Environmental NGOs in Washington- are they gender balanced?

In recognition of Women’s Climate Justice Day of Action today, September 29th, I’ve pulled together a little survey looking at gender and the environment in my own state. I’m doing this because I’ve been curious about it for a few months now, but haven’t ever seen something like this done before. I did a quick survey of the apparent genders of the board members for the following environmental groups working primarily in Washington State. Where information was unavailable, for example, there are in-state staff but no in-state board, those organizations were included in one table but not the other.

NGO Board Men Women
Conservation Northwest 7 6
Puget Soundkeeper 13 5
WA Conservation Voters 9 7
WA Toxics Coalition 1 7
NW Straits Commission 10 3
Harbor Wild Watch 3 3
WA Environmental Council 10 12
NW Energy Coalition 7 7
Sound Action 3 3
Audubon 11 10
Mountains to Sound 42 15
The Nature Conservancy Washington 17 7
Total 133 85

85 out of 218 board members of local environmental NGOs are women. That’s 39% women. 7 chairs/presidents of the board were men and 2 were women.

NGO Staff Men Women
Conservation Northwest 11 10
Puget Soundkeeper 3 9
WA Conservation Voters 5 11
WA Toxics Coalition 0 6
NW Straits Commission 1 5
Harbor Wild Watch 1 5
WA Environmental Council 11 19
Environment Washington 2 0
NW Energy Coalition 4 6
Audubon 1 5
Mountains to Sound 10 8
The Nature Conservancy Washington 2 8
Surfrider Foundation 3 0
Total 54 92

92 out of 146 staff members of environmental NGOs are women. That’s 63% women. I also found that 7 executive directors were women and 4 executive directors were men.

Climate Justice means to me that people of all genders have equal opportunity to influence environmental policy and management. It’s pretty awesome that enviro NGO staff are heavily women, even in the leadership positions. But it appears there may be an imbalance as the boards are men heavy, yet the staff are women heavy- and it makes me wonder what else is going on, and what else we can do today and beyond this Day of Action.

Do these results surprise you? What’s your experience with men and women in environmental groups in Washington? Let’s chat. @Women_and_Fish


*I used the use of “he” and “she” to identify a person’s gender. Obviously my cursory analysis only includes 2 genders, but I did not find any staff bios with gender neutral pronouns. I’d love to do a more detailed survey, so please contribute to the list if you have additional information or NGOs to include.

Can seaweed farming save the coral reefs?

*Here is a piece from graduate school, where I began to learn about seaweed farming as an alternative to fishing and combining conservation with development*

The Web of Causality of Carrageenan in the Philippines

Barbara Clabots, 2012. 

Social and ecological background of the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelagic nation in Southeast Asia made up of 7,107 islands containing 300,000 square kilometers (CIA). It is situated in a tropical marine climate with relatively high temperatures, high humidity, and abundant rainfall (DA 1996). The monsoon season in the Northeast of the nation is from November to April, and in the Southwest it is from May to October (CIA). It is one of the most geologically unstable areas of the globe, regularly facing typhoons, landslides, and volcanic eruptions (CIA). The population is currently 103 million people, 60 percent of who already live in coastal areas (CIA, DENR 2001). Combined with a high concentration of population and economic activity in coastal areas, it is considered one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change (CIA).

The economy of the Philippines has been deeply impacted by its history as a Spanish colony and subsequently a U.S. territory (Ricklefs 2010). Foreign powers have had heavy influence on the economy since the 1890’s, when North Europeans and Americans began to monopolize the import-export market (Ricklefs 2010: 210). When the Philippines became a U.S. territory in 1898, the economy became linked to that of the U.S, and political independence became constrained by economic dependence (250). Even in post-independence Philippines, the pursuit of economic development has been consistently dominated by oligarchic control of production and ties with the U.S., through both trade and aid (Ricklefs 2010: 387).

The Republic is a democracy that faces real social and political challenges. International debt servicing forced the government into heavy domestic borrowing and deficit spending in the 80’s (Ricklefs 2010). Abuse of power and financial corruption by politicians are major concerns, as well as high population growth rate and inequitable distribution of income (Ricklefs 2010, CIA). Muslims make up only 5% of the population and there are high levels of poverty and social unrest in the Muslim-dominated Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) (CIA, ARMM Historical Background). Failure of the government to enforce land reform in the 1980’s has perpetuated the continued dominance of landlords, which caused unrest among landless peasants (Ricklefs 2010: 393). Though access to land may be restricted, the coastline and marine environment are public resources. In 1991, local governments became empowered through the Local Government Code that was created to devolve powers of national agencies to Local Government Units (LGU’s) (Ricklefs 2010: 441).

