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.

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!

Two Months at Site

One year ago today, I accepted my invitation to join the Peace Corps. Now, I’ve been in the Philippines for over four months and at my permanent site, here in Capiz, for just over two. These past months have gone by so quickly, and without a great deal of tangible results, that I sometimes catch myself worrying about not having enough time here to accomplish what I hope.

But, that’s the American in me; time is different in the Philippines and not having enough time isn’t really a concern. This can be frustrating as a volunteer– Filipinos are notoriously late, for everything. And not just a little late. Yesterday, I was told to arrive at the municipal building at 6am. Feeling savvy, I got there at 6:45. By 7:30, everyone else had trickled in.

If you’re reading from the US, you might imagine that the more punctual of the group would be annoyed or even angry waiting for the stragglers. But, that wasn’t the case. Instead, people were catching up, exchanging stories and genuinely enjoying their time.

In fact, that’s exactly what I was told during my training that I only partially understood at then– Filipinos enjoy time.

This makes me think back to a quote I read once, superimposed over some serine natural scene, incorrectly credited to Buddha: “The trouble is, you think you have time.” The quote stuck with me because I liked it, but didn’t totally sink in. I couldn’t really imagine an alternative to possessing time, until now.

So, in the spirit of enjoying time and not possessing it– I’d like to share a few highlights from my last few weeks.

I experienced my first major holiday I traveled with my work partner to her home town for All Saints Day. Part of this experience included attending an outdoor mass in a cemetery.

I went on a pilgrimage- Well, I visited a Pilgrimage Resort*. Without knowing what I was getting myself into. When I was invited, they left out the “pilgrimage” part. We walked up ~500 steps, stopping along the way at scenes representing the stations of the cross to arrive in Heaven.

Also, it was a farm. (*In the US, the word “resort” carries a different meaning than in the Philippines. Here, they can range from modest beach spots with a few cabanas for rent to very upscale vacation spots.)

I became a Maninay– or a wedding sponsor/godmother. During the wedding ceremony, I stood behind the bride and groom. It was pointed out that at 25, I’m very young for the role. And, although I’m not completely sure what it entails, it’s an honor none the less!

I’ve explored the coastal waters– My municipality has a beautiful 13 km of coastline and several small islands. We have corals, white sand beaches, tidal pools, mangroves and seagrass. Getting there is a bit of hike from my house, but this just got easier BECAUSE…

I got a bike! So far, I’ve only taken it out twice. And, heading out to the coastal barangays isn’t exactly a leisurely ride, up and down some hilly and not always smooth terrain. But, the freedom is exciting! I’m also realizing I have a lot to learn in the ways of bike maintenance.

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I rode a jeepney… alone-This might not seem like a big deal. But, the fact that it took 4 months to happen should say something. Part of the reason it took so long is cultural. My hosts here are extremely hospitable (like above and beyond) and always make sure I have a companion. But also, traveling around as a foreigner is not exactly easy.

Also, I have been fairly busy with “work”. Most of this involves just going places, shaking hands, and posing for pictures. I have met with all kinds of government leaders from the barangay officals to the governor. I’ve begun getting involved with local groups and attending events with co-workers. There are a lot of people to meet and get to know. Still in my first couple months at site, I have a lot to familiarize myself with. Slowly, I am seeing relationships develop and am finding different ways to get involved (even with my very limited language skills).

More to come!

My Daily Commute

Despite various warnings about my Peace Corps service, I imagined waking up a stone’s through from the beach. This the Philippines! And, I’m a Coastal Resource volunteer. I thought my walk to work would be a lazy stroll down a sandy path to a rustic office in a coconut grove. This might be the experience of some volunteers, but not mine.

I live in an “urban barangay”- the poblacion along with a few thousand others. Also in the poblacion are the main elementary and high schools, each with more than 1,500 students, the office of the mayor, the police department, the market, and the fire dept.

I tend to not take a whole lot of pictures during my walk. (I attract more than enough attention as is.) But, I tried to sneakily snap a few pictures to share here. Check it out.

