August 8, 2022
In Palawan, women engaged in banana and seaweed farming are struggling to make ends meet for their families

PALAWAN, Philippines — For 30 years, Melinda Gimotea has been farming seaweeds off the coast of Sitio Balintang in Palawan province’s southern town of Quezon.

Along the coast, a pungent fishy smell mixes with sea breeze as women like her in their village are commonly seen under their houses, tying the cuttings of this bright green plant to lines. She has witnessed how seaweeds have transformed her village: they’re able to build sturdy houses, connect to power and water lines, buy home appliances, and send children to college.

Gimotea is among 6,500 seaweed farmers in the province who grow this high value crop every 45 days. Prized for its carrageenan, an emulsifier for many food and cosmetic products, seaweed was among the country’s top aquaculture commodities, with an estimated production volume of 1.5 million metric tons valued at P10.61 billion ($188 million) in 2020, government data showed.

Back then, she earned between P25,000 to P30,000 ($444 to $534) from her 2,500-square-meter farm. But in 2021, she noticed that the warming temperature caused her seaweed production to decline. 

“In the past three decades that I have engaged in seaweed farming, all was well with our climate and our seaweeds were sizable,” said Gimotea, 55. “Starting last year, our income has halved because of the extreme heat that makes our seaweeds become sick.”

Like Gimotea, small-scale banana farmers in Aborlan town in southern Palawan are also experiencing changes in weather conditions that affect their produce.

“Now is supposed to be rainy season, but it’s usually sunny and dry, it’s not normal,” said Analiza Asuple, 33. 

Cultivating bananas in a 2-hectare farmland for almost a decade, she observed that banana thrives with rains.

“Bananas don’t like extreme heat, so the size of the fruit is diminishing and so is our income,” Asuple added.

In the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, scientists warned that without deep and immediate cuts in carbon emissions, agriculture will continue to be among the sectors bearing the most climate crisis impacts. 

Climate advocates say this needs urgent action as it affects women’s rights to work, food, education and other social services.

“The latest assessment report of the IPCC has zeroed in on the impact of climate change on agricultural systems globally. The Philippine agriculture sector, including the many women engaged in it, is not an exemption,” said Nazrin Castro, branch manager of nonprofit The Climate Reality Project.

Unfavorable farming conditions

With the climate crisis intensifying tropical storms, farmers’ right to work under favorable conditions is compromised.

In the Philippines where the occurrence of six super typhoons a year is a new normal, 5.56 million farmers, including women, are at risk of being deprived of this right.

“Women have additional challenges with respect to their livelihood and daily household responsibilities…. Moreso, working women have a hard time going back to work whenever disaster strikes and their homes were destroyed,” said Jade Marquez, the Right to Resilience Regional Program manager at international nonprofit American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative.

Last December 2021, Typhoon Odette (Rai) ravaged Palawan, leaving widespread damage to its agriculture industry amounting to P3 billion ($54 million). 

DAMAGED. Seaweed farmers in Quezon town ask for the government’s help in the repair of its communal solar dryer damaged by Typhoon Odette. Photo by Keith Fabro

“The majority of high value crops reportedly damaged included seaweeds and bananas,” said Provincial Agriculturist Romeo Cabungcal.

The provincial government is considering declaring a state of calamity in its agriculture sector to allocate public funds to support rehabilitation efforts.

In Quezon town, Odette destroyed their communal solar driers and boats, dealing a hard blow to women seaweed farmers, said Mardy Montaño, president of the Sitio Balintang’s Cherish Fisherfolk Association.

“Before, the weather was predictable. When it’s wet season, it’s raining; when it’s dry season, it’s sunny. For each season, we’re prepared. We’re all forced to face this new reality. Our income dropped, especially in Odette’s aftermath,” Montaño said.

The holidays were gloomy in the village as the typhoon washed out their seaweeds.

“We’re supposed to earn P15,000 ($268) from [those] seaweeds but it’s all gone, except for the ropes,” Gimotea recounted with teary eyes. 

Living right at the coast, the big waves also took away her planting tools and lumber for her supposed house repair.

After Odette, concerns emerged about the lack of seedlings to restart seaweed farming. Given this, the provincial government plans to invest in the establishment of community-managed seaweed nurseries across the province.

“There will be a partnership between the provincial government and an association that will look into the operation of seaweed nurseries in order to supply the seedling requirement of an area,” Cabungcal said.

