Some parts of the Philippines have seen an average rise in incomes fail to affect severe poverty – better opportunities to grow seaweed that can be fixed by policy choices may be the key ingredient for these communities, Edo Andriesse writes.
Growing seaweed has become an important source of income in archipelagic Southeast Asia.
Seaweed thrives in the clean coastal waters of Indonesia and the Philippines, and as such, the Philippines has moved up the value chain and is a global leader in refining seaweed into carrageenan, a thickener widely used in food and pharmaceutical products.
This has allowed low-income coastal communities that rely on fishing to enter the global seaweed chain, and benefited tens of thousands of households. Still, this shift can be better harnessed to improve livelihoods in these communities.
My recent Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies article compared two Philippine municipalities in Iloilo Province that cultivate seaweed. It demonstrates that sustaining this success and harnessing its potential to improve economic wellbeing is challenging, and policies that seek to do so should be seriously re-evaluated in areas with unfavourable conditions.
For my research, I conducted fieldwork in the municipalities of Estancia and San Dionisio in the northern part of Iloilo Province.
It surveyed the same 45 seaweed growers in 2015, 2018, and 2019 and involved semi-structured interviews with key informants in both municipalities. The research reveals highly diverging outcomes: growth and success in the municipality of San Dionisio, but failure in the municipality of Estancia, where most households have returned to fishing as their major source of income.
Cleaner coastal waters, a diversified socio-economic situation, and the presence of an enabling local coastal governance structure have all contributed to a virtuous seaweed production cycle in San Dionisio.
Most seaweed growers there make enough money to buy high-quality seedlings. Monthly household incomes rose between early 2015 and mid-2019 and several households managed to raise their income beyond the national food threshold – the income level necessary to get access to sufficient calories for a family of five.
Conditions in San Dionisio have been more conducive not only to seaweed success but diversification more generally: there is more agricultural land available to cultivate, people tend to be better educated, and local politics has been relatively enabling.
In contrast, the trend in Estancia has been one of a continuation of severe poverty despite an average rise in incomes. The loss of seaweed opportunities meant a return to fishing and to a mood of daily survival rather than the ability to plan and work towards future prosperity.
Diversification toward seaweed is challenging as the area’s fishponds are owned by a longstanding landowning family. The majority of seaweed growers do not own any land and have used the coastal area with tacit approval from landowners and the local government.
In Estancia, residents compensated for their loss in seaweed income by seeking jobs elsewhere and with increasing dependency on the Philippine conditional cash transfer program. Many respondents in Estancia argued that it was difficult to find jobs in Iloilo City, other cities, or abroad because of a lack of education. By contrast, households in San Dionisio benefited from outmigration in their community.
These findings have three key implications.
The first concerns the relationships between marine upstream value chains, collective action, and local coastal governance.
In San Dionisio, the seaweed association has thrived and become more active in recent years, an area where Estancia has been ineffective.
In places like Estancia, government agencies and non-governmental organisations could consider the facilitation of alternative forms of engagements that seek to strengthen local social capital formation and increase opportunities
Second, in areas where geography reduces the chance of successful aquaculture, they could explore inclusive marine-protected areas more closely.
They are not likely to achieve success in the short term, but when land-related limitations are difficult to overcome, it might be more effective to focus on marine spaces. Not every coastal locality is suitable for growing fruits, vegetables, or staple crops.
Third, while providing public housing in areas with serious climate-related risks has been beneficial during extreme weather events such as Super Typhoon Yolanda, it has not had enough of an impact on livelihoods. Without additional income-generating opportunities, public housing alone will not be effective.
Conditional cash transfer programs are more promising, but policymakers should consider introducing novel programs and incentives to adapt to climate change impacts.
A longitudinal, localised, and comparative study has proven useful for understanding the effectiveness of initiatives aimed at inclusive value chains and reducing overfishing. As a result of unpredictable climate change impacts, the Philippines must formulate flexible policies that do not bet on a single product to improve living standards.
This article is published in partnership with Devpolicy Blog. It is based on an article in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, ‘Local divergence and obstacles to spur inclusive coastal development in Iloilo Province, the Philippines’, by Edo Andriesse. All articles in the journal are free to read and download.