PASAY City - Early evening here in an air-conditioned room, Sandra dela Cruz performed what she does every morning far south in her rubber plantation: stretching a hand.
But while the 50-year-old spouse of a seaman is used to doing the latter, there was a lifting feeling as she did the former.
Who wouldn’t be if, like Dela Cruz, she was the matriarch of this year’s most outstanding Filipino seafaring family, awarded December 6 by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.
But her mind already stretched to a husband bobbing on a boat on a vast blue sea on-and-off for the past 15 years.
Likewise, with rubbery knees with the accolades she received, Dela Cruz said she couldn’t wait to go back to her fourth-class hometown of Sofronio Espanola (100 kms. south of Puerto Princesa City) in Palawan where her 4-hectare farm awaits the touch of its mistress.
Her work on the three-year-old rubber tree farm is the reason for the OWWA recognition, and her basis to say she’s used to stretching her hand.
Every morning since 2007, she said she and two caretakers stretch their hands to pour the right amount of fertilizer to the trees, as well as water that matches the light from the Palawan sun. Those trees must get the right balance of water and heat, she explained.
Sandra said she will continue this daily routine until the year 2012, when the trees start bearing latex.
If plans don’t go awry, yields from this high-value commercial crop can see Sandra stretch the investible value of remittances coming from husband Victor.
This is because the wife also wishes husband Victor to stay home, on dry land, for good.
The 53-year-old electrician is currently deployed under local-based ship principal, BW Shipping.
“I estimate the prospective income from rubber production will be bigger than his salary as a seaman by the time our third child finishes schooling.”
Sandra’s youngest is on his sophomore year in high school while a daughter is taking up nursing in Manila. Two of her older daughters are already working.
Sandra’s confidence in the yields offered by rubber planting is based on scientific and financial data.
A budded rubber tree not only grows faster than unbudded trees: budded rubber trees can produce latex of 200 grams minimum, and harvesting is every other day.
A hundred budded rubber trees can yield 20 kilos of latex, or 300 kilos in a given month —and at just a little above a greenback (P50) per processed latex, a rubber farmer can yield P15,000 every month from a hundred trees.
A rubber tree (or Havea brasiliensis, which is of South American origin) even gives farmers latex that lasts up to 35 years.
“My children and grandchildren can inherit my business,” Sandra said.
The inheritance may be big as Sandra said her family plans to expand their farm by another 20 hectares next year.
“Twenty hectares more to plant rubber next year,” she says with glee. “Anyway, I’m used to this.”
She’s confident with the plan saying that rubber production is “not too expensive”.
Sweat and fertilizers are the equities —cheaper, Sandra says, compared buying budded rubber seedlings at the cost of P4,500 to P5,000 (100 seedlings cost P45 to P50).
Seedlings are not much of a problem for the barangay because the mountainous part of Labog had a lot of these.
She said she first saw those seedlings —“a truckload”— after visiting the family-owned rice field in 2006.
That encounter made dela Cruz decide to plant rubber after 12 years (beginning 1994) of planting various crops —from fruits, paper trees, to mahogany trees, to even oil palm fruits. The latter, according to her, easily perish after harvest.
A year later, in 2007, Sandra and Victor bankrolled a seminar organized by the provincial agriculturist that benefited 64 fellow villagers.
After the training, the Barangay Labog Rubber and Ube Planters Association was formed.
When the group’s former president died, Sandra, that time the group’s project manager for external affairs, took over. She prodded members to plant 100 budded rubber trees on each of their own nurseries.
Several references cite the Philippines having a young rubber industry (55 years), though rubber planting was first discovered in Basilan during the early 1900s. Mindanao provinces such as North Cotabato and Zamboanga City, are the country’s rubber havens, a paper by the Bureau of Agricultural Research cited.
The Philippines’ mostly smallholder rubber planters plant the crop in a total of 110,958 ha. and produced a volume of 407,640 metric tons of rubber in 2009, data from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics bares.
During a 2005 international rubber conference held in Davao City, international rubber experts predict the Philippines can soar in the world rubber market by 2020, given the country’s high production and consumption of natural rubber.
Palawan is not actually a hub of rubber planting and production in the Philippines, given that the provincial agriculturist’s inventory shows that the province only has 625.4 has. of rubber plantations.
Agriculture officials eye Palawan as the next rubber hub as tire manufacturer Goodrich announced last April plans to set up a 20,000 ha. plantation in the province. The target area is big enough to set up a tire processing center.
Goodyear, Firestone, and Sime Darby have already penetrated the Mindanao market.
Department of Agriculture official Rene Espino of the high value commercial crops (HVCC) program says this size of a property for rubber planting requires one “large investor” to spend US$2,000 to US$3,000 per ha.
This amount would already cover the entire rubber production cycle: from planting rubber to processing sap into rubber sheets.
Rubber is also used to make condoms, furniture, medical products like surgical gloves, foam mattresses, and even artificial flowers.
What rubber does is spread 50,000 times over —not just for automobile tires,
Philippine Rubber Board executive director Eugenio Alcala said during the 2005 conference.
Sandra and her fellow villagers from Labog village are trying to capitalize what Palawan has to offer: rubber trees grow well in the island’s climatic and environmental conditions, scientists say. Agriculture officials and private investors also want to make many areas of the Philippines’s western stretch a hub of rubber production.
Agriculture department executives are enticing more investors, not just Goodrich, to open new rubber planting areas in Palawan.
Sandra said she’s neither worried about that nor the entry of middlemen in the budding agri-business.
Dela Cruz says local farmers need not bring their products elsewhere but within Palawan, especially given Goodrich’s plans.
She also thinks the stretch of the market “is wide” since the demand for processed rubber is worldwide (China alone, rubber experts say, already consumes a third of rubber production).
Given Palawan’s location, dela Cruz says neighboring Southeast Asian countries Indonesia and Malaysia are a target market especially if the first-class municipality of Brooke’s Point (near the southern tip of Palawan) opens a port to cover the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines-East Asian Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA).
“We are producers or suppliers, so we are not worried of the competition,” said dela Cruz.
But these market prospects mean dela Cruz will continue stretching roles: farmer-tiller, farm manager, fellow smallholder-cultivator, and left-behind migrant housewife to four children.
Husband Victor will also have to continue, for the meantime, his seafaring stretch.
Which means Sandra’s use of some of Victor’s remittances for rubber planting also stretches. The P600,000 prize from the OWWA award also would help.
“Ever since, our fellow villagers invested money and in hard work on planting rice, but rice harvests cannot sustain our needs. Until now, the situation remains the same,” dela Cruz said.
She said that by going into rubber, the scenario greatly changes.
“We invest our money just one time, then continue with working hard, and in the end we just harvest and harvest. That’s what rubber does.”