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PHILIPPINES: Fish Farming to Reduce Protein Deficiency in Uplands

MANILA, May 19 2009 (IPS) - Like most upland dwellers in the Philippines, the Higaonon indigenous people in the southern town of Sumilao are living in extreme poverty. There are no jobs available and members of the tribe barely scrap by on subsistence farming, mainly root crops.

Ironically, despite being a farming community, they have to do without access to a variety of food, and without any balance in their diet. Fish and meat is almost unavailable except for culled animals which are unfit for human consumption. They are supposed to be disposed of, but unscrupulous traders sell them cheaply to upland inhabitants.

Around the Philippines, millions of those living in the uplands, a number of them indigenous peoples, suffer from malnutrition, government neglect, lack of development in their communities, and lack of access to safe, low-cost food.

Nutritionists and education experts say mental development is affected as a result of the lack of protein and balance in the diet of people in the uplands. Among children, this causes lower IQs, poor school attendance and shorter attention spans. They are prone to repeat grades, drop out of school or underperform, the Department of Education noted in its Education for All report.

“Fish is abundant in the Philippines and is the cheapest source of protein in the country, thanks to advances made in aquaculture, especially tilapia breeding,” said environmentalist Aquilino Alvarez, a fish food expert.

But fish rarely reaches the tables of uplands people, because of their remote locations and distance from the sea.

“In fact, a number of tribesmen confided they haven’t seen the sea yet,” says Marie Ann Baula, the mayor of Sumilao, which is in Bukidnon province on the southern island of Mindanao.

“Remoteness ensures that fish is about 50 percent more expensive in the uplands, thus putting it beyond the reach of most upland dwellers,” she added.

But in an innovative strategy, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has come up with a project that will address the protein needs of upland dwellers, while fighting poverty through fish farming.

Called the Fish for Upland Dwellers project or FishFUD, the project is now being pilot-tested in the upland tribal community of the Higaonons, one of the numerous indigenous tribes in Mindanao. Some 300 to 400 families will initially benefit from the pilot programme.

“FishFUD is a good pro-poor project,” said BFAR Director Malcolm Sarmiento. “It will improve access to food, and will also provide them with livelihood income. The project is the first major investment for an indigenous peoples’ community anywhere in the country, and will go a long way towards securing a better deal for them through the wonders of modern aquaculture technology.”

Alvarez adds, “It is also government’s way of addressing three pressing issues in the upland settlements: food insufficiency, inadequate livelihood opportunities and lack of economic incentives to practice sustainable stewardship of forest resources.”

Dual strategy

The project is two-pronged: one part in the lowlands and another in the highlands, thus increasing its chances for success.

In the lowland component, BFAR gave the Higaonons, through the Sumilao Tribal Council, a standard 10 x 10 sq. metre floating fish cage which could yield seven metric tons of milkfish every three months.

The cage is located in the 200-hectare “mariculture” – fish farming in the open ocean – park in Balingasag, some 50 kilometres from Sumilao. BFAR also donated 15,000 bangus or milkfish fingerlings, which were distributed by President Gloria Arroyo herself during a Mar. 20 visit to Balingasag.

The San Miguel Corporation, Southeast Asia’s largest food and drinks firm, provided the feed.

The East Asian Seas and Terrestrial Initiatives, Inc. (EASTI), an NGO, and two social entrepreneurship advocacy groups, the Manila-based Soup of the Day and the Bukidnon-based Lumad Mindanao Social Enterprise, Inc. have volunteered to help the tribal beneficiaries manage the project profitably.

The other component is a communal fish pond that will be established in the uplands community and stocked with either tilapia or catfish.

As part of the strategy, participants will be taught to incorporate value-added features, such as processing the fish into dried or smoke fish, which command higher market prices.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is reportedly excited about the initiative because it will support its own project involving “ridge to reef” connection advocacy. The project is expected to further encourage the Higaonons to protect their environment, since sustainability of the venture is heavily dependent on the health of the local environment.

According to Alvarez, the Samdhana Institute, a funding institution with ties to IUCN, is in fact financing the training component of the FishFUD Project.

Only the mariculture component is operating at the moment, but a BFAR team is already looking at the Sumilao area for natural water impounding ponds or water-logged areas to determine the best site to establish the fish pond.

Fish ponds are rare in the highlands due to difficulty in tapping water sources and the lack of support infrastructure for doing so. In this case, there are three or four rivers and streams in the area that could be tapped for the project.

BFAR is already taking a look at expanding FishFUD to other upland communities, specifically in the Cordillera region of the northern island of Luzon, and the island of Mindoro just south of Luzon.

Papua New Guinea, which signed a memorandum of agreement with the Philippines last month for wide-ranging bilateral fishery cooperation, is reportedly interested in implementing the same strategy among its numerous indigenous communities.

Response to climate change

BFAR is also pushing mariculture to encourage fisherfolk to farm rather than simply to fish, which is causing the depletion of fish stocks. The mariculture park is basically like an industrial park, except that the locators are involved in fish farming in the sea.

There are currently 34 mariculture parks all over the Philippines, with the 500-hectare park in Panabo City being the biggest.

Sarmiento considers mariculture a good adaptation to climate change. “The changing climate basically will affect wild catch, thus the impact will be greater on small fisherfolk,” said the BFAR official.

He also emphasised that it is environmentally friendly, since it makes possible the raising of fish without having to cut a single mangrove tree. And for investors, mariculture is much cheaper than fish ponds, as a 10×10 sea cage made of steel GI pipes will cost only 150,000 to 200,000 pesos (3,167-4,223 dollars), compared to one million pesos (21,116 dollars) per hectare of fish pond. Bamboo cages are even cheaper, costing only 90,000 pesos (1,900 dollars) each.

And the best part is that a 10×10 fish cage can yield seven to eight metric tons of milkfish every three-month production cycle, compared to just 2.5 metric tons that can be harvested from a hectare of fish pond every four months. With mariculture, a locator can easily recover the investment on milkfish in less than a year.

The choice of species is limited to what fingerlings are available which is why locators often settle for milkfish. But the most prized are lapu-lapu and sea bass. The end-product is sold mostly in nearby cities such as Cagayan de Oro, Davao and Cebu.

Sarmiento downplays fears that mariculture will led to environmental problems. He says that with continuous and close monitoring, the practice is actually sustainable.

BFAR has set a limit of 10 cages per hectare to prevent overcrowding and environmental problems like those experienced in Bolinao, on the western side of the island of Luzon, where there are 15 cages per hectare.

The mariculture area in Balingasag, where there are currently 193 fish cages, could hold a total of around 2,000 cages. The one-year contracts for leasing cages are renewable.

As for the Higaonons, they say the venture is an enriching experience.

Sarmiento says “This is not surprising considering it is the first time they will manage their own business and earn big time. Although part of the proceeds should go to ensuring the continuous purchase of fingerlings and feed for the sustainability of the project, the remainder of the profits will enable them to carry out development-oriented projects in support of their quest for economic emancipation and cultural preservation.”

According to records, the Higaonons were actually living along the coast before the Spaniards came. But they were slowly pushed to the safety of remote areas in the highlands by Spanish colonisers, and in the process they were completely marginalised.

Alvarez believes “this project is some sort of going back to their roots and correcting the injustice that has blighted them for centuries.”

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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