The nation faces many environmental issues. As the economy of the Philippines transformed from subsistence to export in the 1800’s, agricultural expansion cleared lowland forests, causing flooding and occasional droughts, and uncontrolled deforestation continues today (Ricklefs 2010: 210, CIA). Other significant environmental concerns include soil erosion, air and water pollution from urban centers, and pollution of mangrove swamps (CIA). Coral reefs are also under severe pressure- over 90% of them are threatened (Burke et al. 2002). The greatest threat to reefs is unsustainable, illegal, and over- fishing (Burke et al. 2002). Growing tourism, population, and industries are also increasing coastal development that exert direct and indirect pressure on reefs (Burke et al. 2002)

Fish are a socially and economically coastal resource for many Filipinos. Fish form a major part of the diet, even in urban populations (Burke et al. 2002). Small-scale fisheries traditionally make up more than 50% of total marine fisheries production in the Philippines (Hoegh et al. 2009).

Many people spend their time foraging local waters for fish, invertebrates and seaweeds for either direct consumption or sale in local markets. In addition to local subsistence fisheries, communities may also participate in pelagic fisheries such as tuna, the live reef fish trade, as well as the trade in aquarium fish. The live reef fish trade has flourished in recent years due to the growing demand from China and Taiwan (Hoegh et al. 2009).

In the past, coastal areas and resources in the Philippines were maintained by the fact that there was a limited demand for the essential resources of space and economically valuable fish and other items, but this is no longer the case, due to a combination of factors such as population growth, increased resource extraction, and unsustainable fishing methods (DENR 2001: 31). In 2003, the Philippines ranked 11th in the world in terms of fish production and fisheries exports 2003 were valued at US$525.4 million (Burke et al. 2002). Unsustainable fishing methods have been used to keep up with market demand and have gained a significant amount of attention by the international public, especially conservation organizations (Hoegh et al. 2009).

Seaweed farming and carrageenan processing

Seaweeds are an economically significant coastal resource in the Philippines that accounts for 70% of their aquaculture (BFAR 2009). Though fresh seaweed is highly valued in restaurants, this use will not be included in further analysis (Hurtado 2003). Carrageenan is derived from a red algae or seaweed, and Euchema denticulatum (formerly spinosum) and Kappaphycus alvarezii are the two main species of seaweed grown for carrageenan production (McHugh 2003). 85-90%tof the seaweed farmed in the Philippines is K. alvarezii (Hurtado 2001). Carrageenan is used globally as a binder, stabilizer, emulsifier, and gelling agent in food (dairy and processed meat) and personal care products (Bixler and Porse 2010). It is also used in pet food (McHugh 2003). Carrageenan accounts for 87% of all exported seaweed in the Philippines, a total of 1.7 million MT annually (BFAR 2009). The total market for carrageenan has a value of about US$ 300 million (McHugh 2003).

Coastal Filipinos do the farming of seaweed for carrageenan mostly on a small scale, either individually, within the family, or through a cooperative. Though there are 800 documented species of seaweed in the Philippines, a monoculture of Euchema sp. or K. alvarezii is standard (BFAR 2009, McHugh 2003). Culture methods most often used are either a fixed bottom line or floating monoline and raft (McHugh 2003, BFAR 2009). It is simple to cultivate, requires low initial capital, and earns a high return on investment (Crawford 2002). Females and children, not traditionally part of fishing, are involved in aquaculture (Crawford 2002). Women work to tie propagules on lines and tend the lines alongside their husbands (Crawford 2002). The farming is labor intensive- harvesting involves diving and is usually done by men (Halwart et al. 1999). In Tawi-tawi there are some female caretakers of the farms (Halwart et al. 1999). More than 80,000 families were involved nationwide a decade ago, but all small islands are producing seaweeds now (Trono 2000, DA 1996). Though it was considered an alternative livelihood in the 80’s, it has since grown to an especially important primary livelihood in the ARMM, particularly Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, which now produces 70-80% of the nation’s seaweed (BFAR 2009). Once seaweed is harvested it needs to be dried. Farmers usually dry the seaweed then sell it to a middleman or trader who purifies it and sells it to a producer (McHugh 2003).

