What Ended Lipa's 19th Century Coffee Boom - Batangas History, Culture and Folklore What Ended Lipa's 19th Century Coffee Boom - Batangas History, Culture and Folklore

What Ended Lipa's 19th Century Coffee Boom

There has been a lot of discussion in this site already about Lipa’s late 19th century coffee boom, which earned the then-town the title of “Villa de Lipa,” bestowed by the Regent Queen Maria Cristina of Spain. This coffee boom brought great affluence to the town’s leading families1 and helped catapult the Philippines to fourth among the world’s leading coffee producers.

Coffee production peaked in 1877 with a one-time harvest of 70,000 picos2, but about a decade later, output had declined to almost nil3. So what happened?

Two things, actually. First, a wood-boring worm infestation which was then followed by coffee rust.

Coffee in Lipa

In his 1895 book “Batangas y Su Provincia,” the Spanish historian Manuel Sastron made mention of a worm which was locally called “bayongbong4” as the reason for the decline of the coffee production industry in Lipa.

This “bayongbong” was likely a woodworm — the larva of a wood-boring beetle. It “feeds on timber and leaves tiny holes on the wood’s surface5.” The suspect beetle is likely the coffee berry borer, which is “endemic to Central Africa but is now distributed throughout all cofffee-producing countries in the world6.”

Regrettably, the infestation was totally preventable. According to the Hon. Simeon Luz, Governor of Batangas early during the American colonial period, the threat posed by woodworms was something that planters in Lipa were aware of since coffee culture was started in the town.

The worms damaged coffee plants each year, but the damage was so insignificant “that no one bothered about seeking a remedy for an evil that he did not believe could cause a complete destruction of all coffee plantations7.”

But that was exactly what happened in 1899 — a devastating province-wide infestation. According to Luz, ”...all the plantations of the province were attacked. That year saw that total loss of crop and the death of almost all the coffee plants throughout the territory which Lipa comprises8.”

There was a glimmer of hope for planters because, after most of the coffee plants had died out, the worms disappeared — “and new branches sprang from the denuded trunks9.” Any hope was short-lived, however, because just as the coffee plants seemed to be reviving themselves, “a blight appeared upon the leaves10.”

This blight was likely coffee rust, a fungus that discolors the leaves of coffee plants, resulting in “a reduction of the plant’s ability to derive energy through photosynthesis11.” This disease preys only on coffea arabica (arabica coffee) and coffea canephora (robusta coffee)12. As has been pointed out in this site previously, the coffee variety that made Lipa so rich and famous was actually coffea arabica.

Discouraged by this new development, “the owners of coffee lands put them under the plough and planted sugar, rice, and corn. Hardly one hectare in a thousand of the former plantations remains in coffee13.”

During the American colonial era, the new regime tried to find varieties of coffee that were blight resistant. Of these, a breed of coffea liberica from Indonesia would ultimately become a promising prospect; and it was likely from this import that widespread recultivation would occur, resulting into the kapeng barako that Batangas would ultimately become known for.

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Notes and references:
1 “Batangas y su Provincia,” by Manuel Sastron, published 1895.
2 A “pico” was a Spanish unit of measurement.
3 Sastron, op. cit.
4 Sastron, ibid.
5 “How to Treat Woodworm,” online at Safeguardeurope.com.
6 “Coffee Berry Borer (Hypothenemus hampei),” online at the web site of the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
7 “The Philippines Under Spanish and American Rules,” by C. H. Forbes-Lindsay, published 1906 in Philadelphia, U.S.A.
8 At that time, the now fully independent municipalities of Mataasnakahoy, Malvar, and Balete were still part of Lipa.
9 Forbes-Lindsay, op. cit.
10 Forbes-Lindsay, ibid.
11 “Coffee Rust,” by Ajjamada C. Kushalappa, published 2017.
12 “Coffee Rust,” by P.A. Arneson in the “Plant Health Instructor.”
13 Forbes-Lindsay, op. cit.
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