Farming is a precarious venture, as it is (mostly) subject to the elements, not to mention market forces.
The seaweed farmers of Caramoan, Camarines Sur are no exception to this.
Caramoan island is known as a beach destination, it and its surrounding islands hosting various nature-themed tourist attractions such as island hopping, caving, and snorkeling. Formerly a “secret spot,” it gained worldwide attention after it was revealed that it was the location for some seasons of the TV show “Survivor” and parts of the movie “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”
Aside from catering to the burgeoning tourism industry, locals also make a living through fishing and seaweed farming.
Eucheuma cottonii is key
“Caramoan seaweed farmers are growing Eucheuma cottonii which is generally harvested and processed as carrageenan,” says Sabrina Tamayo, founder of Project SMILE.
“Interestingly, they are among the farmers with the highest global impact. They practice regenerative ocean farming which has been identified as a key solution to climate change. It has the power to sequester carbon on land and sea, reduce methane production in livestock, rebuild marine ecosystems, enrich soil, and address the global plastics problem. One requirement for seaweed farming is a clean sea, so seaweed farmers are the one making sure that trash is properly disposed of or it will affect their farms.”
She further explains the farming process: “Eucheuma cottonii has a growing cycle of 15-45 days, then it's harvested. Once harvested, they are dried for two to three days to achieve 38-40% moisture content.”
Once dried, it is collected by a partner, in this case, Agrabah Ventures, and taken to a processing facility where it is processed into carrageenan powder and sold to clients.
Affected by the pandemic
Unfortunately, these revenue streams disappeared when community quarantine measures were imposed to halt COVID-19 transmission.
Tamayo breaks down how this happened. For fishing, “They usually supply seafood to local restaurants and since tourism was closed, they had little market for their catch which resulted in lower seafood selling prices in the area,” she says.
In terms of tourism, “They use their boats to ferry tourists around the islands. They also supply tourists with lunch on boats, buko, and other local crafts. All of these sources of income generated from tourism is gone,” she adds.
While seaweed farming could have helped keep them afloat, worldwide production of carrageenan slowed, resulting in price fluctuations. “There was more supply, but limited demand which pulled the price down. Furthermore, the last quarter of 2020, three consecutive storms in a span of two weeks hit the area. All of the tiered seaweed seedlings were wiped out. They decided not to plant for 2021, because they are in multiple debts already. This could be the end of the seaweed industry in the region.”
The three typhoons Tamayo mentioned were Pepito (Saudel), Quinta (Molave), and Rolly (Goni), all of which occured in between the middle of October to the first week of November 2020, followed by Ulysses (Vamco) just a few days later.
“The biggest challenge right now for our seaweed farmers is bouncing back. They suffered for an entire year without income. Fortunately, the LGU managed to provide them with relief goods and cash aide during the lockdown,” Tamayo says.
“Handouts are pressing their pride. They want to earn a living and do not want to beg for aide. So, the majority of them turned to informal lenders to start planting last year. However, , getting more loans did not make sense anymore, so they decided to stop planting this year.”
This is where Project SMILE, along with its partners, come in. “Project SMILE is a multi-awarded youth-led non-profit organization that aims to uplift the lives of neglected and underprivileged Filipinos - one act of kindness at a time. To date, we have helped over 30,000 Filipinos in need through our outreach activities and impact initiatives in our 3+ years of existence,” Tamayo shares.
Its project with the seaweed farmers is part of Hapag-Kapwa, which Tamayo says is their “campaign for rural workers, specifically farmers and fisherfolks. It aspires to help them get food back on their tables and to rebuild their trade.”
To help with this, Project SMILE partnered with different SMEs such as online stores ActivGreen, handmade soap company Mabula, and local footwear maker Sewn Sandals to help raise funds for the community, as well as “creating awareness through informative posters, and mobilizing the youth to be involved in social issues.”
Sewn Sandals, for example, has committed to donate a percentage of their sales to the cause. “Ms. Mariel Veluz, owner of Sewn Sandals, a longtime advocate of sustainability and promoting Filipino craftsmanship, took this partnership to the next level by creating a specific type of sandals called Lambat Mesh Mules wherein 20% of its sales from March 1 to April 30 will be donated to our campaign,” Tamayo says.
The organization also works with agri-trade company Agrabah Ventures, who is in charge of the agricultural aspect of the operation. “Agrabah Ventures is a managed service provider that helps farmers and fisherfolks get access to alternative markets. Agrabah also coordinates logistics, so farmers can focus on farming,” Tamayo says.
“They also provide access to capital by linking farmers and fisherfolks to different loan providers offering low interest. This is made possible by a unique credit scoring Agrabah created that is tailored to farmers and fisherfolks.”
Supporting seaweed farmers
This isn’t Project SMILE and Agrabah Ventures’ first partnership. Their initial campaign was called “Save Bicol Seaweed Industry” and was launched with the help of actor Enchong Dee.
“Together, we have assembled 100 food kits and 7.5 tons of seaweed seedlings. The food kits were distributed to 100 seaweed farming families and the 7.5 tons of seaweed seedlings were given to 25 seaweed farmers (300kg per farmer),” Tamayo says.
“With this initiative, we have supported 530 Individuals composed of PWD 1.89%, Senior 4.53%, Minor 26% and Able-bodied 67.55%. However, there are 500+ more seaweed farming family beneficiaries who need seedlings and farm implements (boats, ropes, and goggles) which we seek to support in the months to come.”
Hapag-Kapwa hopes to be just as, if not more successful. “There are more than 500+ seaweed farmers needing support in restarting their seaweed farms. Primarily they need seaweed seedlings, rope, diving goggles, and canoe (bangka). There are no other crops that can be an alternative for seaweed since they have the sea to farm,” Tamayo says.
She outlines their current plans: “Restarting the industry by providing farmers with seedlings and other farm implements is the first step to recovery,” she says. “Agrabah Ventures will be monitoring their production and will be guiding the farmers to grow their production and improve quality to ensure that they are more resilient this year.”
The farmers will be selling their harvests to processing plants via Agrabah Ventures.
How the public can help
The public can help the overall agriculture industry by buying local goods and produce, especially if their ingredients or raw materials are locally sourced. If they have the resources, they can contribute to projects that specifically support local farmers. But even if they don’t have the financial resources to spare, they can help by keeping themselves informed and by telling their friends and loved ones about the plight of Philippine farmers and the need to support them as small business owners. Organizations like Project SMILE are a good place to start.
“Meanwhile, Project SMILE will continue to increase the conversations and discussions in this space through a series of awareness initiatives (e.g., informative posters, webinars, etc.),” Tamayo says.
“If you wish to support us, we are open to donations, both in cash and in kind. You can add our vouchers to your carts at shopee.ph/projectsmile and you can donate at donation.ph/projectsmile. Any help at this stage counts and will surely reach those who are currently in need the most.”
Photos courtesy of Project SMILE