Sitangkai Seaweeds Export Co.: Seaweeds Rising in the Land Below the Wind
In this waterworld where there is more sea and reef than land, Tausug and Sama seaweed farmers smell the wind to determine seasons of harvest and rest. For them, there are only three seasons that matter; these are times when seaweeds are abundant. May to October is forgettable, a time of hunger and want.
Sitangkai, one of the municipalities of Tawi-Tawi, produces about half of the Philippine seaweed industry’s total output. It is the world’s biggest producer of seaweeds in one contained location, and recognized as the “Seaweed Capital of the Philippines” with most (80 percent) residents dependent on seaweed farming for livelihood.
The contrast jars in that despite Sitangkai’s contribution of an equivalent PhP2 billion annually to the country’s net dollar inflow; and in spite of the 3,000 metric tons of monthly harvest and the extremely hard work of around 20,000 farmers, the measly take-home is only around PhP1,750 per month.
The fact is, for all the titles, the seaweed farmers are still dirt poor. Potable water is imported from Sibutu, another island. Electricity is supplied by small generator sets for those who can afford these; for most, kerosene lamps are used for lighting with fuel brought from other islands. Tawi- Tawi islands are, thankfully, “below the wind,” or the people of Sitangkai, having very little arable land, would have starved if they failed to get food from the Sitangkai mainland and another island, Tandu Banak.
PRIME and organizing the seaweed farmers
In 2005, PDAP conducted community organizing in the area to prepare the seaweed farmers for its PRIME (Promoting Rural Industries and Market Enhancement) program. A “sunrise industry,” the potential for seaweed farming was huge then as it still is today For lack of capital and because of old or traditional farming practices, only about 10,000 hectares of the 60,000-hectare shallow reefs of Sitangkai have been farmed for three varieties of seaweeds, and the demand is still rising.
“The seaweeds industry is different,” says Grace Santos, PDAP Policy and Program Analysis Officer, “Big players control and monopolize the industry.”
Lacking in capital, small seaweed farmers, who cultivate an average of ¼ hectare each, are tied to traders who provide them with inputs and cultivars. “The wild seedlings that they have to cultivate in 35 to 45 days are expensive,” says Vangie Faburada, PDAP Project Officer, who helps organize the farmers.
“Literacy is low. Many cannot read nor write. They really have to be organized because they sell to different traders. Each pondohan is monopolized by a trader who dictates prices,” she adds.
“Pondohan,” traditionally a place for stopover or half-way houses, have evolved into villages-on-stilts constructed on shallow coral reef areas in the middle of the sea. They are near the seaweed farms and built from substandard construction materials.
Under PRIME, PDAP has already organized three pondohan, each with around 200 households. Since pondohan also double as drying areas for harvested seaweeds – often a piece of wood placed over bamboo which regularly threatens to overturn and capsize, and ruin almost dry seaweeds – PDAP provided funding support to construct three stilt dryers in each of the organized pondohan.
This crude drying technology passed on from farmer to farmer for generations and other similarly old or traditional practices caused many to believe that Sitangkai seaweeds are of poor quality because of their high moisture content and the presence of algae and other contaminants. This lowered the prices of the seaweeds compared to other islands such as Bongao or Panglima Sugala.
These, along with inadequate facilities during harvest and post-harvest, and the lack of cultivars that are adaptable and disease-resistant, are among the issues that bar the farmers from optimum level of production. Seaweed being the only source of income, farmers are pressured to desperately sell their produce on a daily basis. Farmers are also trapped in a feudal set-up with traders.
Given such a dire situation, PDAP’s support was a godsend.
PDAP provided technical support to the farmers to address the technology gap – increase production and improve quality to pass the standards of even the export market, and sustain the demand volume. A gene bank and three seaweeds nurseries were also constructed.
“Because of the poor quality of seedlings, they have a lesser harvest,” says Jolly Ahaja, President and owner of the Sitangkai Seaweeds Export Company (SITEXPORTS).
The Local Market Consolidator and democratizing trading
In 2005, Mr. Ahaja formed SITEXPORTS primarily to establish a foreign market for seaweeds, jack up the rates to give farmers a good price and set standards.
At the farmgate price of PhP30 per kilo, farmers sell the seaweeds to buying stations which keep them in stock a prescribed volume is collected.
SITEXPORTS buys the produce at PhP35 per kilo and initially exported 80 metric tons of the Sitangkai harvests in 2007 to Cargill, a French company.
