“Potential of tobacco industry In Central Luzon”
Ian Ocampo Flora
Sun.Star Pampanga


CITY OF SAN FERNANDO People living in the central plains are often surprised to find out that there was a time when tobacco grew abundantly in the vast farmlands of the region, specifically Nueva Ecija and Pampanga.

It was so abundant in fact that a whole industry sprung from its cultivation changing the fortunes of families, businessmen and communities who cashed in on the trade of its by-products and service industries needed to propel it.

Today, few people remember the time when large families engaged in small-town production of cigarettes wrapped in decorative home-made paper packages.

Now, the Department of Agriculture (DA) here sees tobacco production as possible alternative crop for corn.

The agency however is optimistic that it will not compete with palay production in Central Luzon.

"We have vast lands used for corn production. These lands have the same properties needed to cultivate tobacco," said DA Regional Director Andrew Villacorta, adding that there is around 30,000 hectares exclusively for corn production in Central Luzon that could be used for tobacco.

The general character of the soil used for corn production in Central Luzon is of sandy loam, very ideal for tobacco production.

The optimism of the DA on the economic benefits of tobacco production is not without basis. In 2006 to 2008 alone, the annual average revenue of P31.8-billion was raked in for the government, according to the National Tabacco Administration (NTA).

The DA also sees tobacco production as a way to open up once productive idle lands rendered idle from the devastation of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. There are now vast hectares idle lahar lands in Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales.

The history of tobacco production is intrinsically intertwined with the history of Central Luzon.

A cash-strapped Spanish colonial government introduced tobacco into the islands. In 1782 (some say 1781) Governor General Jose Basco y Vargas led the state monopoly on tobacco with the encouragement of King Carlos III of Spain who found the prospect of a "Philippine colony financially self-sufficient" more promising than a growing colony that is financially dependent on the Spanish crown.

The vast lands of Luzon became the first areas for the production and processing of tobacco with Abra, La Union, Ilocos, Cagayan Valley and Nueva Ecija (still part of Pampanga at the time) taking the lead.

The monopoly was so profitable that by 1850 the government's earnings were pegged at USD500,000 (P21.275 million) which is enormous even by today's standards. The time also ushered the first factory system in the country where people would gather in one place and process and wrap cigars for domestic and international consumption.

However, abuses on the monopoly, along with the harsh provisions and rampant corruption, led to its abolition almost 100 years later in 1882.


Patriotism in a puff

With the abolition of the monopoly, companies and private individuals moved in to cash in on the popularity of tobacco as a commodity. Pampanga, a major trading center even in the Spanish times, benefited greatly when the restrictions were lifted. Latter, the American regime made a shift into the production of cigarettes or cigarillos.

So profitable was the industry that businessmen put up companies in the provinces. In Pampanga entrepreneurs brought in processes tobacco leaves and had them wrapped by families in backyard workshops.

The tobacco processing industry spread far that even fishing towns like Guagua and Betis (later annexed to Guagua) produced packed cigarettes. Evidence of this are the old cigarette package wrappers that are now sought after antique collections. From these wrappers, one could have an idea that almost every town in Pampanga had in one time or another engaged in cigarette production.

Local historian Alex Castro in his blog "Views From the Pampang" best described the industry,: "Local entrepreneurs probably bought processed cigar leaves and engaged backyard workers to roll and wrap cigarettes in these 2-color, lithographed packages carrying assorted visual themes, often irrelevant to the product, ranging from the patriotic (pictures of heroes, Katipunan) to the mythical and romantic."

Local businessmen did not only get rich, it also sparked a whole local industry that showed the first signs "patriotic advertising" through the cigarette wrappers.

"A unique Betis wrapper, "La Reina Malaya" (The Malayan Queen), on the other hand, contains a nationalist verse that calls upon Filipinos to patronize Philippine-made products and not those made by our colonizershighly seditious stuff on print," Castro, who has his own collection of antique cigarette wrappers, said.

"Today, these cigarette wrappers are being collected not just for their artistic merit, but also for their value as cultural ephemera, defining our taste for leisure and recreation under our colonizers," Castro added.


Reviving tobacco industry in Central Luzon

Today, the NTA lists 23 provinces still growing tobacco. Nueva Ecija, which once grew the crop abundantly, has ceased to grow in a large scale, except for a few barangays near Tarlac province. Only farmers in Tarlac province still grow the crop in Central Luzon.

DA Regional Director Villacorta sees the possibility of growing tobacco again in various provinces in Central Luzon through contract growing.

Central Luzon, for a fact, has a well established farming sector with cooperatives ready to take in such projects. The region also has a well established irrigation system, farm to market roads and industries that can take in the requirement for by-product services.

The DA said that the crop may open up once productive farmlands that have been buried in lahar by the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions. The area that may be used is some 53, 000 hectares in Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales. Burley tobacco is seen as a potential variety that could be grown abundantly in the said areas.

Pampanga is also seen as a potential area for the production of tobacco by-products. The DA sees the establishment of tobacco dust and pulp processing plant to benefit agriculture sector here.

Tobacco dust, according to the NTA, is an effective mollusscicide and can be used in eliminating snails and enhances the growth of fish nutrients in ponds. According to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Central Luzon produced 50 percent of the total tilapia production in the Philippines in the last five years.

In 2003, Pampanga produced 65,000 metric tons of tilapia, earning for it the title "tilapia capital of the Philippines". The area alone projects a positive venue to promote the use of tobacco dust in aqua-culture in the region. Pampanga has been the number one producer of Tilapia in the country in recent years.

Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Bulacan also have well established markets and industries in the production of bags from pulp and local materials. Introducing tobacco pulp here, according to the DA, will save time and resources in marketing the product into various markets.

And while others tend to look at the tobacco sector as a dying industry, agriculture officials here see it as a very promising industry that can spark further growth and development to the strong agriculture and business sector of the region.