Conservation news

Small-scale women seaweed farmers ride the rough tides of climate change

Floating seaweed dryer in Palawan, Philippines. Photo by Imelda Abano for Mongabay.

PALAWAN, Philippines — Twenty years ago, people in this fishing village in the municipality of Quezon, on the Philippine island of Palawan, would just walk to the shore, throw a net, and haul in an abundant catch of big fish for their own meals and to sell in the local market. But over the next few years, the fishermen suddenly found themselves sailing out farther into rough waters, for 24 hours or more at a time. Small catches they got were just enough to pay for the boat fuel and daily expenses.

Budenido Calderos, 46, a fisherman from Barangay Isugod, a ward in Quezon, says it’s the same story in other parts of the fishing community: it’s getting increasingly difficult to find fish. Calderos has trouble pinpointing a single reason; most of the fishermen blame a combination of overfishing, pollution, increasing population in the villages and may be warming seas and changing rainfall patterns that are triggering more cyclones.

Fishing has traditionally sustained communities in the archipelagic province of Palawan that borders the marine resource-rich West Philippine Sea, supporting nearly 850,000 people in the province.

“I have been fishing for more than 20 years and it is becoming more difficult to catch fish. It is getting harder and harder to find fish nowadays. Between rising costs of living and falling catch, our income were low and erratic,” Calderos says. Like many other fishermen in his village, he’s had to supplement his income with extra work, such as working at a private fishpond in the nearby village, or selling vegetables in the market.

The decline in fish catches has spurred an interesting shift in society as the community’s women, previously reliant on their husbands’ income, play a greater role as breadwinners. Calderos says he helps his wife farm seaweed on his days off; she’s among more than 1,000 seaweed farmers in some of the 433 barangays, or wards, of Palawan.

“We have four kids to feed and we need supplemental income from seaweed farming,” says Magdalena, Calderos’s wife. “I enjoyed it as women in our community are now closer than ever. We also need to adapt into the changing times.”

Mardy Montano, President of the women seaweed farmers in Quezon town in Palawan. Photo by Imelda Abano for Mongabay.

Women seaweed farmers on top

Seaweed farming in the Philippines is in high demand. The commodity is a source of carrageenan, a substance used as an emulsifier in food products and cosmetics, according to the Palawan Department of Science and Technology. The Philippines is one of the world’s top producers of seaweed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which it exports in both raw (fresh or dried) and processed forms. The major export markets are China, the U.S., France, South Korea and Belgium.

For the fishermen, seaweed farming is a viable alternative source of livelihood to fishing. Men hold most of the jobs in fishing, but more than half of the seaweed farmers in the province are women. In Barangay Isugod, almost half of the 88 members of the Cherish Fisherfolk Association of seaweed farmers are women.

One of the important benefits of being a member of the seaweed association is that it supports its members by offering a livelihood and training, says Mardy Montano, president of the Cherish Fisherfolk Association. She adds that the women meet regularly to learn about seaweed drying techniques, get market prices, and discuss ways to improve post-harvest processing practices. Once trained, these women seaweed farmers pass on their knowledge to their fellow farmers, using the local language.

“Seaweed farming is a family affair for us and yet a high yielding investment for women in the villages. Our seaweed farms have also become grazing areas for marine species like fish, squid, lobster, turtles and other crustaceans,” says Montano, whose son was able to graduate from university as an agricultural engineer thanks to seaweed farming.

Women farmers sort their harvest in a seaweed dryer built on shore. Photo by Imelda Abano

In the town of Quezon, the farmers harvest seaweed every 45 days. They immediately dry the plants then sell them to local buyers in the city, with the money going to pay for their daily needs and their children’s education. Women usually gather the tie lines and men carry them to the shore for cleaning and processing. Dried seaweed fetches the equivalent of $1.60 per kilogram (75 cents a pound). A 25-meter seaweed line can carry around 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds. That translates into potential earnings per harvest of more than $960.

Montana says an increasing number of women in the village are getting interested in seaweed farming because of the collaboration between the farmers’ association and the USAID-Protect Wildlife Project, Lutheran World Relief, and the micro-lending program of the Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (ECLOF). Under the cooperation, the farmers can receive a grant of a land-based seaweed dryer and a floating seaweed dryer.

“We have been helping the seaweed farmers in the province to further develop their farming techniques as well as improve the quality of seaweeds to boost its value,” says Lawrence San Diego, communications manager for the USAID-Protect Wildlife Project. “It is also important to help them establish viable linkages with markets and partners.”

San Diego says the project has helped strengthen the village’s seaweed and carrageenan industry by linking it to the seaweed industry associations in the Palawan capital, Puerto Princesa, and at the national level.

“What we are aiming for [through] this collaboration is for our seaweed farming in the villages [to be] sustainable even after our project is done. This is not only for the economic benefit of the farmers but to contribute to creating an environment conducive for marine life to thrive,” San Diego says.

Worried about the changing climate

Despite the growing demand for seaweed and the increasing participation of women in the industry, warming sea temperatures attributed to climate change are threatening seaweed farming. Climate change is expected to have a number of impacts, particularly in coastal communities in the Philippines. Ocean warming accounts for more than nine-tenths of the energy accumulated in the climate system since 1971, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, issued in 2014. That means ocean temperatures are on the rise.

“Local agriculturists explained to us that with the warming and ocean acidification, our rich marine biodiversity, including our seaweed farm, are more and more becoming susceptible to stress,” Montano says. “Maybe this is what they call the impact of climate change?”

She adds that the community is already experiencing the effects of these extreme changes in climate and weather conditions, including more intense typhoons; rising sea levels are also becoming more evident, putting communities at greater risk.

But with the great bonding and community support that the women have nurtured in the past few years through seaweed farming, they’ve identified some adaptation strategies, Montano says. These include establishing an early warning system for typhoons, improving harvesting techniques and drying methods, and deploying better fishing gear and boats.

“If seaweed farming dies out, then we have no choice but to resort to land-based farming to supplement our income,” Montano says. “For now, we are striving to be resilient to sustain seaweed farming so we can help our family and our communities.”

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