The purifying and processing of seaweed into carrageenan often occurs prior to export. The Philippines has the largest carrageenan refining industry in Asia (Bindu and Levine 2010). Many processing facilities are located near major production sites in the Philippines (McHugh 2003). Processing mainly occurs in Cebu, Zamboanga, Metro Manila, and Laguna (DA 1996). It is filtered, condensed, and either alcohol precipitation or gel-pressing is used to make refined and semi-refined products (McHugh 2003). 58% of all seaweed produced is processed into semi-refined chips/carrageenan, 31% are exported raw (dried), and the remaining 11% are processed into refined carrageenan (BFAR 2009). Originally many smaller companies did processing, but now a few Filipino-owned companies dominate processing: Shemberg Corp, PCI Worldwide, TBK and Marcel Trading Corp (Bixler and Porse 2010). There are also a few Western companies that do primary production and processing in the Philippines, including Cargill, CPKelco, and FMC (Bixler and Porse 2010). After refinement and processing, the carrageenan is ready for export and further use. The major importers of seaweed produced in the Philippines are the USA, Germany, and the UK (BFAR 2009).


Web of causality

In Breakfast of Biodiversity, Vandermeer and Perfecto identify a “web of causality” as the source of rain forest destruction in the Tropics (1995). It is centered around the production of a commodity (rain forest trees), and the primary users or harvesters of that commodity (Central American peasants). The web then expands to include secondary users (producers and consumers) of the commodity, the market and financing structure, the government, and environmental conditions. This framework will be applied to the commodity of seaweed and further production of carrageenan.

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Web at the local scale

It is necessary to begin with the web of causality framework as applied to the local scale of the Philippines. There are a handful of key participants in the local production, processing, and consumption of carrageenan. The relationships are represented in Figure 1. In the Philippines, the industry employs between 100,000-120,000 people, 90% of who are seaweed farmers (“farmer”), and the rest are processors and traders (BFAR 2009). To limit the scope, this analysis will focus on impacts on the farmers because they make up a significant part of the labor force. It is important to note that anyone considered a seaweed farmer, unless it is a woman or child, is generally also a resident of the coastal environment and a fisherman, even if only for subsistence.

Farmers often lack capital and need a loan to buy seeds and equipment to begin a seaweed farm (Best Practices 2010). Loans from government agencies or processors indebt the farmer until he has a successful harvest and can pay them back. The prices paid to the farmers are generally quite low compared to the profits that are being made by secondary processors via the end products (Bindu and Levine 2010). Interest paid to financers can take away up to 75% of potential profits, reducing the farmer’s ability to change his economic situation (Best Practices 2010). When farmers fail to make good on loans to processors, sometimes traders take over financing. However, if farmers can find a better price for their harvest with another trader, the trader will lose his investment. Sometimes farmers accumulate their harvest waiting for a better price, but they risk the seaweed spoiling. The end result has been a general decline in available financing for seaweed farmers and a trend of low prices for the raw product (Habito 2011).

A few significant local drivers of production are low-interest loans and programs implemented by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). BFAR has worked to increase productivity nationwide through deliberate efforts in research and extension (Habito 2011). BFAR established seaweed nurseries, promoted seaweed health management, provided post-harvest facilities and established a pilot semi-processing plant (BFAR 2009). Though these efforts may increase harvests, raising productivity can flood the market and cause prices of seaweed to drop. This results in the local buyers and traders offering lower prices to the farmer. If the value of the raw seaweed drops too much, the farmer will abandon the crop and take up other livelihoods. If he abandons the crop, then local marine life gain a food source, but any tools he used to fix the crop, such as plastic or metal stakes, will remain in the marine environment as well. The farmer may have the opportunity to either return to or increase his efforts in unsustainable fishing practices.

Seaweed harvest and value is limited by multiple social factors. BFAR has identified pollution in production areas, inadequate supply of dried seaweeds for processing leading to processors’ losses, and the peace and order situation in seaweed-producing areas as factors limiting profits from harvest (BFAR 2009). Market growth and introduction of simpler processing contributed to an increase in the number of small processing companies in the Philippines, though many operate at 50 percent capacity and may be struggling to survive (McHugh 2003).

Certain local ecological factors limit the amount and quality of seaweed harvested. Harvests fluctuate drastically by season and are particularly low during monsoon season. Monsoons bring strong wave action, lower water temperature, and lower salinity because of heavy rains and flooding (Hurtado 2001). Lower salinity leads to ice-ice disease that can ruin a crop and strong waves can physically destroy entire farms (Largo 1995, Hurtado 2001). Herbivory can cause losses of up to 30% of the crop’s biomass, as many marine organisms eat seaweeds, especially siganids (rabbit fish) and sea urchins (farming study). Other marine life, especially sea grasses, compete with the seaweed for resources of light and nutrients (Hurtado 2001). Wild seaweeds considered non-epiphytic “foulers” often compete directly on the line with farmed seaweed (Hurtado 2001).

