Every morning, Ronnie and Gerlyn Villasino get in their narrow canoe-like boat (known as a bangka) and paddle out to tend their crops in the shallow waters just off shore from their beach-side home.
Like many onIlin island, which lies just south of the much largerPhilippine island of Mindoro, the Villasinos plant, harvest, dry and sell a variety of seaweeds. These salty, tasty plants are not only culinary delicacies — used in salads, pickled dishes and seafood soups — they are key ingredients in a multitude of commercial products, from ice cream to shampoo.
But life for many land and sea-based farmers like the Villasinos has become increasingly challenging in recent years. They are coping with a more volatile climate, less predictable weather patterns and more severe storms, like last year’s Typhoon Phanfone (or Ursula, as it’s called here),which wiped out nearly all the island’s seaweed beds.
“Our farm has survived typhoons many times because my husband collected the seaweedbefore the typhoons hit and we relocatedthem closer to the shore,” saysGerlynVillasino. “But on December 25 last year, when our seaweeds were maturing,Typhoon Ursula came and our seaweed beds were washed away.”
Homes were destroyed. Boats where wrecked. The thousands of meters of ropes to which the farmers attach the seaweeds were swept out to sea.
With this small canoe-like craft, called a bangka, Ronnie and Gerlyn Villasino tend a seaweed farm that is their key livelihood. Unpredictable weather patterns and more extreme storms are making life a lot tougher, however. In December 2019, TyphoonPhanfone, known locally as Typhoon Ursula, wiped out their entire operation. | Photo: Alecs Ongcal/IFRC
In just a few days, people lost their homes andan entire community lost its main livelihood, says Marielle Ramos, a volunteer for the Philippine Red Cross on Ilin Island. “Just like the people who live on these islands, the seaweeds they farmed were washed away,” says Ramos, who joined other local Red Cross volunteers in helping the community recover.
The problem is that, like many land-based farms, seaweed farmers borrow money at the beginning of each season to buy the seedlings they need to plant their crops. Many farmers ended the 2019 season with no crops and in debt, meaning no one would loan them the money needed to replant.
“Our farm actually survived typhoons many times because my husband collected the seaweeds before the typhoons hit … But on December 25 last year, when our seaweeds were maturing, typhoon Ursula came and our seaweed beds were washed away.”
Seaweed farmer Gerlyn Villasino
Every morning, the Villasinos set out to sea in their small, two-person craft, called abangkaand begin laying ropes with seaweed cuttings. Or,they tend the crops they’ve already planted.The Villasinos’ seaweed farm is now back on track following support from a livelihoodprogramme managed by the PhilippineRed Cross and a local recovery committee (supported by the IFRC). | Photo: Alecs Ongcal/IFRC
A new approach
At this point, it became clear to the Philippines Red Cross these island communities would need more than emergency food deliveries. A key part of that recovery plan, therefore, was livelihood assistance through conditional cash grants aimed atgetting eligible seaweed farmers the capital they need to settle debts, buy seedling for the next season and replace damaged boats, ropes and equipment.
Decisions about who to help happen at the local level, through a community recovery committee, with oversight from the Red Cross. This way,the community is invested in the process andcan ensure those most in need getthe kind of support they need.
“It’s been a great help,” says LorilynErminoVillasino, a member of local recovery committee. “Some of the farmers really had nothing left.”
For Ronnie and GerlynVillasino, the grants were a lifeline, allowing them to buy 250 kilograms of seedlings, as well as goats and other supplies that help them survive at a time when Covid-19 is also crippling the local economy. “The money we used to buy the seaweeds came from the Red Cross,” says GerlynVillasino.“Now, we’ve sold the seaweed weharvested,so we can buy more seaweeds to plant.”
Around the Philippines, seaweeds are used in noodle soups, ceviche, and even jelly desserts. Here, LorilynErminoVillasino, a member of a local recovery committee, prepares atsara, a saucy salad of carrots, vinegar, pineapple juice, onions, bell pepper and, of course, seaweed. “I wish more people would discover the many uses of seaweeds,”Lorilyn says. | Photo: Alecs Ongcal/IFRC
Migrants and refugees know what it means to be cut off from society, and from their loved ones and cultures far away. At a time defined by separation, let’s listen to what they have to say about coping and connecting in the age of Covid-19.