January - February 2008
Mad over money

How not to carve a future

CARVING involves painstaking research, drawing and planning how wood chunks will be cut to form an image. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

PAETE, Laguna — Woodcarver Justino ‘Paloy’ Cagayat Jr. still remembers a time when the kabaret (honky-tonk joint) directly across his shop had some 200 “entertainers.” At that time, too, he recalls, numerous fires hit many carving shops because workers were just too busy to sweep wood shavings off floors and have proper cigarette breaks. To Cagayat, this town’s then new, racy form of entertainment and the fires were indicators of Paete’s wealth — and of the insatiable demand for its products.

That was in the late ‘70s up to the early ‘80s, when many residents here were hard at work churning out thousands of pieces of wall decor like giant wooden forks and spoons, along with images of couples dancing the tinikling and the ubiquitous wooden beer mugs. The products were sold to as far away as Baguio City and other parts of the country, as well as to Taiwan. Attracted by the well-paying jobs offered by carvers and sellers who needed a hand in meeting orders, workers from Ilocos and the Visayas flocked to the small town south of Metro Manila.

The sweetness of Paete’s lanzones also became the standard by which varieties of the fruit from other places were measured. But woodcarving was (and still is) the town’s main claim to fame.

“Madali ang pera noon kasi bawat bahay may nag-uukit (Money was easy then because every household had someone carving),” recalls Cagayat. “Maraming factory. Malakas ang inuman at maraming babae (There were a lot of factories. People indulged in drinking and there were a lot of ‘entertainers’).”

These days, drinking remains a regular pastime, but residents no longer imbibe as heavily as they did then, which is probably a good development. The kabaret (said to be the largest in Laguna) and its entertainers, meanwhile, have long been gone — but so have the factories. And while there are still some shops, most of these are now found inside homes, employing only a handful of people, and only when orders trickle in.

While Paete had become abuzz again in the ‘90s due to papier-mâché product sales, residents say they were not as busy as they had been during the town’s previous boom eras (which had been many). Today, although it is still acknowledged as the country’s woodcarving capital and despite its residents’ forays in other arts and crafts, Paete remains a fourth-class town.

Paete need not look too far for reasons for its prolonged economic slump. Lack of foresight by its own leaders and unscrupulous business practices by some local shopowners have caused Paete’s woodcarving industry to slow down. It even faces a possible dearth in skilled woodcarvers in the future, as the young men and women who were supposed to take over the trade leave by the hundreds, finding more high-paying jobs as decorative ice and vegetable carvers in luxury cruise ships and hotels.

LYING AT the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Paete is an old town that traces its founding to 1580, by Spanish friars Juan de Placencia and Diego de Oropesa. It has a land area of just 6,301 hectares. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) says that of Paete’s more than 23,000 residents, some 621 are artists involved in either woodcarving or papier-mâché products. It is carving that feeds and clothes almost 70 percent of the population, mainly because 90 percent of the town is upland and hilly. The town’s name, in fact, comes from paet or chisel.

BIRD’S eye view of Paete. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Even before the beginning of the 20th century, carving already formed part of Paete’s industry. Cagayat says he has a book of religious items that include an 1886 to 1887 carving by Paete craftsman Tomas Valdellon.

During the early 1900s, though, Paete’s economy was rooted more in Manila hemp or abaca, and was a major supplier of the product. But a disease called bunchy top wiped out the town’s abaca farms. Unable to regain its foothold in the abaca market, Paete bounced back with its bakya or wooden shoes and capiz products in the 1930s to 1950s. Then came a decade or so of Paete artists and entrepreneurs slowly expanding their product line by focusing on woodcarving and furniture making.

By the ‘70s, Paete was solidifying its reputation in woodcarving. Aside from its mass-produced household items and decors, Paete’s famous artists became the first choice of both Filipinos and foreigners who were looking for creative and reliable artisans to render religious images and other works of art in wood.