In Palawan’s banana capital town of Aborlan, farmers like Asuple lamented how Odette flattened their plantations.

“Most of my bananas were due for harvest, but it wasn’t spared during the typhoon, which also flooded our house,” she said.

But typhoons are not the only concern of farmers. Pests and diseases attacks are also constant threats aggravated by a changing climate.

A few weeks after Odette’s onslaught, Gimotea resumed growing seaweeds. In February, however, it was damaged by ice-ice disease (IID).

“It fell into the sea, it didn’t survive,” she said. 

CHALLENGES. Melina Gimotea, a seaweed farmer for three decades, shows bleaching in seaweeds due to ice-ice disease that reduces the plant’s carrageenan content. Photo by Keith Fabro

IID is common among seaweeds found in the Philippines, particularly in Palawan, a top seaweed-producing province. IID-infected seaweed tissues, in turn, whiten, disintegrate, and decay, reducing farmers’ carrageenan yield.

Another concern in Philippine seaweed farms is the presence of epiphytic filamentous algae (EFA) or algae that attach to seaweeds and penetrate their inner layers, causing damage to the host plan, noted a 2021 study published by scientists at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) and its partner research institutions.

IID and EFA are linked to unfavorable changes in environmental conditions, such as an increase in seawater temperature and a decrease in salinity, said SEAFDEC seaweed scientist Joseph Faisan Jr.

“It’s expected to be more pronounced in the coming years due to the impacts of climate change such as warming of oceans and extreme climatic events, including the El Niño and La Niña phenomena,” he added.

Meanwhile, banana farmers complain about the soil-borne fungus Fusarium wilt, which causes the stunting of banana plant and yellowing of its leaves.

“It destroys banana leaves, so you need to salvage the entire plant to prevent it from spreading throughout the plantation,” Asuple said.

In a 2019 study published in Spatial Information Research, scientists at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and University of Southern Mindanao warned that “the projected changes in rainfall in the future can increase the areas that are favorable for Fusarium wilt occurrence.”

“From 21% under baseline climate condition, favorable areas for Fusarium wilt in the Philippines is estimated to increase to 27%, covering 91.2% and 28.5% of the country’s highly and moderately suitable areas for banana, respectively. Such coverage accounts for approximately 67% of the country’s total harvested area for banana,” the study read.

Cabungcal said they are eyeing the possibility of removing the infected variety of banana and changing it with the ones that are less susceptible to the said disease.

Limited access to food, education

With IID impacting their yield, women engaged in seaweed farming are struggling to make ends meet for their families. It’s another wave of difficulty at a time when the rough seas already affect the fishing livelihood of their husbands.

“It’s so hard because you’re forced to be frugal with your spending. Sometimes, we’re not able to buy food as we’re cash-strapped,” said Gimotea.

She worries a lot nowadays as she has four more mouths to feed – her eldest daughter, separated from an abusive husband, has returned home with her three children. 

“Aside from feeding them, you’ll send the kids to school and that adds up to my piling concerns,” she said. “I’m just blessed with my daughter because she helps a lot in household chores to lighten my load.”

The impact is mostly felt by women laborers in seaweed farms like Erly Daguia. The 38-year-old mother of four children works for seaweed farm owners like Gimotea. Daguia ties propagules to seaweed lines, each spanning 25 meters and weighing 100 kilograms.

“Unlike nowadays, I can have my children indulging in food when I started tying seaweed propagules a decade ago,” said Daguia, who once earned P13,000 ($232) every after harvest. 

“As the changes in climate bring extreme heat and stronger typhoons, I worry for its impact on our seaweeds. If it continues, where will I get money to feed my children and support their schooling? Without people engaging in seaweed farming, I have no income,” she added.

Taking climate change into consideration, the provincial government is updating its seaweed roadmap to identify suitable sites, species, and peak months for seaweed farming for each participating town to guide communities in farm planning, thus reducing losses. 

“In the roadmap, we’ll look into the presence of local government unit zoning for aquaculture intended for seaweeds, as well as leasing and permitting system for seaweed farmers…. It should be in place for us to implement a good management strategy, which will be incorporated in their respective comprehensive municipal fisheries ordinances,” said Cabungcal. 

SEAFDEC, meanwhile, recommends the relocation of seaweed sites from shallow to deeper waters, “wherein environmental conditions are moderate and stable,” allowing seaweeds to “cope up with the challenges of climate change effects,” said Faisan. 

