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Basilan rubber sector eyes rebirth

May 8, 2008 4:07am

Tags: Basilan
ISABELA CITY, Basilan — The distinctive aroma of unrefined rubber is unpleasant but for Domingo M. Narciso, who manages the biggest rubber plantation in this province, it can easily be equated with gold.

"Rubber has been the major source of income of people here," he told BusinessWorld at the plantation, located halfway between the cities of Isabela and Lamitan.

The Sta. Clara Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Integrated Development Cooperative is now trying to revive the province’s "rubber-dom", more than 10 years after the University of the Philippines turned over 4,018 hectares of land to some 1,000 farmers.

Basilan is said to have pioneered the rubber industry in the country after American colonizers introduced rubber farming and processing. The sector flourished until the 1970s Moro revolt, where many foreign investors closed their rubber operations.

The situation went from bad to worse when the al-Qaeda linked Abu-Sayyaf emerged in early 1990s and went into full-scale terrorism, kidnapping foreign tourists and launching several bombing attacks.

"With the string of armed conflict in the decades since the ’70s, local and foreign investors moved away from this province and shelved their plans for expansion," Mr. Narciso said.

But with the current global demand said to be rising and the Abu Sayyaf more or less neutralized, things are picking up.

"The noise of the once silent rubber processing plants has begun echoing again in the province. We’re back in business," said one of the workers in the Sta. Clara plantation as he readied a cake of rubber for weighing.

The cooperative is now producing at least 15 metric tons of semi-processed rubber per month, valued at P1.3-2.2 million at the current price of P90-150 per kilo.

With a 10-year development road map, Sta. Clara is targeting to produce over 200 metric tons per month in four years. "We are just reviving the production we were at in 1950s," Mr. Narciso said.

The Sta. Clara cooperative currently has about 400 hectares planted with mature rubber trees, with about 900 hectares with two or more year-old rubber seedlings.

Incidentally, thousands of senile rubber trees grow in about 2,000 hectares in the province; these need to be replaced because of their low sap yield. If plans push through, by 2015 almost 90% of 4,000 hectares will again be covered by productive trees.

Rubber trees can produce sap five years after being planted. They have a productive lifespan of some 30-35 years.

To further improve the Basilan rubber industry, a consortium of agrarian reform beneficiaries has been formed to improve quality and increase production. The Isla Corridor Consortium Agrarian Reform Communities not only sees itself as reviving the rubber industry, it also wants to help in the transformation of the battle-scarred province .

The consortium, composed of the United Workers Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Multipurpose Cooperative, Lamitan Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative, Sta. Clara, and the Latuan Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, Inc., accounts for a total area of about 6,000 hectares, some 80% of which is planted with rubber trees.

"We believe that by bonding ourselves we can be the catalyst to strengthen the rubber sector in this province, which did not fully advance in the past years due to the armed conflict," said Mr. Narciso, the lead convenor.

Mr. Narciso said the consortium accounts for roughly 60% of rubber production in the province, with an average of 14 metric tons produced monthly by each cooperative.

Provincial government data show Basilan has at least 15 large rubber-based agrarian reform communities. They account for of 7,905 hectares planted with rubber trees

As of 2006, the province had 15,503 hectares planted, of which 7,148 hectares were owned by individual farmers and the rest by cooperatives. The exact land area devoted to rubber, said traders, could reach over 20,000 hectares as there are hundreds of unrecorded small rubber growers and farmers.

Provincial government show that almost half or 7,029.47 hectares are immature, about a fifth or 3,143.36 hectares is classed as "less-productive", and a little under a third or 4,880.21 hectares is described as "productive."

Daniel R. Guerrea, plantation manager of Latuan Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries, said interest in rubber is rising. "With the new technology coupled with the high global demand on rubber products, people here are getting interested in planting rubber. Some are even starting to cut their coconuts to plant rubber," he said.

Globally, the Philippines is ranked sixth in the world’s list of rubber producers, with an annual average production of 122,000 metric tons. It lags Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, which collectively accounts for more than 70% of the world’s total output, senior agriculturist Marcial Fantone said.

Mr. Narciso pointed out that rubber is the only crop which provides daily employment year-round, since tapping the trees for latex must be done once a day. And with global rubber demand expected to surge to more than eight million metric tons in the year 2010, the prospects for growth are enormous.

Local governments are aware of this, and are trying to do their part. Isabela City mayor Cherrylyn S. Akbar said the Provincial Central Nursery propagated around five to 10 million rubber trees in the last four years.

Governor Jum J. Akbar, however, said the province needs at least P150 million to develop 1,500 hectares targeted to be productive by 2010, plus another P11.5 million in additional inputs.

Mr. Narciso, meanwhile, said the consortium is already in talks with foreign investors to set up a processing plant for rubber-based finished products such as tires and slippers.

"By 2015 we project that most of the areas here will be planted with rubber and there will be no other way for us but to go into (commercial-scale processing), which is very viable," he said. - BusinessWorld
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Tags: Basilan