Cagayat, who maintains an eight-man shop, says factories began closing one by one when the townspeople themselves began resorting to unethical business tactics akin to cloak-and-dagger operations. “A competitor would trail you whenever you made a delivery and then would steal your business away,” he says.

Another resident affirms this, saying that his parents, who used to be wealthy shopowners, lost a string of major contracts to business rivals who cut into their path by secretly offering the same products at much lower prices to the customers they had taken care of for years. The resident says he now works as an ice carver on a cruise ship.

“People kept on driving their prices down so in the end many lost their business altogether,” laments Luis Ac-ac, a respected carver whose shop can be found in front of his home along one of the poblacion’s main street. Ac-ac has a grand total of one worker. His small operation is shielded from the business thievery that has shuttered many shops, since he works on pieces that are either unique and cannot be mass-produced or are commissioned by long-time overseas clients.

While DTI places the number of paper and wood manufacturers at 127, managing this small group has proven to be intractable. The woodcarvers refuse to be organized, making it difficult for them to acquire loans that could revive the industry under the government’s “One Town, One Product” (OTOP) campaign. Councilor Edilberto Pascual, chairperson of the Paete municipal government’s trade and industry committee, says he worked on forming a cooperative among woodcarvers during his first term. He is now nearing the middle of his second term but a cooperative is still far from being set up. There were also efforts in the past to instill business ethics by adopting a copyright system of sorts, but this, too, failed. This in a tiny town of a measly nine barangays.

MA. VIVIAN Sanchez, an agricultural technician at the municipal agriculture office, cites yet another reason for Paete’s economic slowdown. She says her family’s factory shut down “because although big orders came in, we couldn’t cope because we had no wood or if there was, it was too expensive.”

ONE of carver Luis Ac-ac’s unique pieces, depicting Malakas and Maganda. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Ac-ac says there was a time Paete was literally littered with wood for the carvers. But it seems that when environmental laws became more stringent in the early 1990s, the carvers had to rely solely on outside sources for their timber requirement. It also has not helped that workers who had swamped the town in the past decades settled in its upland areas, cutting down trees there so that they could put up their homes.

The supply was further constricted four years ago when Paete was hit by a flashflood caused by rainwater that collected and was dammed by debris. In response, the municipal council enacted a resolution imposing fines on the unauthorized cutting of trees, including fruit trees and softwood, which are used by the woodcarvers. Paete’s artisans thus became reliant on woodcutters from other towns and nearby provinces.

“Some (raw wood) are smuggled into town from Mauban and Infanta in Quezon and even Mindoro,” admits Elpidio Agbada, Paete’s municipal planning and development coordinator. He says that even then, the supply comes few and far between, as charcoal makers get first crack at these. Apparently, woodcutters see selling to the charcoal makers as a less tedious option than making the long trip to Paete.

Ac-ac complains that the cost of raw material has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, owing to its scarcity. “Softwood used to cost P15 to P18 per board foot,” he says. “Now it’s P37, and it’s not always of good quality.” He adds that carvers scramble to find money for their raw material once it arrives; otherwise, it will be offered to others. “You should always be ready with money (for it),” says Ac-ac.

“It would have been nice if we had our own logging area,” comments Cagayat. Indeed, a tree farm of their own could have been a buffer for Paete’s woodcarvers, and the need for one should have been even more obvious during the town’s boom years. But Planning Officer Agbada says local officials have just recently identified 54 hectares for this purpose; the plan is to use commercial tree cloning, for faster propagation and more superior yield.

WHEN THE town enacted a log ban in 2003, its real property and business tax collection declined to P1.44 million from the previous year’s total of P1.67 million. It went up a little in 2004 to P1.58 million and to P2.02 million in 2005, when storm-felled logs in Quezon province were sold to Paete’s carvers. As of 2006, the town’s tax collection stood at P2.35 million.

These days, the likes of Cagayat and Ac-ac, who have spent decades sharpening their skill at handling the paet, are able to stay afloat only through orders they receive from sukis (long-time clients) here and abroad, although sometimes new ones come their way because these had somehow heard of their craftsmanship.

