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Seaweed serves up a solution to climate woes

How a healthy, ecologically friendly dish from the sea is helping island communities weather ever more ferocious storms.

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 on Ilin island, which lies just south of the much larger Philippine 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 Villasinohas become increasingly challenging in recent years. They are coping with a more volatile climate, less predictable weather patterns and more severe stormslike 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 seaweed before the typhoons hit and we relocated them closer to the shore,” says Gerlyn Villasino. “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 bangkaRonnie 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, Typhoon Phanfone, known locally as Typhoon Ursula, wiped out their entire operation.  | Photo: Alecs Ongcal/IFRC

‘Washed away’

In just a few days, people lost their homes and an entire community lost its main livelihood, says Marielle Ramos, 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 a bangka and 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 livelihood programme managed by the Philippine Red 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 at getting eligible seaweed farmers the capital they need to settle debts, buseedling for the next season and replace damaged boats, ropes and equipment.  

Decisions about who to help happen at the local level, through community recovery committee, with oversight from the Red Cross. This way, the community is invested in the process and can ensure those most in need get the kind of support they need 

“It’s been a great help,” says Lorilyn Ermino Villasino, a member of local recovery committee. “Some of the farmers really had nothing left.”  

For Ronnie and Gerlyn Villasino, 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 Gerlyn Villasino. “Now, we’ve sold the seaweed we harvested, so we can buy more seaweeds to plant.

Around the Philippines, seaweeds are used in noodle soupsceviche, and even jelly dessertsHere, Lorilyn Ermino Villasino, a member of 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

Recipes for Resilience: Atsara (Pickled Seaweed)  

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Cookbook for resilience

Do you have a taste for innovative solutions that help people get through crisis, that provide comfort after a storm, or that offer a lifeline to those who might be otherwise left out? If so, you will love these four Recipes for Resilience, and the stories behind them.

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