COVID-19 restrictions impede abaca industry growth during pandemic
MANILA, Philippines — The novel coronavirus pandemic has opened up an opportunity for the local abaca industry but it has also saddled its growth as restrictions impeded farmers to produce and harvest the commodity.
While abaca masks has gotten popular due to the crop’s porous fibers, Filipino growers are struggling to supply raw materials because of local restrictions and with limited farms dedicated to cultivating the cash crop.
Data provided by the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (Philfida) showed that between January and June this year, abaca production declined by 25 percent despite the growing demand for its fiber, which is used to manufacture masks and personal protective equipment.
“The culprit is COVID-19,” Philfida Director Kennedy Costales said. “Movement of people were limited for the past six months … General transport has almost come to a halt. Abaca farmers are prevented to go into the mountains to harvest. Our personnel are also prevented to travel from one province to another and many more reasons. We are not in the normal times.”
Costales added that the country currently has an abaca supply deficit of 125,000 metric tons (MT), which is equivalent to the output from 60,000 hectares of farmland. The Philippines only has 142,000 ha of land dedicated to growing hemp, with an average fiber yield per hectare of .54 MT.
The shortfall in abaca has led for its prices to shoot up. Export earnings during the period increased by 14 percent to $53.94 million from $47.49 million, with abaca pulp contributing 34 percent of the total earnings. The local industry could have earned more if there were enough support programs that could develop the production and processing of the cash crop.
In Catanduanes, Bicol, where 35 percent of the country’s total abaca production comes from, the commodity is still being grown in the wild. No commercial production is being supported by the government despite abaca’s potential.
Nonetheless, Costales believes that the industry is slowly recovering, or at least continues to cater to the international demand although with limited means.
Moving forward, Agriculture Secretary William Dar said cash crops like abaca would be developed as the country enters the “new landscape” for agriculture, wherein commodities must be more resilient to crisis and producers would be trained to become manufacturers, marketers, and entrepreneurs.