Skills development & lifelong learning

Indigenous abaca farmers harvest new prosperity

ILO-UK programme helps farmers maximize the value of their produce, making the abaca trade fairer to all players.

News | 02 October 2023
Arnel Dolinog. © Bernard Testa/ILO
For more than 30 years, Arnel Dolinog has been the chieftain of the Aklanon-Bukidnon, an indigenous people's group in Libacao, Aklan, an hour away from Kalibo, the provincial capital located in the Philippines' Western Visayas region.

As the tribal head, Dolinog has helped settle more conflicts than he can ever care to remember.

On frequent occasions, he has employed his diplomacy and authority to defuse tensions between members, especially after some have had too much to drink.

But once a year, without fail, Dolinog has been asked to intervene in a dispute regarding land, especially in areas planted with abaca, which can be found in plentiful supply in Oyang, the village three hours away from the town where he lives.

Resembling a banana tree, the abaca plant is cut and stripped to produce a fibre that can be used to make rope, clothes, fashion accessories and even filling material for automotive interiors.

When boiled and processed to a pulp, abaca is exported and serves as a raw material to make paper, oil and air filters, vacuum bags, coffee and tea bags, and even sausage casings (FAO, 2020).

Also known as Manila Hemp, abaca is one of the top exports from the Philippines, with Aklan being one of the key abaca producing areas in the country.

The abaca trade may also partly explain why land disputes in Barangay Oyang "can't be avoided," Dolinog said.

"But so far, we have been able to settle these issues using traditions established and practiced by our ancestors," he added.

Once, he was able to convince two opposing parties to agree on an exact spot that would mark their borders.

All he did was to put up a wooden marker to delineate their separation, the chief said.

As his leadership approaches its 40th year, Dolinog is set to face another but altogether different challenge: to make the abaca trade fairer to both buyers and sellers.

To put it kindly, it's a buyer's market.

Traders offer farmers a set amount per kilo for every bundle, a practice known locally as "all in".

For their part, the farmers have very little choice.

With meagre information about the abaca market outside their villages, they are often lowballed, prompting some to incur additional debt – often at usurious rates ¬– just to survive.

As a result, they are paid a pittance for their painstaking work, a problem that dates back as far as anyone can remember.

To make matters worse, farmers have resorted to harmful shortcuts.

To make their bundles heavier – and thereby earn more cash per kilo – many have resorted to hiding pebbles, rocks, and other foreign objects in their produce. Some have also drenched them in water. Others have left them outside, exposed to the elements for as long as five days, hoping it would collect moisture and result in a weightier but nonetheless damaged produce.

In retaliation, the traders have only further wielded their market power.

Besides demanding refunds from farmers, buyers have cut their prices even further, forcing some producers to go deeper into debt.

"Prices of abaca should be standardized so as not to short-change the farmers," he said. Key to setting standards is having skilled workers who know how to assess the quality of the abaca fiber produced.

In 2022, the ILO through the Skills for Prosperity Programme Philippines funded by the UK government started working with the Aklan provincial government to map out a lifelong learning approach to address the need for product standards.

The programme aims to improve the lives of marginalized groups by upgrading the skills of its beneficiaries, including indigenous persons.

Together with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PHILFIDA), Aklan State University (ASU) and the IP community leaders of Libacao, Aklan, an inclusive skills upgrading approach responsive to the needs of Libacao’s IP communities was developed.

Experts from TESDA, PHILFIDA, ASU and the selected IP representatives worked together to formulate competency standards on abaca grading and classification and design curriculum that included learner-centered approaches and a process of recognizing competencies already gained through informal means.

In September 2023, a six-day skills training on abaca grading and classification was given to fifty (50) beneficiaries from Libacao, Aklan, consisting of weavers and trainers coming from the indigenous peoples communities in the town, women, youth and informal sector workers.

Among those who attended was Dolinog.

They were taught to segregate dried abaca strips into several categories – colour, texture, length, and quality – and then tie them up into separate bundles accordingly.

Armed with fresh knowledge and empowered by new skills, the farmers would be able to demand higher prices for their abaca bundles.

By sharing their newly-developed skills with other farmers, they may soon be able to take the first step in making the abaca trade fairer to all players, whether buyer or seller, trader or producer.

"We are grateful to the groups that organized this training," Dolinog said. "We will teach what we've learned to other farmers so that together, we will enjoy higher prices of abaca."