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Indigo trade getting rid of the blues

By: - Business Features Editor / @tinaarceodumlao
/ 01:57 AM March 16, 2016

The unassuming plant that grows wild in farms all over the country does not look like much, but there was a time when the indigofera tinctoria was among the most prized in the world.

Indeed, indigo—a dye derived from fermenting the leaves—was one of the Philippines’ first major export products, carried on galleons for sale to Europeans who desired the wide range of blue tones to naturally color their fabrics.

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Indigo, one of the colors of the rainbow, in between blue and violet, was preferred not just for its color, but also its excellent resistance to fading or running.

The emergence of cheaper and more readily available synthetic dyes, unfortunately, practically killed the indigo trade in the Philippines, with the tradition kept alive mainly in indigenous communities that continue to use the natural dye for their weaves.

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The indigo trade, however, is showing signs of new life, thanks to the efforts of the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Program Philippines, which started working on the Indigo Project as part of efforts to promote the use of non-timber forest products—such as indigo—to give alternative livelihood to forest dwellers such as indigenous peoples while protecting the little that remains of the country’s forests.

The Indigo Project works with indigenous populations in upland and rural communities in the Philippines and Indonesia, including members of Mangyan Alangan, Mangyan Hanunoo and Mangyan Iraya of Mindoro; Higaonon of Bukidnon, Palaw’anon and Tagbanua of Palawan, T’boli of South Cotabato, Maguindanao weavers and those of Negros.

“We need to reduce pressure on the forest,” NTFP EP executive director Ruth Canlas tells the Inquirer.

One way to help reduce the demand for timber is to show the huge profit potential of indigo.

Canlas says these forest areas and their fringes usually have a lot of wild indigo, but the people do not see their value because they are like grass, not knowing that within lies a treasure, with powdered indigo selling for a minimum of P3,000 a kilo.

The processing of indigo involves soaking the indigo leaves in water for 48 hours. To “awaken” the dye, lye is added. Sediments that settle at the bottom of the container become indigo cake, which when dried becomes indigo powder. It is a simple process that has remained practically unchanged since the days of the galleon trade and does not require a lot of capital.

The yield is 10 percent, meaning for every kilo of leaves, a farmer can get 100 grams of indigo powder. The technology best-suited for indigo powder production and indigo dye application on abaca, cotton and piña was provided by the Philippine Textile Research Institute, an attached agency of the Department of Science and Technology.

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Funding came from the European Union and Dutch organization Hivos,  partners of NTFP-EP Philippines in the Sustainable Consumption and Production of Handwoven Textile Project where indigo is also a part of.

Canlas says that what is good about indigo is that it can be planted all over the country and even aids in boosting the fertility of the soil because it is an excellent nitrogen fixing agent. But it does prefer warm and dry areas such as Abra, where the indigenous Tingguian communities have long used it in their traditional weaves.

To help boost production, Globe Telecom lent its support to NTFP-EP with the construction of natural indigo due powdering facilities, with the first ones set up in Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Zamboanga, Palawan and Aklan.

The indigo is sold mainly to the CustomMade Crafts Center, which aims to produce world-class materials made of natural dye and fiber that can in turn be promoted not only locally but to the international market as well. It does this in part by bringing together tribal artisans with city-bred designers to make culture-bound crafts up to date, instead of being patronized only during formal occasions with a Filipiniana theme.

The timing is auspicious because of the growing demand for the natural blue color in the fashion world, which is turning toward fabric with cultural as well as aesthetic and environmental value.

Canlas says the group approached several companies and institutions, which all turned them down, before it found a committed partner in Globe Telecom, with which it forged a relationship starting 2012.

Fernando C. Esguerra Jr., director of Globe Corporate Social Responsibility, says the proposal came at the right time because Globe had just crafted a strategy where its corporate social responsibility must have a direct and profound impact on the communities it works with.

Esguerra says Globe is determined to help the so-called “bottom of the pyramid,” thus was looking for institutions such as NTFP-EP.

In providing sustainable livelihood and financial services to underserved communities, Globe hopes to offer viable economic opportunities and open up new possibilities for prosperity.

Through its My Fair Share Program, Globe supports social enterprises with IT tools, capacity building support and market access. Through these resources and opportunities, they are able to not just sustain their businesses, but also scale them to heights that may not have been previously possible.

The partners hope that the collaboration under the Indigo Project will bring about a renaissance so that the Philippines can reclaim its previous position as a major exporter of the versatile and noble indigo.

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TAGS: Export, fabrics, IndiGo, Philippines, plant, Trade
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