In the Philippines, seaweed is giving former fishers a future

A woman collects seaweed from the beach in Bula, Philippines. (Biel Calderón)

The beaches of Bula, a small fishing district in southern Philippines, are perpetually covered by a layer of seaweed several centimetres thick. But unlike tourist beaches in other parts of the country, the presence of the seaweed poses no inconvenience to the area’s residents. It is, in fact, their way of life.

Many coastal communities in developing countries are using seaweed as a way to escape poverty thanks to the growing interest of international markets in this raw material. Seaweed thrives in warmer climates where a significant portion of the world’s developing countries are concentrated.

“Seaweed can be up to four times more productive in Indonesia than in Japan,” says Joni Jupesta, who holds a PhD in management science and technology, and studies the use of seaweed in Indonesia. According to the expert, the process of photosynthesis is more efficient in this part of the world due to the degree of incidence of the sun’s rays. “That’s why more and more communities in the equatorial zone are producing it,” he explains.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have joined traditional producer countries like China, Japan and the two Koreas as the world’s primary producers of seaweed. The report also states that developing countries in other parts of the world, such as Morocco and Tanzania, are also encouraging development in the sector.

In Bula, seaweed came to the community’s rescue after the once abundant tuna began to disappear from the region’s waters.

A 2010 change to environmental regulations requiring the installation of new fishing equipment was the final blow. “It required a very high investment to change all of our gear to keep fishing,” says Leony D. Gempero, secretary of the Bula Seaweed Farmers Association.

In their search for solutions, local fishers heard about another community in Zamboanga, roughly 600 kilometres from Bula, where seaweed farming had replaced fishing boats. “We decided to try it out here and discovered that the water temperature was conducive to cultivation and that the seaweed grew quickly,” explains Gempero. Since none of them had land of their own, the water was their only way to grow anything.

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Euginia Agui decided to join the group of seaweed farmers that had just formed in the village and learn how to grow. She and her husband built a simple structure consisting of plastic tubes, ropes and nets to protect the seaweed as it grew. Now, she has a crop every month that she can sell at the local market or, sometimes, export to countries like Japan and South Korea. “With the seaweed, your income is assured. When you fish you can go out and come back empty handed,” says Agui.

And there are other advantages to seaweed farming. “I prefer seaweed because it’s safer. We don’t have to go out onto the high sea where anything can happen,” says Agui. Her husband continues to fish from time to time “because he enjoys it,” but she no longer accompanies him as she used to, preferring to stay in Bula to look after the seaweed.

Like Agui, another 90 families in the district now live from the cultivation of three different types of seaweed. “The number has grown rapidly over the last few years because many families have seen the advantages and we’ve provided training on how to grow seaweed,” explains Gempero. Today, they help other nearby communities to get started in the industry and develop new products for market. “Most of us still sell it unprocessed but now we also make biscuits, jam and noodles,” says Gempero.

An industry on the rise

The seaweed grown in Bula is practically guaranteed buyers. International markets have shown growing interest in the raw material over the last few years and, according to the FAO, “global production of farmed aquatic plants, overwhelmingly dominated by seaweeds, grew in output volume from 13.5 million tonnes in 1995 to just over 30 million tonnes in 2016.”

According to a report by consulting firm Report Linker, the industry reached US$9.9 billion (€8.85 billion) in 2018 and is projected to grow by seven per cent by 2024. As the report explains, this growth is primarily due to the food industry, particularly nutritional supplements, which are increasingly used as substitutes for animal products like meat and fish. They are also increasingly being used in pharmaceutical products, including in the development of cancer treatments.

While the food and pharmaceutical industries are the primary destinations for the seaweed produced in Bula, where it is sent to nearby factories for processing or directly to Japan for consumption, it is also increasingly destined for use in biofuels.

“Seaweed offers an attractive alternative to other biofuels and can become a resource for these communities,” says Jupesta, who argues that, unlike other biofuels, seaweed does not directly compete for land with food crops or native forests. The boom in the so-called first generation of biofuels, made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil, generated significant controversy due to resulting deforestation.

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According to a study on the use of algae biofuel as a way to improve the lives of people in developing countries, this sector could also reduce energy dependency in regions with favourable climatic conditions: “The favourable growing conditions found in many developing countries has led to a great deal of speculation about their potentials for reducing oil imports, stimulating rural economies, and even tackling hunger and poverty.” However, as the study notes, many of these countries do not have the necessary human resources and have not implemented the necessary policies to make algae biofuel a priority energy source. “No government in south-east Asia is seriously investing in the sector,” adds Jupesta.

Some scientists also advocate for its use as a carbon sequestration tool to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the current climate crisis. And, unlike reforestation, seaweed does not compete with food crops for land, so its production would not affect food prices.

Although the possibility of farming without land is seen as one of the main advantages of seaweed, as Jupesta explains, it can also have disadvantages: “The sea is harder to control. It’s not like land. There are no owners. So you can be robbed more easily.”

Bula has yet to face this problem and the community takes care of the seaweed. “Here we all work together to ensure that business goes well,” says Gempero. “Seaweed has given us a future.”

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