In Mt. Mantalingahan’s Sitio Paho, Pala’wan indigenous leader Mami Lapasan, 77, carries a load of almaciga resin. | Photo by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.
  • Almaciga resin, also known as Manila copal, is used as an additive in industrial products like varnish and linoleum, as well as traditionally for starting fires, caulking boats and fumigating against mosquitoes.
  • If practiced responsibly, harvesting almaciga resin offers an ecologically sustainable income stream for the Indigenous people and local communities best positioned to protect the Philippines’ diminishing natural forests.
  • However, a string of middlemen, little transparency about pricing, and lack of access to formal financial institutions means that the communities that rely on tapping resin for cash remain mired in poverty.

Ubre Tiblak can vividly remember the day he fell coming down the mountain.

It was a rainy afternoon in June 2015, and the 66-kilogram (145-pound) pack on his back held three months’ worth of resin from the almaciga tree (Agathis philippinensis), an ingredient used in the manufacture of paint and varnish.

The pack weighed more than he did, and the trail through the jungle of Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape in the Philippines’ Palawan province was steep and slippery, punctuated with sharp rocks and thorny bushes. As he reached a small waterfall, he stumbled, his vision blurred, and he fell, cutting his heel and his hand.

“When I plunged to the ground, I asked myself whether to continue the descent or leave the load there,” said Tiblak, now 35, a member of the Pala’wan Indigenous group. “But I rose up despite the excruciating pain, because I needed to deliver it to the buyer before that day ended.”

Almaciga trees when tapped produce resins that provide an ecologically sustainable income stream for Pala’wan people like Ubre Tiblak who live in the Philippines’ Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

The father of two felt the rainwater rinsing his fresh wounds as he trudged down the mountain. “I thought of my children who were very young back then,” he said. “Had I left the resins along the trail, I wouldn’t have money to buy them fish, noodles and rice.

“I told myself, ‘Maybe that’s how life is, because I was born poor and needed to strive hard to survive.’”

The buyer, a middleman, handed over the payment to Tiblak. After waiting three months for the resin to be ready, and a final trek that almost cost him his life, he received 528 pesos, or about $12 at the time.

Stories like Tiblak’s highlight the ethical issues surrounding the Philippines’ almaciga resin industry, an important foreign exchange earner for the country, with a total export value of $3.14 million for 2001-2021.

If practiced responsibly, harvesting almaciga resin offers an ecologically sustainable income stream for the Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) best positioned to protect the country’s fast-diminishing natural forests. But in its current state, the industry falls short of lifting such communities from poverty.

Almaciga resin creates incentives for forest conservation in the Mantalingahan range, a biodiversity-rich protected landscape considered sacred by its more than 12,000 Pala’wan Indigenous dwellers. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

An old industry

Indigenous to the Philippines, the high quality of almaciga timber and resin makes it a premium wood species. The resin goes by the trade name Manila copal, attributed to the country’s capital city once being the resin’s most important export hub. Philippine resin reached France, Germany, Japan, Spain, China and Switzerland.

“We found that the trade in almaciga resin was documented as early as 1914,” Margaret Calderon, a professor of forestry economics at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, said in a public lecture.

The resin is an industrially important raw material for producing goods like varnish, lacquer, road paint, linoleum, waterproofing and pesticides. Traditionally, it’s used to start fires, light torches, make incense, caulk boats, and fumigate houses against mosquitoes.

The production and export of almaciga resin has declined since the 1970s, in part due to the use of synthetic alternatives. Today, Calderon said, most almaciga resin produced in the Philippines is used locally. From 2001 to 2021, the country recorded 9,321 metric tons of almaciga resin production. In 2021, Palawan accounted for all 414 metric tons of the resin produced in the country that year.

