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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Asian Development Bank (ADB). (2009) The Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia: A regional overview.

Best Practices in Local Governance. (2010) Seaweed Farming (Bien Unido, Bohol). 31 Jan 2012.

Bindu, M. and Levine, I. (2010). The commercial red seaweed- Kappaphycus alvarezii-an overview on farming and the environment. Journal of Applied Phycology 23: 789-796.

Bixler, H. and Porse, H. (2010) A Decade of Change in the Seaweed Hydrocolloid Industry. Journal of Applied Phycology. Published online 22 May 2010.

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Crawford, B. (2002) Seaweed Farming- An Alternative Livelihood for Small-Scale Fishers? Coastal Resources Center, University of Rhode Island.

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De Silva, S. (1992) Tropical Mariculture. Academic Press, New York. pp.28-29.

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Garcia, B. (2012) Agri exec: Climate change affects seaweed production. Sun Star Publishing, Inc. 30 Jan 2012.

Haapkyla, J., Unsworth, R., Flavell, M., Bourne, D., and Schaffelke, B., et al. (2011) Seasonal Rainfall and Runoff Promote Coral Disease on an Inshore Reef. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16893.

Habito, C. (2011) No free lunch: Sustaining Seaweeds. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Nov 1, 2011. Accessed 29 Feb 2012.

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Hurtado, A., Agbayani, R., Sanares, R., and Teresa, Ma. (2001) The seasonality and economic feasibility of cultivating Kappaphycus alvarezii in Panagatan Cays, Caluya, Antique, Philippines. Aquaculture 199: 295-310.

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.

McHugh, D. (2003) A Guide to the Seaweed Industry-FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 441. Rome, Italy.

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Sievenan, L., Crawford, B., Pollnac, R., and Lowe, C. (2005) Weeding through assumptions of livelihood alternatives in ICM: Seaweed farming in the Philippines and Indonesia. Ocean & Coastal Management 48: 297-313.

Stysliner, M. (2011) Innovation of the week: Climate smart seaweed farming. 23 Dec. 2011. Accessed 5 March 2012.

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Vandermeer, J. and Perfecto, I. (1995) Breakfast of Biodiversity-The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction. 2nd ed. Food First Books. Oakland, CA.




















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 for noticing that) That’s really incredible, considering the 3rd highest attendance (Canada) was at most 35,ooo volunteers. I think CCEF’s ( 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:

Golden ticket

The thing about living in developing nations is that you have to Novocain your heart enough to get through it.   When you stand on the beach at 7 a.m. and ask to see what the fishermen caught as they haul their boats in… it is undeniably tragic when they say “wa la”.  Nothing.  Sometimes they are out there for 6 hours with a big net, and they don’t catch a single thing.

One day, a man showed me his catch held in a plastic grocery bag: a butterfly fish and two wrasse- each no longer than 5 inches.   If you have ever seen these fish in a saltwater aquarium tank, you can easily acknowledge that this is not enough protein for one man for the day.  And it is definitely not enough for his whole family.  That is why he must sell it at 60 pesos/kilo ( or $.70/lb) to buy rice, because I don’t think he can afford canned sardines today.

In the Philippines, it is a shameful thing to be a bad fisherman.  Even though the lack of fish in the surrounding seas is not his fault, he is not proud of his catch, and it is obvious by his lack of eye contact and shuffling feet.  Though I would have loved to show you a photo of a catch like this, I find myself unable to pull my camera out of my pocket.  I usually smile and say something like this-“That is beautiful fish.  Thanks for showing me. Have a nice day.”

But what I really want to say is that I am sorry.  I am always well fed and I don’t worry about my inability to feed a family. And at the end of the day, I have my golden ticket out of there.  My passport grants me opportunities far beyond his reach, but it’s also a golden ticket of guilt.   I am so fortunate, and I am so sorry.

My work is not all that difficult, but it has been near impossible for me to write a word for the last two weeks.  I’m back home, but not done here yet, so stay tuned.  The Novocain has worn off.


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.


Becoming Butterflies

I guess one of the most surprising results I have had here are learning about people’s perceptions of women.  I have asked many people over the past two months, formally (in interviews) but also informally, “how are women involved in coastal resource management?”  Most of these people are aware what coastal resource management (CRM) means in the Philippines, but I’ll just brief that for my readers:

CRM includes a variety of activities, like making fisheries policies, replanting mangrove forests, or establishing sanctuaries.  These activities are led by the local government and NGOs staff, and often funded by foreign aid (especially major players like USAID, GIZ).  Whereas in Seattle, I would expect the government agencies to do all of these activities on their own, here in the Philippines, everybody is involved, and the reality is that they have to be.  The government is limited in its capacity, and that is why they pull in every citizen to help with CRM.   So when we say “CRM” here, that can include the high school students who plant mangroves, the fish wardens out patrolling the waters, and especially sanctuaries.  With sanctuaries, many members of the community have to come together and voluntarily work to maintain the sanctuary and protect it from intruders who might want to plunder its bounty.