The center is also promoting the use of seaweed tissue culture, which is free from disease and pest and available whole year round for farmers.

“We make sure it’s free from pests and diseases prior to farming, so there’s no worry that it harbors such that could spread to other farms,” the scientist said.

Back in Aborlan, Asuple’s family only earns P30 ($0.53) pesos from selling 100 banana pieces to a wholesaler. It’s almost half the selling price before the pandemic, when schools were open and bananas were in high demand as snacks.

“We can’t ask higher than that because most of our bananas are small, so somehow we’re fine to sell it at a lower price instead of having it rotten and earning nothing at all.”

On average, she harvests 300 banana pieces, giving her family a weekly income of P90 ($1.60). It could double if she would sell it at the town proper, but the roundtrip tricycle fare would cost her the same amount as her earnings.

“If I would sell it during market day, my earnings would only go to my fare,” she said.

As a non-member of the government’s cash assistance 4Ps program, Asuple’s family makes do with their meager income, which is just enough to buy one kilo of rice and salt so they can subsist on porridge for a few days and then return to eating boiled bananas when it runs out. With the reopening of schools, she is worried about not having money to buy uniforms and supplies for her three children. 

“We don’t know how we can continue sending our children to school,” she said. At home, her three children study their modules and take turns using two pencils – a gift from a relative two years ago. Their crayons are three years old and have crumbled.

Cabungcal said the provincial government is working with a cooperative in Puerto Princesa City to consolidate the bananas in towns to ensure farmers like Asuple are earning well from their produce.

“We want to give fair value to the crops being produced by farmers, so along the whole segment of the value chain, the highest share goes to them, not to traders and retailers,” he said.

TOGETHER. Women prepare the seaweed lines that they will later tie to floaters in deeper waters off the coast of Sitio Balintang in southern Palawan’s Quezon town. Photo by Keith Fabro
Exacerbating gender inequalities

Globally, studies show that women are more at risk of climate change than men. In Palawan’s farming sector, climate change is taking a toll on women’s mental health as they feel pressured to provide for their families amid the dwindling harvest.

“Whatever we don’t have at home, the pressure is on me,” said Gimotea. “I feel that my husband doesn’t care; for as long as he eats, watches television, and sleeps, he’s fine.”

The same sentiment was echoed by Daguia: “Women are more stressed because we’re expected to budget our small household income. If our husbands don’t have money, we’re the ones who find ways to provide for our family.”

Asuple’s husband from the Tagbanua indigenous group, meanwhile, managed to get a rural development degree by pawning the land he inherited from his deceased parents. He was employed at a local government-managed water district, but when the pandemic hit, the office downsized its employees, making him jobless.

Now, he relies on backyard labor jobs like grass weeding that comes once in a while, leaving Asuple distressed.

“We don’t have livelihood sources other than banana,” she said. “It’s hard to be a mother because you’re always home, unlike men, and your kids ask their needs from you.”

Diana Tica, a Tagbanua indigenous member, had been coughing and losing consciousness for weeks, but she was afraid to go to the doctor because of the medical expenses and the chance of getting diagnosed with COVID-19, so she went instead to a traditional healer.  

“Maybe it’s due to combined stresses from the changing climate that affects our banana produce to thinking about not having enough money to buy our household needs and support the schooling of my kids,” the 39-year-old mother of eight concluded.

Her husband has just been cleared of tuberculosis after a year of medication, during which she assumed the breadwinner role. “Now that he’s well, it’s I who has fallen sick.”

Castro of The Climate Reality Project said these local narratives only show that “the prevailing climate crisis is not gender-neutral.”

“It exacerbates current inequalities between men and women,” Castro said. “It adds another burden to women, on top of lacking access to land, healthcare and financial services, decision-making structures, technology training, and other opportunities.”

Climate and women’s rights advocates urge the government to “design and implement a rights-based approach to climate-proofing the agriculture sector,” a strategy highlighted by the IPCC as crucial in pursuing “climate resilient development.”

Castro said this means the government should “strengthen further its efforts in providing capacity building to women farmers, ensuring their meaningful participation in policymaking processes, and improving their access to key resources such as financing and technology.”

“Addressing gender-based inequalities is a prerequisite to addressing the impacts of the climate crisis on the agriculture sector,” she added. – Rappler.com

$1 = P56

This story was produced with support from the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Philippines, an international development program that promotes justice, economic opportunity, and human dignity through the rule of law.

(Editor’s note: All quotes have been translated from their original form to English.)

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