The Market: It’s not just fish but that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about

When I first arrived in my municipality, the market terrified me. It’s big, loud, confusing, and all around assaulting to all of your senses. The perimeter is lined with small groceries, carinderias, bakeries, and other assorted shops. The inside is dimly lit, cram-packed with tables and booths that change locations at irregular intervals. However, after being here for 9 months, I’ve come around. It’s basically like Wal-Mart, but even crazier.

The first section is mostly household goods, selling everything from pots and hangers, to rat poison, clothing, machetes, and Korean DVDs. Moving back, the stalls transition to produce, to snacks, to grains, and finally to meat and fish. There are alcoves and carts for cell phone repair, coconut shredding, and haircuts. The narrow walkways overflow with smaller sellers setting up there goods on tarps or banana leaves.

And all of the above, is just a regular day, not an official market day. On market days (Tuesday and Friday), no floor space is left unclaimed by sellers and the market expands itself outside of its normal bounds and fills the basketball court with more goods and ukay-ukay.

Ukay-ukay (literally meaning dig-dig as clothes and accessories are often displayed in piles) is the Filipino version of a flea market, where most of the clothes come from other countries.

But, most my market time is spent at the back, in the:fish section.jpg

Twice a week, I accompany my coworker as she conducts the price monitoring interviews with the roughly 50-80 fish sellers. We do this in order to keep track of both what species are available and how the price fluctuates over time. (She does most of the work. I mostly point, ask questions, and sample snacks.) Fish sold come not only from our municipality, but all over the island. Many sellers commute to larger ports in order to get access to more rare or prized deep sea fish. Most of he fluctuations have to do with the weather (stormy days means less fishers go out), but there appear to be all kinds of factors. No two market days are the same.

One fish is always there, Bangrus, or milkfish. These fish are grown in the ponds that dominate the landscape of Capiz.

There are typically a variety of shells– oysters, mussels, snails, scallops and clams:

Some cephalopods:

Tiny shrimp, fermented and sold as a paste to giant prawns and mantis shrimp:

Eels, sharks, and rays:

Crabs:

And all kids of other fish, small, big, weird and everything in between!

It might seem that with a fish market like this, productive and diverse, things are going pretty well for the fisherfolk and the fisheries of Capiz. But, I should add, that while many fisherfolk agree that although enforcement, management, and community involvement and organization are improving, overall fishing is getting harder. Fishers observe less fish today than there were 10 years ago. The fish they catch are smaller. And, several high valued species have seemingly disappeared from the local fishing grounds. 

Why is happening? Most fishers would first tell you the reason we are seeing declining fish stocks is because of overfishing and destructive fishing. Fortunately, these are two areas we can actively work to combat. Through education and strict enforcement, the Philippines has already seen great reductions in destructive fishing methods such as dynamite fishing. But, it’s still an ongoing battle.

However, we can not ignore that climate change has had a particularly strong effect on the countries like the Philippines. It is hard to find a fisherfolk, no matter their political leanings or level of education, that does not believe climate change is a major problem for their livelihood. In Capiz, storms have intensified and seasonal patterns have been affected. Coral bleaching is rampant and sea grass areas have shrunken down to patches, leading to less suitable fish habitat. These issues will only intensify in the future and makes it all the more important that fisherfolk are supported and have access to the tools they need.

Anyway, I hope you liked the pictures of the market.

Amat-Amat: Baby Steps and Continuing Work with FARMCs

Woah, I’ve been in the Philippines for 9 months today! (That was true when I started this post a few days ago at least.) That means, as a fellow volunteer pointed out, that my 27 month service is 1/3 over. It also follows that I have a year and a half left. Depending on the day, that seems either really near or really far away.

I’m happy to share, I’ve been fairly busy lately. Not everything is going smoothly, but things are certainly going. The main activity on my plate right now is a massive re-organization of both the Barangay and Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Councils (BFARMC and MFARMCs, respectively).

Over six months ago, I wrote a post about FARMCs. As a quick review, they’re basically organizations of fisherfolk for every level of government, from the smallest (barangay) to the largest (national). In my last post, I talked about how in a perfect world these organizations would create local fisheries management, created by fisherfolk, for fisherfolk (with a little help from local government, NGOs and national agencies).

My municipality and our FARMCs are not there yet. And we have a ways to go. But, now we’re working in the right direction. To get things started, we enlisted the help of the provincial BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) director. He agreed to join in a meeting with all of the barangay captains (local leaders) to and share our plans to organize the fisherfolk in their barangays.