There are 16 sanctuaries on Siquijor right now and over 1,000 in the Philippines.  So I guessed in asking so many people their opinions on “how are women involved?” that I could try and get a clear picture.  But it started out really foggy; all I could uncover was anecdotes; that women show up to sanctuary meetings if their husbands are out fishing, that women join their husband in the guardhouse, that they cook for everybody during CRM activities.  A lovely friend and colleague here even said “Barbie, I don’t know! What is women in CRM? I haven’t even thought about it!”

So then on Siquijor I asked people the same question. Two young female government employees who work closely with CRM projects gave me these insights; they have witnessed women:

-do the most of the work in any seaweed farming project

-participate in mangrove replanting

-act as secretaries and maintain good documentation of projects

-handle money and sell products of projects (fish, seaweed, etc.)

-take initiative in projects

-delegate tasks

-are detail oriented

-participate in decision making

-voice their opinions at meetings

-increase understanding among group members

-keep projects organized better

Unfortunately, while these young women have their eyes open, the truth is that we are all up against the barrier of discrimination and what people expect of us.

“it’s very impossible for women to guard (the sanctuary) day and night… if there are intrusions of illegal fishers its very risky for the women to react on the illegal fishers in the marine sanctuary during nighttime… with their forces combined of the illegal fishers, what can the women do against the men? It’s very hard for women because we are weaker than men so when we’re in trouble, we’ll be put in deep sea (drowned)” (female government staff)

me: “What would be the benefit of including women?”

Men: “it would be clean here… and they could cook for us. And if our wives were involved… we would (have sex in the guardhouse while guarding the sanctuary at night)”.

And that’s all.  The men couldn’t think of any other benefit.

It reminds me of a child I knew who put a caterpillar in a jar because she didn’t know it would become a butterfly…


Just a simple storm?

What I’ve been experiencing this past week, was definitely not just a simple storm.  This bad weather has consisted of a few factors; we have the ‘habagat’- the southwest monsoon, plus multiple typhoons coming from the Pacific. I don’t really know the details because I haven’t been able to watch the news much, but things have finally settled down and I am reflecting on how this storm has affected life here in the Philippines.


My whole life, I’ve watched natural disasters on t.v., but rarely been in them enough to disrupt my daily routine. On the Pacific Coast of the U.S., I have only experienced a few earthquakes in my life, and even then, I can’t remember anything in my house ever breaking.  When I lived on the Caribbean side of Mexico, I went through evacuation of our research base due to a coming hurricane- that never came our way.  Now, living at just a few inches above sea level on Siquijor Island, I feel a little different about storms.


For one thing, we have barely had 24 hours of electricity since 7 days ago. That doesn’t really bother me- I travel with a headlamp and extra batteries and tend to just sleep during the dark hours.  At least we have running water, so we can bathe, and we had enough purified water to last, even if we couldn’t get more. But if you own an electric stove and need to feed your family, or you don’t own a flashlight but need to do homework, the ‘brown-out’ is going to force you to tweak your daily life.


Maite is on the southwest side of Siquijor, and this side of the island has been getting the worst of the storms.  The waves that are usually quite gentle were big enough to surf.  All boats were pulled ashore on every available property.  As I learn about who owns what waterfront property here, it is evident that as more foreigners build on their currently vacant lots, the community is losing out.  They lose a path to the beach and they lose a spot to pull up their boat. As far as I understand it, the public area is only 20 meters from high tide.  People can build their houses right up to that 20 meter mark.  Currently, that area is a pile of debris, and has been underwater with really high tides.  So there’s not really a public beach at all.


Sometimes, people build concrete seawalls to protect their houses.  It is illegal here, but that doesn’t matter if there is corruption in the government permitting office.  Thanks to my courses at U.W., I know about the negative aspects of seawalls.  It changes the dynamics of sand movement, which in turn can make other areas more susceptible to erosion. Like, your neighbor.  Their house might be totally ruined simply because yours is totally ‘protected’.  Also, complex habitat is considered better for marine life in some circumstances, and it makes sense logically; the more crevices animals can hide in at low tide the better, right? Straight lines and big walls do not good habitat make!


And now here are just a few comments on public health implications of this storm:


1. Coconut shells are excellent at holding stagnant water. Massive amounts of coconut shells on the beaches brought up by the storm= higher risk for dengue.


2. Dried goods that cannot be made edible without cooking= more pressure on forest resources for firewood and more cooking over fires. And cooking over fires is linked to asthma and increased air pollution.


And here are a few things I’ve been experiencing, remembering that seafood is the primary source of protein here:


1. Inability to go fishing, no refrigeration, little access to ice = no fresh fish.


2. Very few boats to/from the island and lack of a supermarket and canned goods on an island of more than 80,000 people= few food choices and increased pressure on the produce available locally.