Positive social outcomes are increased fish catches due to rabbit fish being attracted to the farm, and economic growth leading to peace and development in Mindanao (Habito 2011). Unfortunately, seaweed farming has not been correlated with a reduction in destructive fishing practices (Crawford 2002). This is due to several factors- the time needed to tend the seaweed does not overlap fishing times of the day, and when the women are involved tending the crop, the man of the house is free to fish. This does not, however, mean that promoting seaweed farming is negative for the community- in fact, it does provide an income and also promotes community-based resource management (Crawford 2002).

Seaweed farming is generally considered a non-destructive form of aquaculture in comparison with other activities (Crawford 2002). There are positive outcomes as well as slightly or potentially negative ecological outcomes. Some marine organisms gain an extra source of food (Bindu and Levine 2010). However, through competition for light, seaweeds can cause coral mortality by the overgrowth and shading of colonies, and off bottom cultivation can also directly harm corals (Sievenan 2005, Crawford 2002). They also can out compete other marine plants for sunlight and deplete water of nutrients (Bixler and Porse 2010). Biotechnology through genetic modification is used to improve seeds, enhance growth, resist disease, and endure adverse environmental conditions (DA 1996). These seaweeds are already highly successful in varied environments because they have high growth rates, asexual reproduction via fragmentation, and can be resistant to grazing in foreign environments (Bindu and Levine 2010). The effects of interactions between wild and modified organisms in this situation are not yet well documented (Bindu and Levine 2010). Another concern is the direct loss of mangroves for harvestable sea space and for raw materials; mangroves are an important ecosystem for juvenile fish and water filtration (Crawford 2002).

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Web at the global scale

The production of carrageenan does not end at local refinement and processing. Figure 2 illustrates the web as applied to a global scale. As previously noted, major importers of carrageenan are developed nations, namely USA, Germany, and the UK (BFAR 2009). Further processing leads to food and personal care products that are also consumed in developed nations. Similar to John Vandermeer’s model of disarticulation of the economies of the Global North and South, the product and labor begins in the Global South, but the residents of the South cannot afford the end products of shampoos and ice cream. This leads the economy of the Global North to grow as the money made by residents of the North is spent on products made in the North (Vandermeer and Perfecto 1995). However, considering the web around carrageenan, money and support given to conservation NGO’s is actually linked back to increased seaweed production. Conservation groups also aim to decrease destructive fishing by directly protecting no-take zones, or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These MPAs sometimes exclude any economic or extractive activity; so coastal people are sometimes not only kept from fishing certain areas, but also barred from the potential of farming seaweed. There is at least one case of increased conflict over marine tenure to farm, in Bunaken Park (Crawford 2002).

There are multiple global drivers of production, including governments and conservation NGOs. Seaweed farming has been lauded as a success in creating economic opportunity for poor coastal peoples. This has motivated nations around the world, from Fiji to India to Kenya to create similar government and aid-backed programs promoting seaweed farming (Bindu and Levine 2010). Considering the impacts of these programs and its affect back on the Filipino seaweed farmer will not be included in the expanded web. Farmer training programs and funding has been incorporated into many coastal management projects in Indonesia and the Philippines (Sievenan 2005). Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund have programs that promote it as an alternative livelihood in an effort to reduce unsustainable fishing (Conservation International, Stysliner 2011). Their campaigns do not publicly address the concern of Crawford (2002) that farming often does not reduce fishing effort. Support for seaweed farming is even coming from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., citing other benefits of using it as a sustainable source of biofuel, supplying a cheap protein source, and sequestering carbon emissions (Stysliner 2011).



Increased global production will interplay with the market demand and the effects of these factors on the farmer should be considered when promoting industry growth. There is a growing consumer demand for carrageenan used as filler in low fat and pre-cooked meat products (McHugh 2003). However, even though production capacity in the Philippines is already over-built, facilities continue to be built in China and eastern Africa (McHugh 2003). These new operations could result in the export of processing, causing overall economic loss to the Philippines, or the new operations could fail if there is not sufficient demand. If overall production increases and market demand does not similarly increase, the value of the seaweed will decrease, ultimately putting the farmer out of work and driving him to fishing practices that may be unsustainable (Habito 2011). If production is held constant and market demand increases, the value of the seaweed will increase, directing the lion’s share of profits to everyone down the production chain from the farmer and still putting pressure on the coral reefs where he lives. The global commodity market may become increasingly volatile, and this unfortunately coincides with fluctuating environmental conditions.