Cats, dogs, and chickens– Many people here in the poblacion own animals. Here, dogs are less “man’s best friend” and more security systems. Cats are a great investment to reduce household pests (mice and lizards). A lot of households also raise poultry, primarily for food. Although roosters are kept tied up or in cages, cats, dogs, and chickens are often wondering the streets.

Bikes, trikes, and jeepneys- We have all forms of transportation passing through the poblacion, from massive trucks to bicycles. The preferred mode is motorbike- but some travel by car. There are three options in public transportation. Within the poblacion, for 6 pesos you can grab a pedicab to peddle you to you destination. For trips within the municipality, it’s best to travel by trike- a motorbike with a side carriage. Creative trike drivers/riders can easily carry more than 10 passengers- the more passengers, the lower the price!  Then, of course there are jeepney for travel both within and out of the municipality.

A lot of green– It may be an urban barangay, but there’s still plenty of vegetation. The streets are lined with fruit trees (papaya, coconut, banana, guava, starfruit, and mango to name a few), flowers, and sections of jungle-esque overgrowth.

Sari-saris– These little shops, called sari-saris or literally “variety”, are common throughout the Philippines, especially in more rural barangays. But, here in the poblaction, I still pass a several on my short walk to work. These shops can sell everything from chips and candy to brandy, laundry detergent, and cellphone credit.

Rice– Rice is a pretty big deal here in the Philippines, where most people eat rice (and a lot of it) three meals a day. In my municipality, rice is the second most important crops after coconuts. Although, of course there are no rice paddies in the poblaction, on a hot day during harvest season- tarps of unhulled rice grains line the streets to dry.

Also, there’s a large catholic Church across from the plaza with a statue honoring the national hero- Jose Rizal.

It might not be the beach, but my daily commute is rarely uneventful. After 5 weeks, people are getting used to me. I get less confused stares (still plenty) and more warm greetings. This place is slowly becoming my home away from home.

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.

 

Community Based Training: 1 month down, 1 month to go

Posting regular blog entries has proven to be somewhat of a challenge. At my training site, cell phone service is hard to come by, internet is a whole other issue. I am now about a month into CBT (Community Based Training) and a month away from swearing in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer at the US embassy.

CBT life is really good. I live in a gorgeous barangay and am surrounded by a lot of pretty cool people. I’m very busy. But, as a trainee, I don’t feel any of the pressure I expect I will deal with as a volunteer. I have training sessions twice a day, Monday through Saturday.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 or 7 am to noises of a busy house mixed with dogs and roosters, and the occasional early-morning Videoke session. By this time, my host mother (nanay) and father (tatay) are already awake and busy. The kids are slowly moving and getting ready for school. Some mornings, I’ll walk to the beach with my nanay and to buy some fresh fish, right off of the boat.

I eat almost all of my meals with my host family. Everyone comes home for work or school and has lunch together. My host family noticed how excited I got trying new varieties of seafood, especially crabs. Now every time they bring home a new crab they make sure I get a picture.

By 5 or 6 at night, I’m done with most scheduled activities. Most nights, I’ll head right home and greeted by an excited group of children. Sometimes, I’ll go with them to the beach or play games at the house. If it’s rainy, I’ll stay in and watch TV (Filipino crime dramas, Filipino Family Feud, The Voice Kids), read, or work on Tagalog homework. We usually eat dinner late and I’m bed, freshly showered (tabo showered) underneath my mosquito net by 9 pm.

Before arriving in the Philippines, I really very little understanding of the work I might being doing as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I thought I might have the opportunity to participate in fun science-y things like coral gardening and would be talking to a bunch of fisherman. I wasn’t wrong, but now I understand the main goal of my service is local empowerment, within the framework of coastal resource management.

Here in the Philippines, coastal resources are managed more bottom-up and at a much more local scale than in the United States. In fact, many decisions happen at the barangay (the smallest unit of Filipino government) level.  As a Volunteer, this is the level I will be working.

Of course, I will still probably get to do a lot of fun science-y things. Depending on the needs of my   permanent site, I may need to help organize mangrove, sea grass, and coral assessments. However, I now understand that the science and data collection really takes a back seat to community organization and education/outreach.