To set acceptable standards and fair trading practices, PDAP started to consolidate the local traders and the organized farmers. “One of the innovations of PRIME is to try to democratize ownership, democratize trading,” relates Santos.
“We grouped the pondohan, organized them, and improved their capacities so they can participate in the decision-making because we’re facilitating the creation of a local market consolidator or LMC which is a corporation. Decisions on price and volume are not just made by traders but also by the small farmers. And because they are stockholders of the corporation they also have) gains from the trading,” she adds.
The LMC is composed of farmers with a 60% share, PDAP with 10% and traders with 30%.
“PDAP (with its 10% share in the LMC) serves as an equalizer between the seaweed farmers and traders,” says Ahaja.
Interestingly, under PRIME, the big, traditional players are not excluded. The LMC design will be expanded to include even what Ahaja calls, “the multinationals, the Chinese and other traditional traders. We need to strike a balance but I think that will make the program more sustainable. Also, so we don’t disturb the existing trading arrangements or practice.”
The expanded LMC (Sitangkai, Inc.) will facilitate the provision of production credit for seaweed farmers and small fisherfolk, market raw dried seaweeds and other mariculture products, and assist in other value-adding activities for these products.
To address the issue of buying stations or stockers being “middlemen,” the expanded LMC will establish stations to procure the farmers’ harvests.
The creation of an expanded LMC was prompted by the nature of the seaweed industry, which works like a cartel.
It is a recognition that as long as the seaweed value chain is directed to produce defined products for the big industries as the main market, farmers will always be at the mercy of processors.
Thus the need also for value-adding or product development for other processed products based on raw dried seaweeds (RDS).
With PRIME’s intervention, prices were stabilized at PhP40 per kilogram. With the cost of production at PhP15 to PhP20 per kilogram, the PhP40 buying price gives farmers enough capital for the next cropping (safety net).
Extreme price fluctuations also went down, from up to 50 percent to five to 10 percent during the early years of intervention.
But seaweed prices are still very much dictated by the whims of the global market.
In 2007, the high demand for RDS was such that prices shot up to PhP100 per kilogram. The high buying price spurred more people to take up seaweed farming, and existing farmers to increase their cultivated areas.
This led to production outstripping demand, pulling down prices to pre-PRIME levels of PhP20 per kilogram.
This is a key learning for PRIME.
Strategic visioning and the Sitangkai Seaweed Industry Masterplan
In August 2005, PDAP and several NGOs, farmers’ representatives and the municipal government held a workshop to develop a master plan for the Sitangkai seaweed industry.
The comprehensive plan has ten components, from Resource Tenure Improvement to Infrastructure, Communications and Transportation, among others.
“Basically, the master plan serves as an investment plan. If the government wants to develop a commodity, this is how to invest and how much,” explains Santos. “If this private sector player would like to contribute to the development, this is the intervention and the necessary budget allocation.”
One crucial element that PDAP will address through the master plan is to make farmers aware of their rights as farm claimants and make the system more responsive. Unlike land which can be owned as evidenced by a title, the tenurial status of tidal flats is a major problem.
Farmers brandish a “sulat,” (letter) a permit issued by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BFAR-ARMM) that entitles the holder to use a production area of one hectare.
A “sulat” holder pays an annual fee of PhP800 to renew the permit. But due to the distance to the nearest BFAR office and the cost of the permit, as well as the absence of on-ground delineation and database, farms get stolen and this has caused conflict among the seaweed farmers.
The conflict is usually resolved peacefully, the Sama people being traditionally non-violent and having forged good relationship over the years with the Tausug. Compared to neighboring Sulu, Tawi-Tawi is not plagued by chronic conflict.
Efforts may have now reached the industry level under PRIME but really, the Sitangkai story is all about small seaweed farmers keeping their heads above water in their beautiful land below the wind.
Story reblogged: © Copyright 2010 PDAP. All rights reserved. Website by 168 Media Creative.
The Partnership for Development Assistance in the Philippines Inc (formerly known as Philippine Development Assistance Programme, Inc.), started as a consortium of Filipino and Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs). It was founded in 1986 as a non-stock, non-profit organization, to become an effective instrument in reducing poverty and inequity in the Philippines. PDAP prides itself in having 6 member networks with more than 300 community-based members and partner NGOs. PDAP has distinguished itself in promoting and developing rural enterprises for poverty reduction and as a tool in promoting peace in conflict-affected areas.