Changing environmental conditions make it increasingly difficult to anticipate harvests, as there are factors such as water temperature and storm damage that cannot be controlled by the farmer. Sea surface temperatures in Southeast Asia are already near the thermal cap of 31°Celsius, and coastal reefs are expected to warm several degrees Celsius in the next century (Kleypas and Lough 2008, Munday et al. 2008). Warmer waters are associated with increased marine diseases, especially ice-ice disease (Munday et al. 2008, Haapkyla et al. 2011, Largo 1995). Increased intensity and frequency of storms may also damage crops (Munday et al. 2008). Considering these factors, increasing the economic dependence of coastal people on a highly variable system may not be the best strategy.

Instead of focusing on creating more seaweed farms just for carrageenan, it would be better for conservation groups and the Filipino government to take two new strategies. One, developing other markets and alternative livelihoods through sustainable use of other coastal resources would not only enhance economic opportunity for coastal people, it could maintain or reduce carrageenan market competition and increase the value of seaweed. Two, farming native species of seaweeds for direct consumption could actually reduce subsistence fishing efforts if people ate more of it instead of selling it. Also, farming multiple wild species of seaweed could increase the tolerance of harvests to disease and fluctuating environmental conditions. There is a global market for raw and dried seaweeds as food products, and they are increasingly popular in alternative and boutique groceries such as PCC Natural Markets in Seattle.

Multiple strategies should be used to reduce overfishing, including increasing food stability and financial security through alternative livelihoods other than farming. One way to increase the trickle of profits to the farmer is through fair-trade production. There is at least one example of a local program to increase fair-trade production in place in Tuwi-Tuwi, ARMM (Philippine Embassy 2008). Though applying fair-trade principles to the production would enhance economic benefits to the farmer, the Philippines will also be competing with fair-trade products that are already coming from Ireland, South Africa, and Indonesia. However, lower production and labor costs may still enable the Filipino companies to offer products at a lower cost than other nations.

Seaweed farms could also be encouraged as de-facto Marine Protected Areas, as many farmers spend a significant amount of time tending and guarding their crop. Giving landless people legal rights to marine tenure could reduce conflict like that seen in Bunaken Park. If there was an increase in the planting of seaweed for carbon sequestration, as the FAO proposes, then coral reefs may suffer from the increased competition. However, intentionally promoting productivity of the ocean could continue to bring positive benefits to coastal people if there were a diversity of “crops” and it was done sustainably; kind of like an organic garden.   Crawford (2002) points out the benefits of economic diversification and the need to adjust livelihood programs to each community. Reefs are intrinsically highly biodiverse and could be utilized in a more economically diverse way.

All of these strategies could be adapted for a local community in order to increase income for the farmer and reduce ecological impacts of farming seaweed. The overarching goal to reduce unsustainable fishing will not be accomplished by increased seaweed production alone.



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Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Hoegh-Guldberg, H., Veron, J.E.N., Green, A., Gomez, E. D., Lough, J., King, M., Ambariyanto, Hansen, L., Cinner, J., Dews, G., Russ, G., Schuttenberg, H. Z., Peñaflor, E.L., Eakin, C. M., Christensen, T. R. L., Abbey, M., Areki, F., Kosaka, R. A., Tewfik, A., and Oliver, J. (2009) The Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystems, People and Societies at Risk. WWF Australia, Brisbane, 276 pp.

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Largo, D., Fukami, K., Nishijima, T., and Ohno, M. (1995) Laboratory-induced development of the ice-ice disease of the farmed red algae Kappaphycus alvarezii and Euchema denticulatum (Solieriaceae, Gigartinales, Rhodophyta). Journal of Applied Phycology 7: 539-543.

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1st anniversary of questioning misogyny in fisheries

Today is the 1st anniversary of the first post on womenandfish, and as it is June 8, it is also #worldoceansday .  Yesterday, I successfully made it through my thesis defense and presented my research to a room full of friends, family, and colleagues.  I answered a few great questions- one in particular I am still chewing on.

