Sunday, January 11, 2009

Iriga's Colonial Economy

A 1950 drawing of the agricultural-based activities in Iriga by local artist, Lars Racelis.

In 1820, Lt. John White of the U.S. Navy brought home to Salem in Massachusetts a sample of abaca rope from the Philippines. This began what would become the abaca boom in the Bicol region as shipyards in the U.S. finding the cordage from abaca far better and stronger than the hemp from South America, boosted the demand for the native fiber. From 1860 until the start of the 20th century, Bicol was the main producer of the fiber plant; and Iriga, was one of the major areas planting the crop. Abaca was the Spaniards' cash crop in Bicol as tobacco was to the Ilocos, coffee to Batangas and sugar cane to Negros which they promoted and propagated as answer to the end of the lucrative galleon trade. This was the main reason why the Americans came to Bicol and why the marching order for Gen. Kobbe was to ensure the continued production of abaca in the region.
Abaca brought prosperity to Iriga that in a report to the Philippine Commission in 1905, Governor Juan Pimentel of Ambos Camarines noted that "The condition of the districts of Daet and Lagonoy and of the pueblo of Iriga is one of relative comfort for the main reason that the principal product is hemp, of which 355,641 piculs were produced in the fiscal year, 5,483 hectares having been planted with this valuable textile plant." Abaca was the reason why in the middle of the 19th century, several foreign travelers have visited the pueblo and left records of their sojourn, and why some of them had eventually settled for good like the Basque Francisco Lamiel, Miguel Sarrato, and Ramon Feced (not the journalist Pablo Feced or Quiapquiap as erroneously claimed by Arejola biographer, Evelyn Caldera Soriano), or the Batangueno Abella family. Their landholdings at the foot of Mt. Iriga, however, were not as extensive as the sugar haciendas in the South as to leave traces of progress, like the colonial houses in Negros that were testimony to the sugar boom. Neither did these abaca planters utilized mechanized operations in the stripping of abaca as to make them competitive and responsive to this early local experience of globalization. Thus by the 1920's, with the decline in the demand for abaca in the world market and the competition posed by the Japanese abaca planters in Davao, Bicol became a picture of economic stagnation. The same picture, which, aggravated by the long-entrenched kind of Manila-centered, patron-based politics practiced by the region's leaders, would remain to this day. In the words of Norman Owen, the abaca trade brought "prosperity without progress" in the region.

The abaca era of Iriga is worth examining as this was an epoch that had so much ecological and social implications and lessons for the present. These include the displacement of the Agta with the acquisition by private owners of what otherwise would be considered today as ancestral domain; the eventual sociological effect of this displacement like crime and brigandage rampant in the mountain area; the degradation of the mountain environment through monocropping; which can explain the current flooding in the city; and the demographic movement and economic growth of Iriga at the turn of the century.

The same route of the abaca also happened to another agricultural product which contributed to the early economic growth of and made Iriga a favorite destination of pioneer settlers, the tang-id or ilang-ilang (cananga odorata, from the Javanese word, kananga). The production of perfume from the flower was noted early on in 1881 by the French traveler Alfred Marche in writing about the livelihood of the Agta he met at the rancho of Ramon Feced. By the end of the 19th century, Iriga was one of the biggest sources of the oil extracted from ilang-ilang, supplying perfume distillers based in Escolta like Stahl and Rumcker (which was eventually bought by the German owners of Botica Boie), and Legarda and Tuason. Both pharmaceutical firms won gold medals for their ilang-ilang perfume, which became a hit in Europe, during the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. According to a 1908 testing conducted by the Bureau of Science, the Iriga oil (from ilang-ilang) "approaches first-grade in quality." However, profligate agricultural practices where farmers just cut the whole trees in harvesting the flowers, the competition posed by other ilang-ilang oil producing countries like Madagascar, an exacting quality standard now demanded by international markets like Europe, a powerful typhoon which struck central Bicol in 1913 as recorded in Easton vs. Diaz & Company, (a case involving the sale of an alambique used for distilling ilang-ilang oil) which destroyed known ilang-ilang plantations in the region; and a raw material supply-side kind of economic activity that did not venture or convert into modern distillation processes; eventually spelled the demise of the high-value agriculture-based product.

Indeed, the land and its cultivation, that is agriculture, was the early economic source for Iriga. Mt. Iriga, with its abaca and ilang-ilang plantations also yield considerable volumes of bejuco or rattan which the natives made into furniture. Unfortunately, the kind of rattan which grew in the area did not come to par with the standard of the export market. As a 1906 report said: "At Iriga and Pamplona rattan beds and chairs are manufactured imitating those of the same kind imported from Hongkong, and though they are a fair imitation the quality of rattan is not as good as that from which the Hongkong articles are made. Horse raising was another land-based economic activity. As recorded in a 1904 report of the Governor General of the Philippine Islands, "At one time this locality was famous for its ponies." Rinderpest, a deadly epidemic which hit the cattle industry in the region also wiped out stocks of horse-raisers, affecting the local economy in general.

By the first decade of the 20th century, however, the agriculture-based economy of Iriga would shift to a service-oriented activity with the start here in 1914 of the operations of ALATCO, the country's first organized bus transportation company, established by a former U.S. Quartermaster Corp veteran, Albert Louis Ammen. World War II, thereafter would greatly affect its operations, that by 1954 its ownership passed hands to the Tuasons, who in turn would sell their interests in the company to a corporation which also changed the name of the bus company to Philtranco. After 1946, the challenge of responding to the demand for higher education among the young, and rebuilding from the destruction wrought by the war, ushered in the establishment of local colleges in Iriga like the present University of Saint Anthony, University of Northeastern Philippines and La Consolacion Academy. In summary therefore, before the schools, agriculture as exemplified by abaca and ilang-ilang, and transportation service, as represented by ALATCO were the two main reasons for the relative economic growth of Iriga. After the war and after the establishment of local colleges, there is no new or other novel reason offered by Iriga to attract people to come and settle in the city, the way the abaca and ALATCO did in their times. This is the contemporary challenge of the city.

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