Once widespread in upland forests, almaciga trees are now categorized as vulnerable to extinction due to logging, land use change and destructive methods of tapping. The remaining almaciga stands are now located at high elevation and mostly on Indigenous ancestral lands. In 1987, to conserve these stands while safeguarding the livelihood of resin gatherers and ensuring continuous supply of resin for export, the Philippine government banned the felling of almaciga trees.

Almaciga resin is an industrially important raw material for manufacturing products like varnish, lacquer, road paint, linoleum, waterproofing, and pesticides; traditionally, it’s used to start fires and light torches. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

‘The price is not right’

Collecting almaciga resin serves as an alternative form of livelihood for Tiblak and many IPLC members living in mountainous regions like Palawan, which is known for having the best resin quality in the country.

On a foggy morning in October, Tiblak hiked uphill from his shack in the village of Kamantian on the slopes of Mt. Mantalingahan to check on his almaciga trees. An hour and a half later, he reached one of his trees, so enormous it would take three adults with arms outstretched to encircle it.

In keeping with Pala’wan cultural traditions, he cleaned the tree’s immediate surroundings before he carefully tapped the trunk using a bolo knife.

“It’s not ready yet for collection,” he said, “so I’ll have to wait for a few more weeks.”

This means no income for now to support his family, forcing them to subsist on upland rice and root crops.

In the village of Paho, further up the mountain, Mami Lapasan, 77, rushed downhill barefoot while carrying 47 kg (104 lbs) of almaciga resin — a load 2 kg (4 lbs) heavier than his slender body.

In Mt. Mantalingahan’s Sitio Paho, Pala’wan Indigenous leader Mami Lapasan, 77, rushes downhill carrying a load of almaciga resin weighing 47 kilos, two kilos heavier than his slender body. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

“Although the price is too low, we keep on doing this so it could somehow help us tide over,” said Lapasan, a father of eight.

A recent study conducted by Calderon’s team calculated a fair market price at 67 pesos per kg ($1.18/kg, or $0.54/lb) for the highest-grade resin in Palawan. But one buyer, which posted an annual output value of $2.5 million to $5 million, bought resin from this province for as little as 35 pesos per kilo ($0.62/kg, or $0.28/lb).

“The price is the problem,” Calderon said in her public lecture. “The prevailing prices of almaciga resin in the Philippines are too low and do not capture the time spent and the difficulty of collecting it. There was market information asymmetry [that] works to the advantage of the buyers since they can impose prices on the tappers who lack knowledge on the market value of the resin.”

There are many factors at play here; one is that the local markets are either dominated by a single buyer, or a few buyers, as in the case of Palawan. “As such, the prices of resins are heavily controlled by the buyers,” Calderon said in the lecture.

In an interview with Mongabay, she added: “I hope that they will become aware of the plight of the resin tappers so they will consider looking into increasing the price of resins.”

Taking almost a year to form, tipak (chunk) is the highest classification of Almaciga resin in Brooke’s Point, one of the few producing municipalities in the Philippines. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

Supporting forest conservation

As a non-timber forest product, almaciga resin creates incentives for forest conservation in Mantalingahan, a biodiversity-rich protected landscape considered sacred by its more than 12,000 Pala’wan Indigenous dwellers, according to UNESCO.

“Resin collection doesn’t result in tree cutting provided it’s done in a sustainable manner using Indigenous and introduced ways of tapping,” Calderon told Mongabay. “It provides an alternative means of livelihood to people to discourage them from cutting trees.”

Dick Indayo, another Pala’wan resin tapper and a member of the community organization Samahan ng mga Palawano sa Amas Brooke’s Point, said he’s aware of the forestry laws being implemented in the 120,457-hectare (297,656-acre) protected area and wants to earn money for his family by legal means.

“I’m more at ease doing almaciga resin tapping than engaging in illegal logging. It’s in the forest where we get our livelihood, so we conserve not only the almaciga but all other trees,” he said as he sat inside the association’s storehouse where resin is stockpiled and picked up by a buyer from the central Philippine province of Cebu. “We’re doing this because we want its benefits to spill over to the next generations.”

