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With seaweed and solidarity, Filipinas reduce disaster risks

By Elizabeth Stevens
Cherry Ann Boleche, founder and president of the Cagaut Women’s Association, attaches a fresh branch of seaweed to the fishing line at their plantation. “The seaweed helps the fish,” she says, “and it provides a breeding ground for octopus and squid.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

In impoverished villages of Eastern Samar, the Philippines, Oxfam and partners are helping at-risk communities improve their security.

Severa Abulencia navigates her motorized canoe expertly along a coastal river in Salcedo and out into the Leyte Gulf to a spot where rows of empty soda bottles bob on the waves. On a sunny day, this is a tranquil place, but when cyclones approach the Philippines, they often strike here on the coast of Eastern Samar. Which is why Oxfam and partner PRRM (the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement) have been helping a local women’s group develop a stormproof way to earn a living: growing seaweed.

The Cagaut Women’s Organization has created a seaweed plantation in the middle of the gulf, but soda bottles are all you can see of it. They serve as floats for long strands of fishing line, which are secured to the ocean floor with corner poles and sandbags. The women tie young branches of Eucheuma seaweed to the fishing line, and visit them each day to clean off debris and silt. When a storm approaches, they can drop the lines below the waves to prevent damage, but even if something breaks, every part of the apparatus is easy to replace.

Just two or three months after planting, the seaweed will be ready for harvest.

Most of what the women sell ends up as manufactured goods like toothpaste and cosmetics—appearing as carrageenan—but some they’ll turn into pickles, candy, and vegetarian gelatin to sell on the streets. Meanwhile, they’re buying seaweed from other local growers so they have more to sell and more leverage when it comes to negotiating their price.

“Thanks to this project, I was able to send my child to school and buy food for the family,” says member Marilyn Isko.

“I’ve been able to send four children to elementary and high school,” says Lara Abud, another member.

The association got its start in 2013 as an advocacy group that helped shut down illegal mining of chromite—a mineral used in making stainless steel and chrome plating—which was damaging the local environment. Now, it focuses on improving women’s livelihoods. Repeated disasters have a way of keeping poor people poor, but these women are fighting hard to improve their economic security. In addition to growing seaweed, they’ve formed a savings group so they can provide their members with low-interest loans to meet urgent needs or invest in their own small enterprises. And they’re engaged in a host of small businesses: they’ve raised and sold more than 5,000 mangrove seedlings, their members process and sell dried fish, and every day someone takes a turn at their sewing machine to craft slippers and curtains for sale.

Oxfam and PRRM have been helping them with the mangrove, fish-drying, and seaweed projects, providing technical training on seaweed cultivation and processing; workshops on financial literacy and how to run a business; boat and accident insurance; and electronic cards that enable the women to deposit their savings, connect with insurance and micro-credit providers, receive cash transfers in emergencies, and more. Another Oxfam partner—the Center for Disaster Preparedness—has given them trainings in disaster management, including emergency response. Our goal? Help reduce the risks that disasters pose to the lives, incomes, and well-being of people living in vulnerable communities.

More than money

The women have plans for the future. They’re negotiating with authorities to expand their plantation, and they intend to take on a bigger role as seaweed traders; they’re also exploring new ways to process the seaweed themselves. But the association is not all about business: the group has given its members a chance to build friendships and alliances with other women.

“Before, we would stay at home. We knew one another but didn’t talk about things that were bothering us,” says Abud. “Now, if I have a problem, I have someone to talk to. The other women help me and give me advice.”

They’ve even created an emergency fund to help members weather health crises.

“If someone has a problem, the other members of the group help her deal with it,” says member Relly Perez. “We are united.”

The ever-present threat of disasters combined with struggles to meet the most basic needs of their families could make life a misery for the residents of Cagaut, but these women have a vision, and the will to realize it. And if you listen to their easy talk and laughter, you sense something else: the confidence that comes with knowing someone has your back.

Oxfam is working to strengthen the communities, organizations, and governments in many of the countries in the world that are most vulnerable to disasters—enhancing their capacity not only to carry out humanitarian programming but also to lead and coordinate their efforts. Learn more about our Local Humanitarian Leadership initiative.

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