Next, my filipino work partners and I visited all 10 barangay and held information sessions and elections. Basically, we’re now the proud parents of 10 newly-born fisherfolk organizations. Some of these infant organizations are better off than others with strong leadership, vocal members, and supportive barangay officials. The rest might take some extra TLC…

Now, with most of these new groups deciding to have monthly meetings, my schedule is filling up. The goal is for each group to be self sufficient where they are able to set their own agendas and goals, have their own funds and budget. However, right now, I’ll be happy if the meetings simply happen.

So far, the regular meetings are off to a bumpy start. Of the four originally scheduled for the first week of April, all but one was postponed. The one that went on as scheduled started almost 2 hours late and had 15 participants out of about 140 potential fishfolk members…

But as they say in Hiligaynon, amat-amat… or as I’d say, baby steps. It isn’t easy to get busy fisherfolk and fishworks to come together in an organized way once a month. On top of having hectic work schedules, many have second sources of incomes and families to take care of. Further, most organizational efforts have proved ineffective and teetered out in the past for all sorts of reasons. And, starting from scratch, we have very few resources (or pesos for snacks) to work with. This is likely to be an up hill battle.

Over the next 18 months, I’ll continue to attend meetings. I hope to help these organizations gain recognition and find support in their communities. This month, I also plan to have an orientation meeting for a the municipal level FARMC and get that up and running as well. I’ll be sure to post another update down the road.

Wish me luck!

Let’s Talk Trash

We have a trash problem in my municipality. In fact, the Philippines has a trash problem in general, as 3rd highest global producer of plastic waste into the world’s oceans (behind China and Indonesia). Like most problems of this scale, there is not an easy solution or group of people to blame. It’s a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

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First, there’s a huge production of residual waste- waste that can be neither recycled nor composted- things like plastic shopping bags, candy wrappers, styrofoam containers, and single-use sachets. The single-use sachets are everywhere! Everything from laundry detergent, to shampoo, coffee, and MSG seasoning packets comes from these evil little guys. They are often preferred to buying in larger quantities because they’re cheap (trash is often the worst in the most impoverished areas). But, bahala na! Sachets and other residual waste wouldn’t be such a problem but…

Waste disposal is difficult. According RA 9003, the republic act of the Philippines dealing with solid waste management, it is the responsibility of the municipality to deal with their residual trash. However, dealing with anything biodegradable or recyclable falls on the shoulders of the barangays (the smallest unit of government).

In a perfect world, individual households would segregate their trash into recyclable, biodegradable and residual. Then, the barangay would collect the segregated waste- processing the biodegradable waste into fertilizer and selling the recyclables to junk shops. Next, the municipal (next level of government) would coordinate the pick up of the left over residuals and send it to a dumpsite.

There are a few problems with this. People don’t often segregate. (We’ll get back to this). But, even if they did, municipalities and especially barangays rarely have the necessary equipment to pick up trash, or, if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make it down the narrow paths to densely populated housing common in rural areas. Then, if somehow all of the trash could be collected, it’s rare they have the capacity to store and process it properly.

So, without a mechanism to pick up trash, people don’t bother to segregate. And, why should they? But, they have to do something. So, they bury, burn and dump. Trash dusts the streets like tumbleweed then makes its way to the streams and ocean. Now, with all the trash ever present, people adjust; they get used to it. So, what’s another piece of litter on top?

Burning is an issue of its own. Technically, again according to RA 9003, it’s illegal. Still, it’s rampant, over 80 percent of households in my town admitted to burning their garbage regularly. And again, it’s tough to blame many of them with so much trash and nowhere to put it. Also, are mosquitoes a problem? (Hint: Always.) Burn some plastic! They’ll be gone in a heartbeat!  However, the practice is extremely harmful, not only to the environment but to people’s health.

I have always had an environmental soft spot. Overuse of plastic has been a concern of mine since childhood. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! and all that. But, I wasn’t an extremist. I didn’t stress about candy wrappers and double bagging groceries (even if I did have a set of reusable bags I perpetually forgot in my trunk).

Now, I see my privilege, one I shared most all Americans. Here in the Philippines, the waste produced doesn’t just disappear. But, it doesn’t actually disappear in the US either. A candy wrapper takes hundreds of years to break down no matter where its goodness was consumed.

Although the problem of trash that doesn’t go away is mostly accompanied by environmental, health, and economic problems- it also comes with awareness and creative solutions. Many people have built their livelihoods literally out of trash and many more will continue to do so as the country continues on this uphill battle.

So, what does all this have to do with my service? I’m a coastal resource management volunteer. I should be snorkeling in our coral reefs, hanging out with fisherman! Solid waste management isn’t even an issue covered by office.

Obviously, it still has everything to do with my service. Improper solid waste management, even far from the coast, has an effect on our shorelines and fisherfolk. However, since it isn’t part of the duties of the office of municipal agriculture, I’ve had to venture a bit further away from the comfort of my desk.