Besides following government policies, the Pala’wan people also observe customary prohibitions on spitting, urinating and defecating around the tree, or starting a fire near, given that the resins is combustible, Intayo said.

Pala’wan Indigenous Dick Indayo packs on his back a year’s worth of tipak (chunk) Almaciga resin as he travels to the lowland of Brooke’s Point municipality in southern Palawan. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro
Dick Indayo (left) and another member of people organization Samahan ng mga Palawano sa Amas Brooke’s Point weigh and pile up sacks of high quality Almaciga resins ready for pick up by a buyer from the central Philippines Cebu province. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

The challenging access to Mantalingahan and the restrictions imposed by the government contribute to the landscape’s conservation. Rogelio Andrada II, a professor of protected area management at UPLB and co-author of the almaciga pricing study, said these are complemented by the Pala’wan traditional practices and beliefs that are already forms of regulation supporting forest conservation .

“If we continue preserving the Indigenous culture of tapping almaciga and allowing Indigenous people to keep practicing their beliefs, then we would see the stability of the ecosystem, because they are the ones who will safeguard the forest where their livelihood comes from,” Andrada told Mongabay.

“If it’s where they get their sustenance, you won’t easily convince them to do things that would endanger forest sustainability.”

Andrada said the public should look beyond the utilitarian value of almaciga resin. “It has social and cultural values which are part of the identity of local people there. If there’s a realization of it, then maybe there would be a move to really protect it because the culture surrounding it is very unique.”

Experts say the challenging access to the Philippines’ Mount Mantalingahan and the restrictions being imposed by both the government and Indigenous communities contribute to the landscape’s conservation. | Image by Keith Anthony Fabro

Call for government action

Passing a policy that standardizes or increases the resin price appears to be the best move to improve the quality of life among local tappers’ communities, but this may discourage buyers, further miring tappers in poverty, Calderon said.

“There is a need to consider the opportunity cost of time, estimated to be about 24 pesos per kilogram of resin [$0.42/kg, or $0.19/lb], in setting prices,” she said in her lecture. “However, we also know that it’s not always efficient and effective to command prices. The price that will prevail will be the result of negotiation.”

Calderon instead called on the government and industry stakeholders to build the capacity of communities to increase their power in price negotiations that could uplift them from poverty.

“We see the need to strengthen the organizational and financial capacity of POs [people’s organizations] engaged in almaciga resin tapping, so they can negotiate with buyers and explain the prices they receive are not commensurate with the level of effort they exert,” she said in her lecture.

As the market is far from being competitive and cannot be expected to resolve its issues, Calderon said further government support is needed: Increasing tappers’ access to loans would reduce their dependence on borrowing from middlemen, and assistance in purchasing the equipment needed to refine the resin would allow tappers to command higher prices.

The reestablishment of almaciga stands at lower elevations on the mountains should also be considered, down to elevations where almaciga is known to thrive. Researchers say agroforestry development can be pursued concurrently to make these areas economically productive while the locals wait for the almaciga trees to reach the minimum tappable size of 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter at breast height, which can take up to 40 years.

“We recommend the development of almaciga plantations to augment the natural sources of almaciga and improve the almaciga stands in the future,” Calderon said in her lecture. “While we know that almaciga is a slow-growing species, we believe that there’s no better time to develop almaciga plantations [than] now, because the best time was 50 or maybe 80 or maybe 100 years ago.”

Back in Mantalingahan, Lapasan sat in his shack and stared at the billowing clouds shrouding the lowland. The cold monsoon breeze blew, heralding rain, so he decided to put down his load and wait for clearer skies.

“Whatever happens,” he said, “we will support the conservation of the forest and almaciga, because it’s what we’ve inherited from our ancestors, and it’s what we also want to pass down to our children and grandchildren.”

*** This article is with permission from Mongabay.