PDI Central Luzon Desk
Vanishing plant yields hope for Aurora folk
By Tonette Orejas
Baler, Aurora - A new machine, made by a Filipino Engineer, is bound to revive Aurora province's vanishing sabutan industry and boost the advantages of some 10,000 weavers, mostly peasant women, in the export market.
The shift to other cash crops and the steady integration of the once inaccessible province into the market economy saw the slow extinction of the sabutan that only grows in this idyllic province.
"Sabutan can be Aurora's distinct identity. Kami lang ang mayroon nito (We are the only ones who have it)," Aurora Gov. Edgardo Ong tells the INQUIRER proudly.
But what is sabutan?
In the coastal plains and slopes of this province east of the Pacific Ocean, sabutan (Pandanus sabotan Blanco) grows in wild abundance, invading even spaces between rows of coconut trees.
Too many to pass unnoticed, the leaves of this screw pine are woven into hats by farmers either seeking screen from the sun's scorching heat, comfort from the beatings of the southwest and northeast winds or protection from the strong rains.
"Worn by farmers, the hats, in natural off-white color, usually break the all-green or all-brown scenery in farms during dry or wet months," recalls Meriam Estimada, manager of the government-owned Aurora Trading Center.
Estimada's parents, Andres and Josefa Hongriano, were among the coastal province's oldest and deft weavers of sabutan hats and banig (mats).
Children create toy birds and flowers while women make curtains out of sabutan leaves.
"From the farms to the homes, sabutan, in whatever form it is fashioned by farmers' hands, is a regular sight and necessity," says Ong.
By the 1950's, practically every home in Aurora's less than 20,000 households had a sabutan weaver, he says.
Preferred to 'buri'
Hats and bed mats were easily exchanged to middlemen for salt and rice when typhoons ravaged their farmlands.
And so sabutan was greatly cherished. It was even preferred by merchants more than the buri, another screw pine indigenous to Quezon province (Aurora was a part of Quezon until 1979), because it had softer, shinier leaves.
But that was then, as far as Ong could recall.
Starting in the 1980s, coffee and dalanghita (locally called citrus) plantations mushroomed in this province nestled in the Sierra Madre mountain ranges.
The new crops had claimed the areas where the sabutan once thrived and grew.
But weavers like Tessie Sarenas of San Luis town persisted, even with the scarce sources of sabutan leaves.
A little less than 50 hectares are now planted with sabutanin central Aurora's San Luis and Baler towns, according to Ong.
Sarenas, who in her 40s, keeps on with the six-step tedious process of processing sabutan which she learned from her elders.
She still does cutting (alit), the trimming of the thorny edges of the leaves (ebutulan), stripping (bubulayin), sorting and drying, and flattening (amyuda) in the traditional manual fashion.
No matter how cumbersome and long the process, Sarenas and thousands of men and women insist on reviving the ailing homegrown industry. There are still a few entrepreneurs who remain confident that sabutan deserves a niche in the local and international markets.
Gemma Joy Valenzuela, marketing specialist of the Aurora Integrated Area Development Project (AIADP), said that Governor Ong, the Department of Trade and Industry, the European Union-funded AIADP and the Department of Agriculture strongly believe that the weavers, sabutan planters and entrepreneurs deserved all the support.
The effort to promote the sabutan industry began in 1989, according to Marcy Alcantara, DTI provincial chief.
It took years to improve the technology and products of the sabutan industry.
A few years back, the Department of Science and Technology and entrepreneurs like Anna Liza Tangson of Aurora Hats and Crafts produced a blocking machine (to press and shape the hats before trimming) and a mechanical dyeing facility.
It used to take several 22-liter cans as cooking vessels, including manual stirring of synthetic dyestuff-water mixture for an hour before the stripped fibers are colored.
Last year, the export volume of sabutan hats brought to key American and European cities via trade fairs netted $160,000, Alcantara says.
The volume of hats, bags, place mats, banig, fans and other sabutan items is "much, much bigger," she says.
Alcantara says 10 years after the sabutan industry promotion program began, there's a new prospect for Aurora's weavers.
The prototype of the stripping-flattening machine, fabricated by Ericson Yap of Enviture Technologies Philippines Inc., in cooperation with DOST, was presented on Sept. 8 to sabutan weavers in the province.
Yap, like in the two consultations held, sought the weavers' comments on the machine's efficiency.
The feedback sought to improve the prototype before it is mass-produced in the next months, Valenzuela said.
Before the machine was invented, Sarenas used a handy, mobile iron blade fastened on top of a small wood block placed firmly on the ground to split the leaves.
Seated, she inserts the sabutan leaf into this iron blade, pulls it to procure fibers of either 1/8 or 2/8 inch wide.
Flattening, of course, is also done by hand by pressing blocks of wood on the leaves.
2 Steps Combined
The prototype machine, its essential parts being two rolls of wood and blades held together, helps weavers combine two production steps - splitting and flattening leaves.
It used to take two minutes to split the fibers but with the machine, it would take only 15 seconds a leaf. Flattening the leaves used to take 45 seconds but the machine does it in only 10 seconds.
"If one harvester or a weaver could produce an average of 60 bundles of sabutan leaves in eight hours with the tool, it is estimated to produce 180 bundles for the same number of hours," Valenzuela says.
That would mean an income of P1,800 from P600 a week from just harvesting to drying, she adds.
The weavers told Yap they want the hand- or foot-operated machine upgraded to save on time. With eyes for the minutest details like the fine products they create, they also want the blades suited to strip thinner or wider fibers.
Weaving cooperatives or small businesses can acquire the machine through soft loans from the AIADP, Valenzuela says.