What is it about the Tagum Agicultural Development Corporation that makes it different from the rest of the players in the banana industry. First we have to correct some impressions that the latter's contract with the Bureau of Corrections which is under the Department of Justice, is but a simple lease. The truth is that it is a Joint Venture Agreement and a standing committee whose membership includes the DOJ, BUCOR, the Davao Penal Colony and TADECO reviews that JVA regularly. The JVA between BUCOR and TADECO, in fact, is an excellent partnership model which should merit credence in the successful rehabilitation of Dapecol convicts which were hired as farm laborers who enjoy just compensation and an individual trust funds which were released to them once their prison terms end and help them start a new life and livelihood. Most of them by the way had opted to stay as regular workers of TADECO. As an aside let me say that the world over, different types of public and private endeavors have evolved.
Today, you see the vast expanse of banana fields when airline pilots announce, "cabin crew prepare for landing" as it approaches the Davao International Airport. Many interest groups look at Tadeco with awe and envy. But over 30 years ago nobody would give that wetland or wasteland a second look . Let me bring you back in history.
Only a small portion of the land grant to Dapecol was arable in the late 1960's when the venerable Antonio Floirendo, Sr. offered to develop the rest of the marsh land that is now Tadeco. That strip of arable land then was planted with abaca. Floirendo who was a pioneer in Davao, was dealer of Ford motors but his first love was actually agriculture. He himself has 1,020 hectares of land adjacent to Dapecol. There were others who were also awarded similar areas. It was that time when abaca was fetching a good price in the export market. It was before World War II that Japanese nationals first introduced abaca in Davao and they enjoyed the bonanza of the abaca industry. This, however, ended abruptly when the war broke out. To the astonishment of Davaowenyos, the Japanese farmers turned out later to be soldiers and officers of the Imperial Army. But that is another story.
When peace finally settled after the war, pioneers from Visayas and Luzon came in drove to many places in Mindanao in search for new opportunities. My own parents (from Negros) opted to move to Cotabato while the rest from Visayas preferred Bukidnon and Davao. Mindanao was a frontier land. Cebuanos looked for dry lands as they were corn farmers while Ilocanos and Ilonggos the low lands for they preferred to plant rice. But a number of pioneers from Luzon eyed the timberlands so you know who to blame for our denuded forest lands.
An exception from those who practically were the exclusive owners of timberland licenses in Mindanao was a newly-wed couple — a handsome mining engineer Antonio Floirendo Sr., and his equally lovely wife Nenita del Rosario Floirendo. But before this, soon after the war, the young Floirendo and his friends pooled their money to buy salvaged military vehicles and other equipment which were gathered together in Guam from different countries in the Pacific war arena. These properties were auctioned in bulk. Floirendo and his pals would divide among themselves the items they bought and shipped to Manila then resold these for profit. A savvy salesperson that he was, Floirendo would dispose of his lot quickly and then later would venture to Guam on his own. He impressed the American officer who, after the war, was later hired by Ford Motors to be in-charge of its sales in the pacific markets. When Ford established its presence in the Philippines, it farmed out franchises in Luzon Visayas and Mindanao. Floirendo was given an option and chose Mindanao with base in Davao City.
Floirendo sales performance must have impressed Ford Motors that when it launched the first Asian Utility Vehicle called "Ford Fiera" they did it in Marapangi, Toril, Davao City with Cristina Ford as principal guest.
But Floirendo has another secret love. Agriculture. His Marapangi estate, was planted with abaca and he put up a hog farm. When these were not enough to realize his dream, he acquired 1,020 hectares in Sto. Tomas which was just then a barrio of Tagum (This is how Tadeco got its name). There he expanded his abaca plantation which was a top money maker then.
But in mid-1960's, the burgeoning abaca industry suffered a double whammy. A deadly banana virus called "mosaic" virtually wiped out 80 percent of abaca plantations in Davao, Floirendo and BUCOR's farm included. As though this was not enough, in the world market abaca fiber was replaced with a much tougher synthetic three-strand nylon ropes which, compared to abaca fiber, was a lot cheaper and last longer and resists chemicals, crude and rough surfaces to name a few.
With income dwindling, BUCOR through the Department of Justice started entertaining other alternative projects. Gomez Cellulose, I remembered, offered to produce cellulose fibers made up not just from abaca but from other plants. Floirendo whose farm was just adjacent to BUCOR proposed to develop Cavendish banana plantation. In those time, as it is true today Cavendish had great demands in the US, Europe and Japan consumers. The struggle as to who will the contract be awarded to even reached the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. Those who are in the opposite political spectrum today will find it interesting that Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., Chairman of the powerful Blue Ribbon Committee then valiantly defended Tadeco's offer. He sealed this decision by asserting that the country was in dire need of dollar revenues and that Floirendo's project could address that problem. The rest is history.
The conversion and development of what was then a veritable marshland was not a walk in the park. It must have been around 1969 when massive work to drain the marsh land started. The place was abuzz with farm tractors and laborers. Through the cloud of dust was always seen a man wearing a white buntal hat and in cowboy shoes sans the spurs. Mr. Floirendo would be giving a litany of instructions to now retired Davao Governor Rodolfo del Rosario, his brother in-law, and Anthony Sasin a trusted man by the family. The elder Floirendo is known to be a workaholic and a slave driver even to his senior executives.
To drain the wetland, TADECO had to construct a wide and deep canal and dredged Ising river which meander through the town of Carmen and ran all the way to the Davao Gulf. Carmen which is midway between Tagum and Davao City only had a one-lane road in those days which becomes so muddy during rainy season and dusty during summer. This was the bucolic scene of Davao province in the 1960's.
A little over a decade later, the marsh lands, not only of Dapecol but those of neighboring towns, were transformed into productive rice lands which we see today. The area developed by Tadeco had been crisscrossed with drainage canals revealing a vast expanse of land fully planted with Cavendish bananas and rice fields.
Many administrations came and go. Tadeco withstood the vagaries of politics simply on account of its unprecedented farm practices, management and work culture and care for its employees and laborers. It was and still is the primary engine of growth in the regional economy.
It survived and withstood the destructive years of Cory Aquino's revolutionary government when just mere suspicion that one is a crony of Marcos the demonic sequestration forces would pounced like hungry hyenas on the properties of those perceived to be close to the so-called conjugal dictatorship. But even when Floirendo and his Davao-based firms were found out to be "giver" (a term used by a late head of a sequestration team which I interviewed him years back), Floirendo was forced to fork out PHP600-million and gave up his Lindenmere Estate in New York which the new centurions of the Cory government suspected to be owned by the Marcoses.
Then were the days. These days TADECO, the flagship of ANFLOCOR Group of Companies, is Mindanao biggest single employer. It is the best managed banana plantation firm in the world. Its yield per hectare is unbeatable worldwide.
As a farmer's son, I love to tell this success story of how a virtual wasteland and wetland metamorphosed into what it is today. The man who developed this had gone to the great beyond but he left, not only for his farm workers and employees, a legacy incomparable by any standard. Tadeco and Floirendo are synonymous to industry, courage, determination and success. Floirendo is known as the Father of the Banana Industry in the Philippines while Tadeco an excellent model of what today is Private-Public Parnership.
(Mr. Jun Ledesma is a community journalist who writes from Davao City and comments from the perspective of a Mindanaoan)