Recently, I’ve been working more with our recently-appointed MENRO (Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer). She has stepped into a huge job, tasked with a lot more than just dealing with solid waste management, and she’s asked my help.

In the past week, I’ve met with barangay captains (like small-town mayors), teachers, students, parents, and participants of government programs to talk trash. As you might expect, sometimes the conversations are bleak and difficult. (What is a busy mother supposed to do with diapers piling up and no one to collect them? How can you stop a neighbor whose garbage spills into your yard?) And there are some blame games. (It’s the students littering!  It’s the fault of the government for not collecting! The trash on the beach comes from boats and other municipalities…) Fortunately, there’s also a lot good from these talks. People want a solution. They show they’re willing to work, make sacrifices, and pass along knowledge to their communities.

And though change is slow, I’m already seeing progress!  Last month, I bought two extra buckets for my office so we could practice proper segregation. Since then, I’ve seen our carefully sorted trash, remixed again and again upon collection. But, not today! For the first day the trash outside of my municipal building was properly segregated!

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Next week, I’ll be heading back to the high school where I met with 30+ awesome high school students who are willing to work with me to re-form an environmental club on campus. Teachers have agreed to assist in the construction of an MRF (material recovery facility, used to larger scale trash segregation). And, we’re looking into applying for grants to assist in future projects.

Also, working within the local government unit I have the opportunity to work on this issue at multiple levels, even the legal level in helping to update the municipality’s solid waste management ordinance.

That’s enough for now. As always, feel free to comment with questions and thanks for reading!

Cara

Three Months Site: Meeting with Oyster Farmers and Identifying Projects

img_20150101_092535Three months gone. I’ve managed to stay fairly busy. I’ve tagged along to all kinds of events and meetings. I’ve explored my municipality and seen coconut groves, rice fields, mangroves, sea grasses and corals. I’ve been to a wake, a baptism, and a wedding. I’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays. I even judged a high school mascot competition on “World Toilet Day”. They were all winners, some more than others.

Now, it’s time to get a little bit more serious. At the beginning of February, I’ll be back in Manila for initial service training (IST). This is significant because at end of IST we also are trained in grant writing. Meaning, we can start applying for project funding. Right now, I’m a well-intentioned foreigner with a cursory knowledge of my community, the language, and its coastal resource management needs, but no money.

Looking ahead, I’m trying to identify potential projects. One group I’m particularly excited about getting to work with are the manug talaba, or oyster farmers. Oysters are not all the popular in the Philippines. They are more of a cheap protein source than a delicacy, but the market is growing, especially as more tourism moves into the region.

Almost all the oysters harvest in my municipality are farmed, meaning they are not harvested directly from reefs. Oyster farmers put out spat (baby oyster) collectors and wait for oysters to settle and grow to market size. This is mostly done using a process called the “stake-method”.

The stake-method has its benefits. It’s low cost upfront and quite effective. However, space and the growing problem of sedimentation are issues. In the main rivers of my municipality, various stationary fishing gear are taking over. This has obvious impacts on both water flow and navigation. Sedimentation is an greater problem, exacerbated by a host of factors. One direct effect on oyster farmers is that their stakes are getting buried, killing off oysters or minimizing the space they have to grow.

In the past few years, several groups have come into the area to aid oyster farmers in adapting new methods, mainly the hanging and raft-methods. Both use clusters of old oyster shell to collect spat instead of bamboo. When it’s time for harvest, instead of removing a stake, a cluster is removed. Also, both are effect ways to both minimize the space used and keep the growing oysters off the bottom and away from sediments.

Of course there are trade-offs. These methods, particularly the raft, are more expensive and labor-intensive, both up-front and in terms of maintenance. Also, although harvesting is easier, so is theft. Some oyster farmers are interested in making the switch regardless because of the potential increase in profits. But, others are happy with the old way.

I am no expert on oysters or aquaculture. So, if I want to help these people, I have a lot to learn first. In speaking with several groups of oyster farmers, the main problems brought up were: lack of capital, lack of market control, and lack of support in cases of gear loss or redtide (paralytic shellfish poisoning).  Even with no funds (yet), one way I can help is to assist in the formation of people’s organizations.

Peoples organizations (POs) are groups recognized by the local government unit, usually operating on the barangay (smallest unit of government) level. A good PO group would serve both the needs of the people and would create a channel communication between the people and the government. To become an official PO, a group must hold and election, write up and a constitution, and submit it for local government approval.

Ideally, once a group is formed, it will meet regularly discuss problems and work together to come up with solutions. Of course, this is the challenging part. PO groups often die out quietly as members simply stop showing up to meetings. A successful group needs both strong leadership and clear benefits to its membership, making these early steps important.

