Life for farmers is never easy. For those who tend their crops at sea, it can be even more capricious, especially as a warming planet leads to higher ocean temperatures, more volatile weather patterns, and more frequent and severe storms.
In the Philippines, seaweed farmers such as couple Gerlyn and Ronnie Villasino know first-hand what that’s like.
“Our farm has survived typhoons many times,” said Gerlyn, who lives with her husband on Ilin Island, off the southern tip of Occidental Mindoro province. “But on Dec. 25 last year, when our seaweed crop was ready to harvest, Typhoon Phanfone came and our seaweed beds were washed out to sea.”
The Villasinos were not alone. Their small community of Inasakan was devastated. Homes were destroyed. Boats were wrecked. Thousands of meters of ropes, to which the farmers attach their crops, were swept away.
In a matter of two days, seaside communities lost their main source of livelihood, said 22-year-old Marielle Ramos, a volunteer for the Philippine Red Cross Society on Ilin Island. The problem is that seaweed farmers — like many land-based farmers — borrow money at the beginning of each season to buy seedlings.
Normally, when a crop is harvested, it’s brought to shore, cleaned, and dried under the sun on large wooden racks. Once dry, farmers clean them again and then package in a large sack, which they bring to the southern Mindoro city of San Jose. There, wholesale dried seaweed fetches roughly PHP300 ($6) per kilo. But when harvests are washed away, farmers not only lose income, they also go into debt.
The COVID-19 pandemic only made things worse. It interrupted the fishing and tending of crops at various times. Markets shut down, transport and trade were impeded, and prices tanked. Just before the pandemic hit, Gerlyn turned to selling home-cooked food in local markets. COVID-19 restrictions soon rendered that untenable.
The island has been lucky, as it remains COVID-free. Still, the pandemic is a constant concern, especially because there are no healthcare facilities there. People must go to San Jose to have any kind of health consultation or hospitalization. Clean drinking water, meanwhile, is brought from San Jose or found in the mountains, but it is not easily available to those on the coast. This makes rigorous health and hygiene practices a challenge. But it can be done. Local Red Cross volunteers, who are used to promoting hygiene in post-emergency settings, regularly visit island communities to promote hand-washing and other COVID-19 prevention practices adapted to the local situation.
Now, the Philippine Red Cross is also working with seaweed farming communities to help them rebuild their farming operations so their sustainable, low-carbon form of food production can stay afloat. Part of the Red Cross response plan also includes helping farmers get access to government trainings on sustainable farming techniques, adapt to climate change, improve storm preparation plans, and other technical skills.
According to the Red Cross, the idea is not so much to import new techniques, but to strengthen the sustainable livelihood methods that local people have already developed. This way, farmers like the Villasinos can keep producing a healthy, eco-friendly crop, while keeping food on their tables.
Seaweed seedlings are tied to long ropes that are held in place by a system of weights and buoys, which are usually made from recycled plastic bottles.
It’s hard, wet work. And it’s all done by hand. The crops must be continually inspected for infections and parasites that become more prevalent when water temperatures rise above normal. These blemishes can make the seaweed unsellable.
After Typhoon Phanfone washed away their crops just before harvest time in December 2019, the Villasinos faced ruin.
“We used the money from the Red Cross to buy seaweed,” Gerlyn said. “Now, we’ve sold the seaweed we harvested and bought more seedlings to plant.”
The Red Cross works with a local recovery committee to provide cash grants to those most in-need.
“It’s been a great help,” said 34-year-old Lorilyn Ermino Villasino, Ronnie’s sister, who is a member of the local recovery committee.
“Some of the farmers really had nothing left.”
Seaweed is not just used in soups and salads. The gooey gelatins from seaweed are used in a wide range of products, from shampoos to ice cream. They even make their way into the soft, flexible, and rubber-like materials used in things like sandals.
Aside from seaweed farming, island residents earn extra income, and help feed their families, through fishing.