Many of those who had ventured into papier-mâché, meanwhile, have also fallen victim to unprincipled business practices, this time by entrepreneurs from nearby towns and even from overseas. Agbada says the town’s papier-mâché molds, carved to perfection by Paete’s artists, have turned up in places as far as China.

CARVERS begin their trade with as little as six of these tools, expanding to over 60 as their skill expands. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

“They have imported even our carvers,” he says, although it is with more than a hint of pride that he notes that Paete’s papier-mache products are preferred by investors in various countries in Europe and the Middle East. After all, Agbada says, these are painstakingly handmade, giving them character that is lacking in their mass-produced, machine-made counterparts.

In the olden days, Paete’s hardworking people had been able to rely on other lucrative (albeit seasonal) means of income aside from woodcarving. For instance, once they were already done harvesting rice, farmers would turn to fishing at the nearby lake or tending to their lanzones trees. But even Paete’s famous lanzones are no longer as bountiful as they once were.

“The woodcarving and lanzones industries seemed to have weakened at the same time,” says Sanchez of the municipal agriculture office. She says that the workers who settled upland cleared the area planted with lanzones trees.

“Halos maiyak ako kasi namumulaklak na ang mga pinutol nila (I wanted to cry because they cut down trees that were flowering),” says an elderly woman who remembers seeking refuge in Paete’s upland area during World War II.

But Sanchez allows that soil erosion is also to blame. This in turn can be traced to past logging activities and powerful storms that have hit the region. In 2006, among those toppled over by Typhoon Milenyo in the town were lanzones trees that were half a century old.

Sanchez says that from the remaining 192 hectares of land they have planted with lanzones trees, the town harvests 200 to 400 tons of the fruit each year. “The harvest is good only every other year and we used to harvest a lot more than that,” she says. The town cannot expand its lanzones area, since this means going higher upland. Based on their past experience, Sanchez says, this will only yield sour fruits.

The town’s solution is to plant new trees and apply fertilizer to those already bearing fruit, to coax higher production. But as its bad luck would have it, even the town’s lanzones industry has been plagued by unethical business practices. Locals complain that strangers pitch stalls along the highway and sell lanzones, making it appear that their produce comes from Paete.

AND SO with their town’s traditional sources of income threatened and weakened, more and more of Paete’s youths are seeking their fortunes elsewhere. One local official estimates that over 1,000 woodcarvers have sought employment in hotels and on luxury cruise ships.

“At least they’re earning,” says Cagayat, who chooses to view the exodus of future talents in a positive light. Yet for many woodcarvers like Cagayat, whose family has been in the woodcarving business for three generations, those who use ice as a medium have juvenile skills at best. They say one can easily make adjustments in a melting medium; an error in wood is permanent.

Artist and storeowner Lino Madridejos Dalay, who sells woodcarvings and papier-mâché products, views the departure of their young talents with sadness. “We’re losing the town’s next generation of artists,” he says.

Sanchez has a more profound longing for the town’s old ways and values. She says that in the past, townsfolk here put a high premium on education, so much so that even those who eventually became part of Paete’s creative pool of artisans were graduates of four-year college courses.

“We had parents who carved, fished, planted rice, or sold lanzones, but they had children who finished medicine or law,” reminisces Sanchez. “And that was in an era when families had seven to 10 children.”

She worries that that era is gone, as the town’s young people are lured by the high income that comes with cruise ships and five-star hotels. “There’s no pride in other things,” says Sanchez. “Woodcarving and lanzones, that’s what Paete is all about.”

There are, however, plans to make carving a part of the town’s high school curriculum, and a school specifically for carving is also in the works. To enliven interest in the town’s products, exhibits and trade fairs are held with funding from the DTI.

Sanchez concedes with a heavy heart that because of the economic slump they are facing, and despite the celebrated artistry that resides in Paete, they have to innovate to survive the current times. At least while they wait for their next golden age.