Some potential projects I hope to work on with oyster farmers include: information sessions on the relevant laws, developing marketing and harvest strategies, formation of savings groups, and development of secondary livelihood activities.  Again, these are areas that I am only just learning about myself. If anyone reading has any suggestions or leads to follow, please let me know!

Fish Cage Stocking

I’ve never put too much thought into aquaculture. Most of my interest in fish and fisheries has been centered around the natural environment and wild caught fisheries. However, now I am working in the Municipal Agriculture Office of a town with a massive aquaculture industry. Fish, crabs, prawns, oysters, and mussels are all raised and harvested here through a variety of methods. I have a lot to learn.

One popular method of fish aquaculture is by floating fish cages. Yesterday, I got to go out and observe the stocking (or introduction of young fish) to one of these floating structures. BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) provided almost 2,000 young snapper to be stocked into ponds in the coastal bay by the Bantay Dagat (literally “sea guard” in Filipino). Here are some pictures of the process:

BFAR employees dropped off two coolers filled with young fish. These fish were then transported by boat to the fish cage, maybe 100 meters from shore.

After pulling up to the cages, held in place by 8 long bamboo beams, the Bantay Dagat team got to work, adding additional nets and letting the bags of fish acclimate to their new environment (just like when you get a new goldfish!).

Once everything was secure and net were weighted down using liter bottles filled with sand and water, it was time to release the fish!

 

Before heading back, mesh covers were added over the cages and one Bantay Dagat member hopped in to do some last minute repairs.

Now, everyday, twice a day, these fish will need to be fed. As they grow, they will be spread out into different cages and separated by size. It will be 6 months before they are ready for harvest. Pretty neat.

FARMCs in the Philippines: A little lesson in fish management

I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. But, I want to talk a little bit about fisheries management in the Philippines and how this relates to some challenges I will face during my Peace Corps service.

First, some context. Not long ago, many people believed the oceans had an endless bounty. Turns out that’s just not true. In most of the world, fish populations are in decline due to a number of reasons, not limited to climate change, pollution, development, habitat loss and overfishing. From an environmentalist’s perspective this is tragic, but from a human perspective, even more so.

Here are some quick figures for the Philippines (BFAR 2014).

  • As of 2002, there were more than 1.6 million people working within the fishing industry
  • 40% of those fisherfolk live below the poverty line
  • Fish and seafood make up 11% of a Filipino’s daily total food intake
  • There was a 5% drop in seafood production from 2009 to 2014
  • The Philippines is the 7th largest global producer of seafood
  • The fishing industry makes up 1.6% of the GDP (for comparison it’s less than 0.2% in the US)

In the Philippines, management of municipal waters (from the shore to 15 miles out) starts at the smallest level of government- the barangay. Coastal barangays range in size, but most are quite small, not more than a couple thousand people. In the late 1990s the Philippines mandated that all coastal barangays (and those with major lake/river systems) form Barangay Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Councils (BFARMCs). These councils are to be made of at least 3/4ths local fishfolk, meet monthly, and are in charge of everything from creating management plans to research, regulation, and law enforcement. So, basically everything relating to their fishing practices.

Also mandated was the creation of Municipal level (the next largest level of government) councils (MFARMCs), which should coordinate and oversee the BFARMCs and work with law makers to create new regulations. Above that, there should also be IFARMCs (I for Integrated) for municipalities to co-manage shared bodies of water. Then there is finally the NFARMC (N for National), overseeing everything else.

In a perfect system, the BFARMCs would take care of most of the work. And, being made up mostly of fisherfolk, these councils would maintain a healthy and harmonious fishing community where both the resources and and the fisherfolk are well looked after. When issues might arise, local councils would communicate with the local government units and find solutions through training, legislation, and community organizing. The higher levels (M/I/NFARMCs) would simply smooth out disputes among smaller units and pass general policies as needed.

Of course, no system is perfect. Unfortunately, not all coastal barangay have BFARMCs. Then, not all barangays with BFARMCs meet regularly. And, regularly meeting BFARMCs have their problems, too. Without a solid base of BFARMCs, it’s difficult to have well-organized MFARMCs, and on up the chain to the national level.

Now, in my office (I work at the municipal, or second smallest, level), we have been tasked with re-organizing the MFARMC, despite non to partially functioning BFARMCs. If you have somehow managed to follow me this far, you see why this is an issue. The office I work in is hardworking, but small and tight on resources and manpower. And, these problems are by no means unique to my municipality.

For the record, I think the system in place in the Philippines has great potential. Who better to speak to the concerns of the fishfolk than the fishfolk themselves? They have the most at stake and know the system they live and work within better than anyone else. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is not my role to come in and solve all the problems, even if I could. However, I hope to contribute to the solution in my next two years.

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Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to comment/ask questions below.