Tawi-Tawi seaweed farmers struggle even as seaweed industry grows
TAWI-TAWI – Residents of this Philippines' southernmost province depend largely on fishing and seaweed farming as sources of livelihood. These fishermen and farmers from Tausug and Sama tribes rely daily on the blessings of the sea. Tawi-Tawi is one of the five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The vast area of water within the jurisdiction of the ARMM is home to many high-value species of aquatic flora and fauna such as grouper, tuna, various types of seaweeds, and many other marine products. A large volume of seaweeds produced in the country comes from these waters.
In 2015 alone, Tawi-Tawi harvested a total of 305,902.71 metric tons of seaweeds, almost half of ARMM’s 627,435.50 metric tons of that product recorded that year. In fact, Tawi-Tawi’s seaweeds output is far bigger than that of any region in the country. While the province of Tawi-Tawi boasts of being a major producer of seaweeds, those who are into this type of farming are struggling to make both ends meet.
Seaweeds, or agal-agal in Sama dialect, is more than a sea product for the couple Maria, 47, and Jurharie, 48. The couple’s fortune is tied to the sea, which hosts their seaweed farm. Maria and Jurharie’s story is only one of thousands of narratives from households that depend on seaweed.
The couple was supposed to plant more seaweed seedlings on the day of the interview, but since it was raining and the waves were big, Maria, decided to stay home while Jurharie went out hoping to find fruits he could sell to make money.
While at home, Maria tied the seaweed seedlings on ropes. Those seedlings, she said, would be planted later when the weather has improved. The seedlings grow in neat rows in warm, shallow waters of the coastal areas of Brgy. Pasiagan in the town of Bongao.
After 35 to 40 days, the seaweeds are ready. After harvesting, the seaweeds are dried under the sun before delivery to the 'bodega' of local traders. Recent harvests are okay, Maria said, and had met the market’s standards.
About six kilos of fresh seaweeds are needed to produce a kilo of dried seaweeds, said Maria. Thus, she has to continue doing some farm work to improve harvest. “Kung mas masipag ka dito, mas maramikang mabebenta,” she said, noting that production depends mainly on the farmer’s efforts and hard work.
She tied the seedlings on 25 ropes of one meter each. "Marami-rami na rin ito. Kahit wala tayo sa farm natin, may natatapos tayo," said Maria. She uses soft ties, which she described as expensive. “Dapat kasi yungmalambot na tali, para matibay ang hawak, pero ‘di nasisira ang seedlings,” Maria said.
In June, the couple was able to bring roughly 10 'pikol' of dried seaweeds to the traders. A pikol is equivalent to one hundred kilos. The price of dried seaweed was at P2,200 per pikol, or P22 per kilo. For a period of 43 days, her family was able to earn P22,000, good enough for a normal size family. She has a big family, however, and she sends all her children to school.
Her eldest, Shariffa, 21, has just graduated from college while the others are still in school. The couple has been able to send their children to school notwithstanding the unstable pricing of seaweeds and the uncertainty of production during bad weather.
“Kulang ang kita namin, pero malaking tulong pa rin ang seaweed farming,” she said. Over a period of one year, the family would harvest about seven times. Their earnings would depend on how much produce they could bring to the local traders. Sometimes it’s enough, but more often, it falls short of their needs, she said.
“Kakayod pa rin kami ng kakayod para makakain kami, at hanggang makapagtapos sila ng pag-aaral,” Maria said. She is worried though that the traders may not be able buy their seaweeds this time. It has been three days since harvest but the seaweeds have not dried up because of continuous rain.
The seaweeds, she said, could be damaged and if this happens, the traders would buy at a very low price. The traders always set the price of seaweed, she explained. This ranges from P16 to P40 per kilo dependent on quality and dryness, which the traders determine.
Traditionally, individual seaweed farmers like Maria cannot demand a higher price for their produce. Since farmers have no other choice, they readily accept the price set, though most of the times, prices quoted seemed unfair.
Seaweeds that pass the industry standards are generally brought by local traders to big companies in Zamboanga, Cebu and Manila, or even sent directly to foreign ports. Seaweed, usually agar-agar and eucheuma varieties, is used as product ingredient in different industries: food, beverages, pharmacy, cosmetics, and others.
What Maria sees as a solution to help seaweed farmers earn more is to organize themselves into cooperatives and eventually operate like traders. "Kung may sarili lang kaming 'bodega,' kami na angmag-iipon ng seaweeds namin, at kami na angmagdadala nito sa ibat-ibang kompanya,” she said.
Whenever these farmers have no seaweeds to sell yet and they need money, Maria said she, like the others, resort to borrowing from a local lender who charges high interest rates. Once she was forced to borrow P5,000 because she needed to pay for her kids’ enrollment. She paid P6,000 in six months or at an interest rate of 20%. "Nakakatakot din umutang. Pero 'pag walang-wala ka na, mangungutang ka na lang."
Seaweed farmers in Tawi-Tawi are facing various problems even as the seaweeds industry continues to grow, they noted. Based on latest statistics, the industry contributed significantly to the fisheries sub-sector's gross output of P55.7 billion in the first quarter of the year. (Bureau of Public Information)
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