The newest material of choice for today’s modern car is not some sophisticated, reinforced metal but one of the oldest fibers in use, one that’s a favorite for dashboards and car interiors — the once-lowly Abaca, associated more with ships, and farms, and with money bills.

Just recently, Abaca found its niche in the automobile industry as the “strongest natural fiber material” for dashboards and car interiors, according to the Department of Science and Technology, which is backing a multimillion program to revive the Abaca industry, both for local application across many sectors and as a top export product.

Abaca, known worldwide as Manila Hemp, is an economically important crop indigenous to the Philippines, being the lifeblood of more than 200,000 farming families from 56 Abaca growing provinces in the country.

The sturdy fiber is also a top export commodity of the country with an average of US$80 million annual export earnings. In global trade, it boasts of high demand as raw material for cordage, textile, handicrafts, and specialty papers.

Supplying 85 percent of the total world Abaca fiber production, the Philippines prides itself as the world’s top producer of Abaca fiber. Despite its dominance in the world market, however, the country is confronted by the reality that Abaca remains a poor man’s crop. The small farmers get meager income from Abaca production, and this eventually forces them to shift to other crops.

Confronted by these concerns, coupled with many industry problems, Abaca production in the country declined in the past years. As Ecuador tails behind in terms of production and with Indonesia’s aggressive Abaca reforestation program, the Philippine Abaca industry is put in a precarious situation. If not addressed, the Philippines might lose its leadership in the Abaca global scene in the future.

The government, through the DOST-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD) and its partners, is pushing several S&T interventions to address poor technology adoption of farmers, lack of high-yielding and virus-resistant planting materials, and prevalence of pest and diseases pressures, most notorious of which is the Abaca bunchy top virus (ABTV).

One of the major initiatives is the development and promotion of improved Abaca varieties to strengthen commercial production.

After many years of research and field tests, researchers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) led by Dr. Antonio G. Lalusin were able to develop high yielding and ABTV-resistant Abaca hybrids. Since traditional varieties are very susceptible to the dreaded ABTV disease, the new resistant hybrid Abaca of UPLB is considered very promising in rehabilitating Abaca plantations affected by the ABTV disease.

The project on Abaca production is a collaborative work among UPLB, Visayas State University, University of Southern Mindanao, Bicol University, Western Mindanao State University, University of Southeastern Philippines, Caraga State University, and Catanduanes State University.

Currently, the research team is now mass producing and promoting the use of hybrids in major Abaca producing provinces such as Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Leyte, Southern Leyte, Northern Samar, Western Samar, Davao Oriental, Davao del Sur, Surigao del Sur, and Sulu. Once fully commercialized, 1,568 hectares of Abaca farms is targeted for rehabilitation out of the project.

Abaca should be one thing Filipinos should be proud of, and cultivate wholeheartedly. It is now being made known to the world in a whole new way, and will put the Philippines further into important relevance.

The poor man's crop can go a long way, and DOST knows this all too well.