In response to my results (specifically those in the post Becoming butterflies) my buddy Raz asked, “Is the level of misogyny in Siquijor going to limit the ability of women to participate in fisheries management?”  The short answer is no, because while it may limit it today, it doesn’t have to limit it tomorrow.  Let’s continue with two examples.

1) In the field, I completed an interview with a female Bureau of Fisheries staff who thought it was incomprehensible that women could or should guard marine protected areas from poachers.  After I turned off the recorder, I told her about the women in Maite who approached violators on the beach day and night.  Her eyebrows raised, her eyes went big, and she said, “really?!” I think her opinion on what women can do changed in that moment, and a big window of opportunity flew open.

2) Also in the field, when I ended a presentation of my preliminary results, the group of 30+ was very quiet for a few moments.  And then a hand raised and a man asked, “So, do you think women make better project managers? Because that is also what I am beginning to observe in the mountains with land management.”  I explained that perhaps sometimes they do make better project managers, but I don’t mean to say that we should be excluding men from fisheries management.  Androgyny will not serve us any better than misogyny.  It is very likely that some of the fishermen in attendance were embarrassed by the quotes I had captured from them that were degrading to women.  Fishermen are half the story and I do not support pushing them aside.

These two examples illustrate that misogyny is not the end of the story, but only a moment in time.  Exposure to new things challenges and shapes our worldviews whether we are American or Filipino, highly educated or barely literate, woman or man.  As I have talked and written a lot about what the women in Maite had accomplished, it seemed that around the island, and even around the world, people are interested in the possibilities that women bring to the table of environmental management.  The exchange of information pokes holes in people’s perceptions of women.  I have seen that the consequences of sharing what I’ve learned is real, and it can have a positive impact not only on women’s well being but also on our planet ocean and our global village.  So let’s celebrate #worldoceansday by flinging open the windows of opportunity for women. Please share this story with a friend.


Coastal cleanup

One of the activities I observed during my time in the Philippines was a coastal cleanup.  Turns out that the Philippines had the 2nd highest attendance for International Coastal Cleanup last year, at over 100,000 volunteers! (Thanks rachelaronson.net for noticing that) That’s really incredible, considering the 3rd highest attendance (Canada) was at most 35,ooo volunteers. I think CCEF’s (www.coast.ph) work might have something to do with that- coastal cleanups are one of the activities they really engage people in and encourage them to do frequently.

Just a few weeks ago, on a hot Sunday afternoon, most of the 60 individuals that help manage the marine sanctuary in Maite, Siquijor, were in attendance for their monthly meeting.  As I showed you previously, the recent storms had left a bunch of debris on the beach.  Most of it is from trees, and a little bit of it is plastic and fishing nets and glass bottles.  The group cleans the beach monthly during tourist season, but the president, Evelyn, decided that the beach was “too dirty” and called an impromptu cleanup.  Evelyn told me that they would bury the natural debris instead of burning it.  Though burning garbage (even compostable things) is a common practice here, she is concerned about the hole in the ozone layer and does not want to contribute to that.

First step: dig the hole with anything you can find

2nd: pick out the plastic and push the natural debris in the hole

3rd: cover the hole with sand

I also have to admit that the resourcefulness of the people has no limits! This woman has collected coconut husks from the debris piles on the beach and is chopping them into quarters- they can be sold for 2 pesos/kilo to a processor who turns them into charcoal.  Though it’s not a lot of money, at 11 cents a pound, the coconut husks are free and plentiful.

Debris into dollars

If fishermen can take the time to clean up their beaches, maybe we should too.


Here are the stats on International Coastal Cleanup Day:


While washing

Tomorrow my two week vacation begins. It’s been a long and tiring 8 weeks- usually by dinner I am so exhausted from writing notes and asking questions and listening all day long I have to collapse. Some days after transcribing interviews my right arm blocks up and I can’t type anymore.

Last night was my last night in Maite, and it was a perfect one. The weather was calm, the water flat enough for a sunset snorkel in the sanctuary. A quiet dinner after a raucous fiesta with Evelyn (the president of the association managing the sanctuary) and her husband Susano, my hosts for the last month. It was bittersweet.

Truth be told, I have had a hard time getting perspective on this all some days. I have been so wrapped up in the daily life- wake up at 3 am to the rooster’s cock-a-doodling competition, put in ear plugs and roll over, wake up ‘late’- at 6:30 everyone else seems to have been up for an hour or two. They have already bathed for the day and begun their work.

