HINATUAN, Surigao del Sur -- The People Unite to Guard Aqua Marine Wealth Inc. (PUGAW Inc.) undoubtedly lives up to its name. Unified under the purpose of defending aquatic resources, PUGAW Inc. boasts a thriving and dynamic community of seaweed farmers and producers.
Throughout its history, PUGAW Inc. has exemplified an intimate relationship with nature. Its roots can be traced back to the conservation of mangrove forests and the protection of coastal resources from illegal fishermen. In 1998, in search of a secure livelihood, the organization began exploring seaweed farming. Since then, it has grown to 262 members, 160 of which are active seaweed growers.
Based in Hinatuan, the municipality with the largest production area among the coastal municipalities of Surigao del Sur, PUGAW Inc. with immense potential for growth was hindered by fluctuating prices and a lack of access to capital and quality seedlings.
“Before, our seaweed production was on and off. The maximum number of lines of seaweed per person was 10 lines, some would have only 5 lines. This was accompanied by low prices, especially since buyers would often manipulate these prices to their advantage. Before, seaweed production alone could not have sustained us and our families,” shares Bonifacia G. Bughao, Manager for PUGAW Inc.
In December 2022, through the Department of Agriculture — Philippine Rural Development Project (DA-PRDP), 80 direct beneficiaries were given 45 cultivating lines each, expanding their livelihoods and increasing their incomes.
Henrito S. Dinagay, a seaweed farmer and member of PUGAW Inc., struggled with a meager income due to inadequate seedlings, a lack of capital, and unstable prices. With the 45 additional cultivating lines from PRDP, he now earns up to P60,000 per harvest. With 4 production cycles in a year, if he fully harvests his cultivating lines, he is set to earn P240,000 annually, an improvement from the annual average income of P180,147.
Apart from the cultivating lines, PUGAW Inc. received farm implements and inputs in the form of propagules, polyethylene ropes, and soft ties, as well as financial assistance totaling P1.1 million. To assist in PUGAW Inc. post-harvest operations, PRDP also turned over heavy-duty weighing scales, a refractometer, and a three-wheel cargo vehicle for the transportation of their raw dried seaweeds.
The subproject, whose cost totals P10,517,100.73, is set to be completed by June 30, 2023.
Job generation and food-secure families
An immediate effect of expanded production has been the creation of new jobs for community members. With 45 more lines of seaweed to tend to, farmers now employ more on-call workers. Increased income has also led to more food-secure families within the community.
On-call workers often come from diverse backgrounds, with an entire household (from nanay to ate to tatay to kuya) finding a role they can fit into within the whole process of seaweed production. The entire process is, in its very nature, communal. Within the confines of the project, the association has employed an additional eleven workers to assist with its expansion.
“With more production comes more income and more families that become food-secure. Neighboring households who are not part of the association also benefit from the project through employment,” shares Bughao.
From an annual income of P73,075, the association's earnings have increased to P553,450 in February alone.
An enduring relationship with nature
While PUGAW Inc. sources its livelihood from the sea, it has, throughout the years, nourished this relationship by ensuring that the whole process of seaweed production is environmentally sustainable. In fact, much of what PUGAW Inc. does is connected to the protection of aquatic resources.
"There is a big connection between environmental protection and our livelihoods. By protecting the environment through mangrove conservation, our seaweed farms thrive as mangroves filter the dirt that goes into our farms. When our livelihoods thrive, so do our members," shares Bughao.
Spending their mornings at sea during the peak season, the association abides by the age-old adage to 'leave no trace'. Ties and floaters used in seaweed farming are retrieved and disposed of in the barangay's Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), ensuring clean and undisturbed seas.
These conservation efforts do not begin and end at PUGAW Inc.. Recently, they have started facilitating Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) activities in Hinatuan's coastal barangays, even reaching as far as the municipality of Marihatag in Surigao del Sur.
The path moving forward
While PUGAW Inc. has reached a comfortable point in its production, going from an annual volume of 7,431 kilograms to 5,534 kilograms in February alone, the association carries high hopes and plans to look into the future.
Currently, the association has marketing agreements with three identified buyers: Jimmy Simbajon, local consolidator Gina Villarino, and Deepsea Philippines.
Seeking out new opportunities for expansion, the association has begun exploring possibilities in value-adding processes for their seaweeds, including processing raw dried seaweeds into seaweed noodles, crackers, and puto.
"PUGAW Inc. is focused on constant improvement. They are not content with just being comfortable and are actively looking for ways to improve their livelihoods," says Emilio Filosofo, Agricultural Technologist (AT) and designated municipal PRDP focal person.
"We hope to increase our membership so more community members can be given a secure livelihood. Our main aspiration is to become one of the top seaweed producers in the country," says Bughao. (Nichole Talatala, DA-PRDP13 InfoACE/PIA-Surigao del Sur)