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.

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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!

Sloppy Six Week Catch-Up Post

Woops. It’s been awhile. Good news, I have a lot to talk about. Bad news, this post is likely to be a bit scattered.

Last I posted,  I had just returned to my site after what felt like a very long week a way. I felt like I was in a daze after barely having left the community for 3 months.

Now, I’m writing this after returning from a much longer 2 and half weeks away. And I’m relieved to say, the daze did not come back. Instead, I’m feeling roughly equal parts overwhelmed and excited, with a good dose of the general day-to-day confusion of being a foreigner in a place practically void of foreigners.

I’ll walk you through some highlights from my last 6 weeks. Although some fairly major things have been going on back home in the US during this period of time, I won’t be discussing them here. Most of my time my here, I get the luxury of forgetting about all of that anyways.

My very first weekend back at site, I left again. I visited Boracay, one of the world’s and the Philippines’ most famous beaches. I can say it absolutely lives up to it’s reputation. The views are pretty incredible.

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I took this picture from the second floor of an Indian restaurant where another volunteer and I could only afford to split a vegetarian entree.

There’s plenty to see and do in Boracay- including SCUBA, freediving, sailing, paddle boarding, and beach-side massage. But it comes at a price- and not just monetary. Boracay island is the ancestral home of the indigenous Ati people- many of which were displaced as the area was developed. Although Ati people were traditionally nomadic, now most live in settlements throughout Panay and Negros islands.

My visit to Boracay was made especially interesting because that weekend was the pre-kickoff of the Atiatihan (meaning: “to be like Atis”) Festival which would take place in Kalibo the following week. So, on top of the regular madness of the tourist town, there was also a seemingly endless procession of drums along the beach.

Although it is lumped in with two other catholic Santo Niño (infant Jesus) festivals in the Visayas region, the origins of the festival have animist roots, pre-spanish colonialism. The story goes that a group of Malay chieftains (Datus) came into the region occupied by the Ati people. The Datus traded with the Atis for land and formed a settlement. However, not long after, the Atis suffered a great famine and came to the Datus to ask for food. The Datus obliged and the Atis danced and rejoiced and the festival was born. There are a few other origin stories I’ve heard, with increasing Spanish and Catholic influence.

So, of course, the next weekend, I left site again to attend the main Atiatihan event in Kalibo. The celebration itself was a blast. Parade processions went through the city three times a day with full costumes, dancing and drums. And, unlike most parades in the US, they want you to join in. Onlookers weave between the dancers to who readily pose for pictures, even loaning pieces of their costumes for the photo.

Still, as an American, it’s strange and fairly alarming to see brightly-costumed people, covered in black paint (some with afro wigs to simulate the dark curly hair of the Atis), dancing with small pale-faced baby Jesus dolls. But, as one of a very small collection of non-Filipinos there, it seemed like the only thing to do was to just partake in the festivities and enjoy.

Again, Monday I was back at the office. And I actually stayed at site for a whole, and moderately busy, two weeks. I met with the local elementary school to coordinate their participation in the Peace Corps-sponsored Write On! creative writing competition. I accompanied a co-work to the fish market to survey the selling price of the various seafood. I visited the community’s “EcoPark” or fancy garden-landfill combo. I attended meetings with the provencial BFAR (bureau of fisheries and aquatic resources) and the local fisher and farmer folk organisation.

Also, I managed to attend a wedding, a christening, the kickoff ceremony for the islands first triathlon, 2 barangay fiestas, and watched the most ridiculous fireworks display I’ve ever seen up-close in celebration of the Chinese New Year. And, I moved out of my host family into an apartment on my own. NBD.

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This one plate of sashimi in Manila cost the same as a week’s worth of meals at site – and this wasn’t even in fancy Manila.

Next, I spent two  exhausting weeks of training in Cavite for our cross-sectoral IST (In-Service Training) plus a couple days extension in Manila. It was the first time all of us were back together since we parted ways after swearing-in at the Embassy in September. We talked about Peace Corps policies, met with our managers, and had a good number of training seminars. Then, Peace Corps flew (or bused/ferried) all of our counter parts out to meet us for a 3 day project development and grant writing workshop. In Manila, I was mostly in and out of the Peace Corps office for meetings, but got to explore some of the nicer (and not so nice) parts of Manila during my stay.

In just a couple days back, I’ve been settling into my new apartment. I hosted a training on creative writing for 3rd-6th graders, facilitated a writing contest with 6th graders, taught 1st and 2nd graders about overfishing, and have been going about my other everyday tasks and things– like cooking for myself and arguing with trike drivers over fairs.

Tomorrow, I’m meeting with the Barangay Captains to discuss solid waste management and then with the high school to try to help them re-establish their environmental club. Then, Thursday I’ll be back in Manila for a seminar on bivalves with some co-workers. It’s good to be busy.

I’m going to try to make posting a more regular, thought-out thing instead of the word vomit this turned into. We’ll see how that goes. Anyways, thanks for reading!

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.

castles

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

 

A Lot Just Happened

All in the past week or so, I left the wonderful barangay I had learned to call home, traveled to Manila, reunited with all the Peace Corps Trainees in my batch, met my work partner, took an oath at the US embassy, and moved to a new island, with new host family. (Also, I finished Harry Potter for the first time.)

First, leaving my CBT (community-based training) site was even harder than I expected. I felt like I couldn’t (and still can’t) possibly express all the gratitude I have for the family that had taken me in those two months. The hardest part was saying goodbye to the three kids. I cried. A lot. It was mildly embarrassing.

Next, we were in Manila, gathered together at a very nice resort a good ways out of the center of the city. It was busy.We had information sessions most of the days and stayed up way too late, savoring the little time we had as a group. Also we went shopping in the heart of Manila and ate Chinese food.  The one morning I had off, I slept more than 12 hours.

 

Then, our work partners arrived, 62 Filipinos from all over the country who had somehow been tricked into spending the next two years with one of us. For two days, we attended sessions together and worked on setting goals and expectations. It was exciting. And awkward.

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Work partner introductions

Our last day in Manila, we took a 3 hour bus ride through heavy traffic to get the the US embassy. I didn’t have much of any feelings one way or another going into the event. I’m not much for ceremonies in general. But, it is kind of a big deal- it marks the official transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer. It was very formal, but I suppose it was nice. We heard some speeches, took an oath, introduced ourselves in our new languages, and in true Philippines form, performed some song and dance numbers. After taking a few hundred pictures, we loaded back into our buses and drove the 3 hours back to the resort.

Then, we all went right to bed, because, as responsible Peace Corps Volunteers, we had all packed the night before. Joke lang! (“Joke lang” is the PH equivalent of just kidding, used much more frequently.) Most of us packed at the last minute and stayed up entirely too late celebrating and saying good bye and good luck to our batchmates.

Now, I’m at my permanent site. I’m the only volunteer in my municipality and it’s strange telling people that I will be here for 2 years. For the first 3 months at site, we are under a travel ban- meaning anything but day trips is prohibited except under special circumstances. Again, I feel a bit like a newborn baby. I can’t speak the language and have no idea how to get around by myself- also, people smile at me a lot and take my picture.

But, this is still an incredible experience. Just today- I attended a Hiligynon-language Roman Catholic Mass, went to 3 malls, bought a computer, checked out a mountain resort, and ate some iguana. Tomorrow, I’ll be at work by 8 to participate in the LGU (local government unit) flag raising ceremony.

That’s all for now. More to come.