For more than 20 years, women in a small fishing community in Quezon, Palawan, felt empowered. Thanks to seaweeds, which they have been farming to earn extra income. They are not only able to help put food on the table but send children to school, some of whom have already finished college.
Cherish Fisherfolks Association President Mardy Montaño, 48-year-old, native of Negros Occidental, found her way in Sitio Balintang, Barangay Isugod in Quezon, Palawan, when she got married 20 years ago.
As a fisherman’s wife, Montaño felt she had to help bring food on the table. Thus, she found seaweed farming an endeavor she can rely on.
Speaking in Filipino, some of the group’s members narrated how seaweed farming gave them self-worth and the drive as empowered members of their community.
“Most of our members here were able to send their children to school. Whenever our children would send text messages reminding us of tuition or boarding-house obligations, we will immediately go out and harvest seaweed,” said Montaño, proudly claiming to have one of her children as among the first to graduate in college.
Her daughter Jaira Faith R. Montaño recently passed the licensure examination for Agricultural Engineering.
Seaweed or sea vegetables are algae that grow in the sea. A food source for ocean life—as well as human with a distinct taste for “exotic” seafood—seaweed grows along rocky shorelines around the world.
Seaweed is commonly eaten in Asian countries, including the Philippines, where it is being farmed in coastal areas.
As seaweeds are also a source of carrageenan, a substance used as an emulsifier in food products and cosmetics, seaweed farming is in high demand.
The fisherfolk in Quezon town have their respective buyers in their barangays, who, in turn, transport the dried seaweed to a consolidator in Puerto Princesa City. The consolidator in Puerto Princesa then supplies the dried seaweeds to food companies or factories to extract and process the carrageenan from the dried seaweeds.
Aileen Ramadan, 41, a member of the group, said seaweeds are a blessing to their community.
“With seaweed farming, we don’t have to borrow money from loan sharks because we have a source of income when the fishing season is off,” she said.
As fishermen who live in a coastal community, sometimes they have to stop fishing during the typhoon season for safety reasons.
They then resort to seaweed farming, which requires capital that most fishermen lack.
“We need capital every time we start seaweed farming,” she said.
In the earlier days, the fishermen were compelled to borrow money from moneylenders who are often loan sharks who charge high interest rates.
Not anymore. Today, members of Cherish Fisherfolks Association with 22 women and 66 men, have found reliable partners to boost their income from seaweed farming and make their small industry flourish. Thanks to Protect Wildlife, a United States Agency for International Development-funded project in southern Palawan.
The project being implemented by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and its various development partners, Protect Wildlife Project promotes biodiversity conservation in the rural areas.
Environment Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones for Foreign-Assisted Projects said Protect Wildlife has been making inroads on wildlife conservation in the rural areas.
“Aligning conservation policies with on-the-ground action and enforcement is very much called for in the face of growing threats facing the country’s biodiversity resources. The DENR most especially regards the livelihood intervention on seaweed farming in Quezon, Palawan, as added boost that would ultimately address poverty and conservation issues,” Leones, also the DENR’s undersecretary for policy, planning and international affairs, said.
Through Protect Wildlife, the group was able to access microfinancing through Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (Eclof), and now has a legal status to be recognized by the Quezon, Palawan, local government unit (LGU).
Lawrence San Diego, communications manager of Protect Wildlife in southern Palawan, said Cherish Fisherfolk Association’s linking with partners, such as LWR and Eclof, ensures microfinancing for its members.
Through the USAID-LWR partnership with Eclof as the microfinance organization, Protect Wildlife was able to cover five LGUs in southern Palawan, specifically targeting upland communities in and near the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape and coastal communities to improve their agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries-based livelihoods.
For the association, Eclof started its lending in April 2018, Johnel Cinco, Eclof area manager in southern Palawan said. To date, he said Eclof has released close to P1 million to members of the group, who are responsible clients.
“What I can say is, here at Cherish, I never encountered payment delays. They are always up to date with their obligation as they pay on time,” he said.
The loan program enables the members of the group to continue seaweed production, thus, reducing threats of illegal fishing activities or even illegal wildlife trade, San Diego said, adding that some of the islands in Quezon and nearby towns are known nesting sites of the endangered pawikan (sea turtles).
For its part, the Municipal Agriculture Office, through their Agri-Fishery Technologist, provides technical assistance to the association members to improve their harvest.
Through the partnership of USAID-LWR with Eclof, the association was able to receive a grant of a land-based seaweed dryer and an additional grant of a floating seaweed dryer, which the members said have been helping them improve their products.
“What we are targeting now is to buy the seaweed our members produced and directly sell them to buyers. This will allow us to earn while our members get the most from their produce,” said Montaño, who is also a member of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Councils (FARMC) in Quezon, Palawan, another feat for a woman who was picked to represent a male-dominated sector.
“Maybe women are empowered by seaweed farming. Because I would have not been elected president or chosen as a representative of FARMC if they don’t believe in me,” she said.
Mary June Calubag, Protect Wildlife Project Community Enterprise Development associate, said seaweed farming, a viable source of livelihood as it provides profit within a short period of time, contributed to the development of positive changes in the attitudes and behaviors of the farmers.
“Unlike in other areas, starting the project here at Cherish was a lot easier because Cherish is already organized and established. What we did was help to obtain their legal status and be recognized by the local government,” she said.
The seaweed farms in Quezon gradually develop to be a conducive environment for marine life to thrive, while the interaction between human and marine life has become a common occurrence in the farms, which have become nurseries for fish, squid, crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans, as well as grazing sites for dugongs and sea turtles.
More important, members of the group have now been actively supporting the Bantay Dagat (sea watchmen) in their municipality by voluntarily monitoring their coastal waters for illegal-fishing activities.
The same association from Isugod has also advocated the total ban on the use of fertilizers on seaweeds. The seaweed farms have become a nursery of siganid fish, krills, anchovy, squids and lobster eggs.
Seaweed farming has also been proven to be the most viable and sustainable source of income, because the supply of propagules can easily be replenished from cuttings, without depleting the natural marine resources.
So far, Cherish Fisherfolks Association has established a system that allows its members to earn additional income by renting out the seaweed dryer and motorized boat to members and nonmembers who would like to use the association’s assets for planting, harvesting and drying of their seaweeds.
On top of increase and a steady source of income, seaweed farming benefits the community as additional people, particularly women and children from non-permittees needing money are hired to help prepare seaweeds for planting and harvesting which is the most labor-intensive stage in the whole production cycle.
Seaweed farming also gives the women an opportunity to contribute significantly to the family income as they join the men in becoming family breadwinners. Indeed, the women—the wives, mothers and daughters in this small coastal community in Quezon, Palawan—are empowered by seaweed.
Image credits: Jonathan L. Mayuga