3. Less food available= increase in people gleaning and collecting shells and urchins to eat during low tide.


4. Ruined marker buoy lines for the sanctuary= inability to determine exactly when someone has entered the sanctuary and inability to determine whether they are violating the sanctuary’s ‘no-take’ policy.


My curiosity about these things doesn’t seem to cease- is stormy weather linked with an increase in violations of protected areas? This is all getting really complicated, but I guess that’s what it is.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at a storm the same way again.



Sanctuary, so what?

Sanctuary, reserve, marine park, MPA (marine protected area), it’s all the same, but not exactly. People use these terms somewhat interchangeably, so let me explain.  MPA is kind of a catch-all term that includes all of these other terms and is what academics often use.

They all have the same concept though; to protect a certain habitat (wetlands, beaches, or open water) by establishing limits on what you can do or take there.  It’s just like what most people call a “park”.  But you know how “parks” can be just a corner lot with a playground, but they can also be something like Yellowstone?  Marine parks are like that.

Even in the U.S. we have to use multiple names to describe the same idea.  National Parks usually refers to land. But we also have National Marine Sanctuaries, which obviously refers to water.  Then if you want to protect an estuary (where the river meets the sea) you usually have to call it a Wetlands Reserve. Confusing, yes.  They are also all run by different government agencies, but that’s another mess of a topic.

The MPA most people know best is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBR). What I didn’t realize, even when I was snorkeling there, was that you can actually go fishing on the GBR! I always thought it was just the conservation attitude of the Australians that allowed for this enormous area to be protected just for snorkeling and diving.  It is actually zoned, just like a city zones business and residential areas.  There is an aerial map of the GBR that shows the zones for fishing, or for tourism, or for shipping lanes.

Some MPAs don’t have multiple zones, they just have one zone.  Like in Maite, my study site.  Sorry for the confusing terms; I call it an MPA, but I sometimes also call it a sanctuary, because that is what the local name for it is- “Maite Marine Sanctuary”.  All sanctuaries are MPAs, but not all MPAs are sanctuaries, get it?

There is a buoy line extending out from the beach that marks off a rectangle of water. No fishing or collection of sea shells or urchins is allowed. But snorkeling, diving, and swimming are allowed.  Just like a park entrance, there is a “user fee” associated with each of these activities; you can pay about 50 cents to swim, $1.25 to snorkel, or $2.50 for a dive. This money is the only income the community gets from the MPA.

The sanctuary rules and user fees

The community has earned 250,000 pesos through user fees since the establishment of this MPA in 2009.  In just 3 years, that is almost $6,000 USD.  Just pocket change for the foreigner who loves to scuba dive adds up to something really good for this community.  Maybe the tourists don’t really see the purpose on the fee, or they don’t see how much this pocket change does, but I wish they did, because I think it would be a powerful message that would inspire a few extra donations.

Earned income chart for Maite sanctuary

The income gets divided though.  First they pay off the maintenance costs.  Then 40% goes to the municipal government. The remaining 60% gets divided between all 3 parts of the management team.  20% goes to the barangay council (like the town council), 20% goes to MRDA (the women’s group), and 20% goes to MAFIA (the men’s fishing association).

The sanctuary management team’s current budget allocations

One of the things MRDA does with this money is re-invest in its members.  They offer a 500 peso loan at 5% interest to the members only.  500 pesos is only about $12 USD. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is enough for some of the women to run small businesses.  They might buy raw materials, like dry goods or fresh fruit, and then make snacks they can sell on the side of the road or at the local school.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a $12 loan is a big deal.  According to Siason (2001), women in the Philippines are not recognized as borrowers, and often have to borrow loans informally through family and friends.  According to a World Bank study on how people spend their income, this is another really important part of the puzzle.  It said that women re-invest 90% of their cash income into their family and their children.  And men put 15% of their income towards the family.

Now maybe you can see why we learn so much from separating the statistics on men and women.  At a large scale, this has already been applied in a few arenas.  Microfinance in India is focused on women, for the factors like how reliable they are on paying back loans.

In a place where people sometimes don’t have enough food on the table for full meals, malnutrition is a major public health concern.  There is literature indicating that when there’s not enough food on the table, the woman is more likely than the man to skip a meal and give that food to her children.  After the earthquake in Haiti, food vouchers were only distributed to women (see blog link below).  I’ll be looking forward to Danika Kleiber’s results from her study on these issues in the Philippines.

Back to the MPA- that small user fee not only provides incentive for environmental protection, it can contribute to women’s empowerment through small business and better nutrition for families.

Sounds like a small price to pay for snorkeling in a sanctuary, doesn’t it?


Danika’s blog on her field work is here:

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zone maps

Blog on the gender of money