I have a coffee and breakfast. Maybe write some notes that had percolated while I was sleeping. I sit on a small stool next to the fire with Evelyn as she makes yet another treat, or continues the one she was working on until midnight the previous day. Wiping the dripping sweat from her forehead, she stirs a pot of rice and coconut milk to make a treat to sell at the local school. As the morning progresses, the other women she employs bustle about around her, and she hops from one task to the next all morning long. Cooking, cleaning, making business transactions, making phone calls, receiving visitors.

Back in the yard in the afternoon, we sit on the stools. The wash tubs are full of dirty laundry. Evelyn bleaches the whites and soaps the rest. She alternates dunking them in the soapy water and rubbing them between her hands. No wash board here, just a stiff bristled brush if you need it. And here is where she tells me stories. Here is where I learn about her life.

My eyes follow where she dumps the water underfoot on the concrete to where the drainage ditch around her house goes. It empties right under the sanctuary guardhouse, and the soapy water is dribbling from a bright orange pipe. The words are turning over in my head- I’ve spent more time inside the English speaking school systems than out, so it is a challenge sometimes to communicate complex ideas with non-native speakers. I have to think it through. Evelyn has a degree in aquaculture, and is intensely observant about the world around her. But can I have this conversation without being offensive? Without being judgmental? How do I find out what she knows and then communicate what I know?

“Do you have biodegradable soaps here?” I ask.
She looks up at me from her washing and her hands stop. “What?”
“Biodegradable soap… or washing powder. Are those available here?”
“Biodegradable- I do not know what is that.” She begins washing again as she listens.
“Um… because most soaps are chemicals.” (How do I find the easiest words for this?) And they don’t… um, they could damage the corals because they are not natural. Biodegradable soaps are made from… natural things so they do not hurt the marine animals.”
“No, we do not have.” Her face scrunches up a bit in a look of dissatisfaction. She lives on a small island that doesn’t have a proper supermarket.
“Oh. I was just wondering.”
“Maybe- they are expensive?”
“Yeah. Maybe.”

And that’s where it ends sometimes. Another note for the notebook- lack of education about how to conserve the environment and lack of access to biodegradable products can degrade the very reef the community depends on. The reef starts here at just the edge of low tide.  The entire community here is dependent on fishing as their primary source of protein, and the other primary source of livelihood is farming. Even though this is the island’s biggest spot for tourism, it’s not enough to employ everyone. So, what to do? For now, it’s just another concern to go on the list. For the future, it’s something that will float in the back of my mind when I approve a project proposal or run a workshop… or wherever life takes me. It’s one more piece of the puzzle.


Redefining field science

5 guys made quite an impression on me.  They are the Research and Monitoring Team (ReMoTe) of Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCE), the NGO I am collaborating with here.  CCE is a recognized leader in marine conservation and I had the privilege of seeing one reason why firsthand.


The guys sleeping everywhere and anywhere

Not only can the guys be so flexible as to sleep anywhere- be it above the rumbling engine of an overnight ferry, in the back of a truck in the pouring rain, or on the cold linoleum floor of an office (I didn’t sleep so well that night…) they are out “in the field” as we like to call it, fighting the good fight.


Though they do spend a fair bit of their work time in the office in Cebu, the guys also travel one week of the month to do social and ecological surveys of certain communities.  They don’t just go out diving anywhere; they are monitoring places where CCE has already helped people establish a marine sanctuary.  If you know how the fish and corals are doing, then you can decide if any management changes need to be made. For example, if you could tell by a certain pile of shells, or a damaged coral, that people have been exploiting what should be protected, then you can step up your enforcement efforts.  This is a really valuable tool for the people who manage the sanctuaries, as well as a tool for CCE to see how the projects they have invested so much in are doing.


The really unique thing about these surveys is that it’s not just the biologists doing the work.  This is science; natural science and social science, and it involves totally normal people, like fishermen and community leaders.  This is NOT normal.  It’s not even “acceptable” by some people’s standards for science.  I wasn’t even sure how I felt about it beforehand; but now I see how brilliant it is.

Dive slate with collected data

These surveys are called “Participatory Coastal Resource Assessment” because the staff gives lectures to locals on how to gather data about their coastal resources. The lectures cover multiple topics- how to assess mangrove abundance and growth, fish abundance and sizes, coral reef health, etc.  That’s the ecological assessment. And then everyone goes out and collects the data so that we can all get a better picture of the current state of the resources.  Then we can look at trends over time, and see where new housing and development is reducing mangroves (juvenile fish habitat) and increasing erosion, which may account for decreases in fish abundance or increase in murky water/siltation.


