers and devotees flock.
A bundle of three leis costs P5.
?Sometimes we cannot help wishing that someone would die,? Ricarda says.
She believes funerals bring them luck?all their garlands would usually be bought and they need not sell anymore for the day.
?When I first came here (in San Pedro) in 1972, those sampaguita shrubs were already mature,? Ricarda says in Filipino. ?But the plantations were converted into subdivisions, and the farms were lost.?
According to a 2001 study conducted by the Department of Horticulture, University of the Philippines Los Baños, only 7 percent of the 2,260-hectare land area of San Pedro was devoted to agriculture.
This reflects the rapid urbanization of the town, resulting in the slow death of the sampaguita industry.
Sampaguita growers and garland-makers also claim that there are no funds or support coming from the municipality to sustain the industry.
The local government recognizes the situation, and says that it has taken efforts to promote the sampaguita industry.
Since 2002, various programs have been launched to revive the ?sampaguita town of Laguna.?
The San Pedro Tourism and Cultural Council took the initiative that year by reorienting the town festival?s traditional theme into reliving and promoting the sampaguita industry.
This was followed by the ?Balik Sampaguita Program? to replant and propagate sampaguita in all available open lots and spaces throughout the municipality.
In 2004, the ?Fiesta Sampaguita? was launched, focusing on reviving the sampaguita livelihood system in San Pedro.
?It would really be better if San Pedro produces its own,? Sietereales says. ?But at least the trading system keeps sampaguita alive in San Pedro.?
The local government, she adds, is keen on reviving the sampaguita trade in the town, if not as an industry, then at least as a profitable backyard farm venture.