Abaca is a natural leaf fibre that comes from a relative of the banana tree family native to the Philippines that grows throughout tropical regions. It is also called Manilla hemp, though it is not related to actual hemp.
Abaca has great economic importance and is harvested for its strong, versatile fibre. Being regarded as the strongest natural fibres in the world, abaca can be put into various modern sophisticated technologies like the automobile industry and as a raw material for other important industries such as textiles, fashion, and the décor/furnishing industry.
Abaca is commonly used by the paper industry for such specialty uses such as tea bags, banknotes, filter papers and in medical filter sheets. While it is currently used mostly in paper products, abaca has a long history in textiles. Abaca fabric has a stiff quality and holds its structure (it is considered a hard fibre and is comparable in texture to sisal and coir). It has a very long fibre length and is one of the strongest fibres – flexible, durable, and highly resistant to saltwater damage. For these reasons it has been used over time for rope and cording. It can also be woven into home and fashion accessories including wall coverings, rugs, tapestries, and bags. It can be used to make handcrafts such as hats, bags, carpets, clothing, and furniture.
Abaca is generally considered to be a sustainable, environmentally friendly fibre that can empower communities. It has been identified by the United Nations as a “Future Fibre”. That said, not many standards and certifications are used for abaca, so transparency and doing your own due diligence around environmental and social impact are very important when sourcing. The Rainforest Alliance currently certifies some abaca farms.
The harvesting and extraction of fibre from abaca is painstaking process which involves many processes. Stripping and drying of fibres is either done manually or mechanically. After extraction, different grades of fibres are obtained which are then accordingly used for different set of industrial activities.
The world’s leading abaca producer is the Philippines. While the crop is also cultivated in other Southeast Asian countries, the second largest producing country is Ecuador, where abaca is grown on large estates and production is increasingly mechanized. Almost all abaca produced is exported, mainly to Europe, Japan, and the USA. Exports from the Philippines are increasingly in the form of pulp rather than raw fibre.
- According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, abaca can benefit the land. Erosion control and biodiversity rehabilitation can be assisted by intercropping abaca in former monoculture plantations and rainforest areas, particularly with coconut palms.
- Planting abaca can also minimize erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are important breeding places for sea fishes. The water holding capacity of the soil will be improved and floods and landslides will also be prevented.
- Abaca waste materials are used as organic fertilizer.
- Abaca harvesting is labour intensive and is mostly done by hand. In the Philippines, where most abaca comes from, the plant is cultivated on 130,000 ha by some 90,000 small farmers. Production happens mainly on small farms and provides livelihoods to many communities, including indigenous ones.
- According to the International Natural Fibre Organization, the Philippines supplies about 86% of the world’s abaca requirement. The rest is supplied by Ecuador. Being an export-oriented industry production and demand is highly affected by the prevailing global economic situation. As an agricultural crop, production is highly susceptible to weather condition. In the Philippines, abaca sector consists mainly of small farm holders. In Ecuador the sector is characterized by large estates. However, there is a substantial smallholder co-operative movement of abaca growers too.
Notes: United Nations Future Fibres: Stringent environmental legislation and consumer awareness are driving the transition to a bio-based economy and models of sustainable development which offer high perspectives for natural fibre markets. The hard fibres: Abaca, Coir and Sisal, and bast fibres: Jute and Kenaf, are all-natural fibres which have various and multiple end uses. Their versatility and environmentally friendly characteristics are strong advantages over synthetic alternatives. Each of the fibres has their particular strengths but all have the benefit of being naturally derived and increasingly recognized as a sustainable choice.