Three days later, after dive surveys, mangrove walks, and hours of interviewing local resource users, we had a map.  We actually had many maps, big satellite images blown-up and labeled with our new information.  Each sticker in the water represents fishing gears that are used in that community, and each sticker on the land represents concerns that the locals have.

Mapping community fishing gears and concerns

This process is brilliant because it is in part science, but it is also a community investing their time and energy into gathering data and then reflecting on the state of their resources.  This is true empowerment, and very necessary.


This detailed information allows each community to really see the state of their resources. What I heard during the social surveys were actually quite concerning.  The locals being interviewed talked about how there continues to be destructive fishing methods, even those that have been outlawed- like cyanide use (which kills corals but allows them to take live fish- mostly for restaurants in China), and how fishers from other communities are coming into “their” waters (there is no legal basis to exclude them, though).  In one community, there was a story about how they had set up oyster and crab aquaculture, but the guy who was guarding it one night took all the animals for himself and sold them off.


What can I say to that? Some days, I can only be a witness to these things and in the end, I am powerless to help the immediate situation.  So I sat and listened and absorbed it all so I can learn from them and repeat their stories for them. These heart-wrenching accounts are not the first I have heard, but they are the reason why I am trying to figure out how we can better conserve our resources- not to protect coral for an intrinsic value, but because so many people’s lives and livelihoods depend on the production of the ocean.


I am impressed by the guts the CCE guys have to do this over and over again and to not be broken down by the devastating destruction of the ocean they all clearly care for.  They are fighting the good fight.


What’s love got to do with it?

What’s ironic about this entry, for me, is that the whole four days I was in Baybay, Leyte, I was keeping my eyes on the women.  And though I met a few polite women involved in coastal management, I didn’t find a compelling female leader or a story to tell about any of them.  But I did find Sir Jorge.  He may be just formally known as the leader of Coastal Resource Management in Baybay, but he is nothing short of a purely inspirational leader.  I suspect he knows what he’s got.  He’s been using it to get people on board with conservation for years, even though he is not originally from Baybay.  I think it’s really important to use everything you have when you are up against commercial ships illegally fishing in local waters, cyanide fishing killing corals, and a high level of population growth right on the already crowded, impoverished coastline.  Now that I am thinking about it, leadership can be a really efficient way to gain support for conservation movements.

It’s funny, really, how quickly I recognized Jorge’s powerful presence as a leader.  I had just been woken from a pretty deep sleep I was enjoying in the ferry, and then we had walked off the boat, at 3 am, in the pouring rain. I had no idea what was about to happen, and I’m sure I was a bit of a zombie-like, sweaty mess with the usual frizzy hair.  But as I received a firm handshake, a kind welcome, and a smile from Sir Jorge, I knew I was meeting someone important. I was with five CCE staff, and you could hear it in their voices- hear how much they admire and respect him.

I knew instantly, he was the leader in this joint.  Sure, there’s a mayor, and she was very polite and all that.  But Jorge is the one who I bet can get people to do things they might not rather do.

In Jorge I saw resilience, passion, and hope.  I could actually watch his easy, sincere smile calm people down as they rallied around him.  They focus intently when he talks and give him the utmost deference.  In fact, the first group picture we took in Baybay, with the CCE staff and community members, didn’t have Jorge in it.  We had finished taking pictures when he walked in the room, and alas, everyone was up in arms, saying that he had to come join us because the group was not complete without him, and we had to do retakes.

Guess which one is Jorge!

I spent some time in the Coastal Resource Management Office with Jorge and Company.  He was writing drafts of letters to government officials by hand as he chatted with everyone.  I didn’t get much one-on-one with him, so I took the opportunity to ask a few questions.  I asked how he faced his challenges, and he said “It’s love! I just love the people, and I want them to know that I am always here for them.”

I think it’s more than love, though.  A local professor sat next to me, and she clearly adored Jorge as a long-time friend.  They recounted how a few years back, he had tried to retire, and she (and others, I presume), wrote all kinds of letters to the government to make a fuss about how important he was to their local efforts.  So, he gave in, and here he still is today, working hard to face the challenge that is conservation in the developing world.

There you have them; the ingredients of Jorge’s leadership.  Intentional optimism. A heart of service to the community.  Long-term commitment. And an abundance of love.

So, here’s an idea to consider. How can we develop better leaders around the world to move conservation forward? We need more people like Jorge, even at the local level- no, especially at the local level. Now I realize… that is exactly the kind of women I am hoping to find in the next 8 weeks.