I’ve shared a lot of words and photos about cultural and outdoor adventures as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. I’ve yet to share a lot of specifics about the actually coastal resource management (CRM) work in Biliran, and in ways this has been the greatest adventure as an international volunteer. A humbling, eye-opening, wonderful, dramatic, and at times stressful adventure. It has so far tested my patience, my ability to listen, my notions of time and urgency, my positive attitude, and has made me realize the important differences between simply doing a job to get it done, and doing a job well.
This idea has become a focal point of my service. It’s one thing to go through the day, registering fisherfolk, assessing corals, writing down the information in spreadsheets, going through the motions of the job. You’ll finish and say, yes I did that, we checked that box, I was there when that happened. It is a whole different thing to want to do the job well with care, intention, and enjoy yourself while you’re doing it. The Peace Corps experience, especially being stationed in an smaller island province, lends itself to situations where your mind is thinking of other places and other people. That being considered, I’ve found the most reward, the most success, the most happiness in the work here that I’ve gone “full in” on. The work that I’ve been fully engaged with on both a physical and emotional level.
The first days at site were overwhelming. There wasn’t any coastal resource data or any CRM program. I spent some necessary time assessing the municipality’s situation, making courtesy calls and getting to know important people such as the Mayor, Barangay Captains, and the various government committees. I went to two trainings related to disaster management, and began accumulating as much information regarding the coast and fisheries sector as possible. Another initial step was also meeting with fisherfolk in the fishing villages to understand their major livelihood problems and gather information related to natural resources and Almeria’s fishery. Essentially it was a time of listening, a time where I raced to improve my Bisaya, and a time when my love and passion for these fishing villages started to take root. I found that fisherfolk were facing challenges ranging from low fish catches to not having boats, from climate change or pollution- caused issues like red tide to reefs destroyed from illegal dynamite fishing. There were (are) so many problems, some that can be locally addressed and some that are derived from global trends in weather, climate, and ocean waters. I was slightly overwhelmed and people were asking for my help, wanting money, ideas, solutions. Any notions of calm fisherfolk registration and reef assessments began to dissolve. Thoughts of a chill island life? Vanishing. I took a step back, wrote out everything I knew about the municipality’s coastal situation, and came out with two documents. One document took a close look at the potential to rehabilitate a fish sanctuary. The other assessed the major CRM issues, summarized the situation of the municipality’s fisherfolk, and acknowledged what information we DID have regarding our mangroves, seagrasses, reef, and fish stock (we had a small bit of information from over a decade ago). This document highlighted the various steps and directions our office could take toward developing a CRM program. Okay. Breathe. Everything is a step, a piece of a whole.
The first order of business was to organize fisherfolk and farmers in the coastal fishing villages into councils. Organizing these groups into what is known as Barangay Agricultural and Fishery Councils (BAFC) allows fisherfolk to work more closely with the Department of Agriculture and serves to create a team for potential livelihood projects and focus group discussions. We made visits to the Barangay Councils, requested a meeting of fisherfolks and farmers, and then met with them to see if they wanted to organize. There were many meetings, sometimes people didn’t show up, but after months of work all the coastal barangays in Almeria have BAFCs. Most times I had help with folks from the office, a couple of times my work partners were busy and I had to stagger through organizing meetings in the local dialect of Bisaya. Perhaps it wasn’t super smooth but for my confidence it was a big win to be able to communicate the importance of fisherfolk organizing, women’s participation and engagement, and livelihood issues in the local language. In all honesty, the ongoing sustainability of these councils is questionable, but we’ve already learned a lot from them about challenges, needs, and goals related to their livelihoods and coastal resources.
With Almeria being a 5th class municipality with no existing Coastal Resource Management program, I quickly realized that the likelihood of receiving funds for large Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments (PCRA) would be small. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has been pushing for a more province-wide focus in coastal resource conservation, but some municipalities are of course prioritized due to their existing programs. I’ve helped out quit a bit in other municipalities with Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments, leading assessment team for seagrass, mangrove, and coral reefs. I’ve learned that Field work with fisherfolk is rewarding, inspiring, difficult, and only successful through solid communication and relationship building. In any case, it seemed my own site’s CRM program needed a little bit of a jumpstart, and so I proposed a Manta Tow Assessment which is faster and cheaper that a full PCRA. Essentially a Manta Tow is where a person with a snorkel is pulled behind a slow moving boat, allowing them to estimate soft and hard coral cover, seagrass, fish population, and bottom substrate. My idea was based on a Manta Tow in the area from 2004. If we can return to the areas of the previous data from 12 years ago we can compare data and look at trends over the last decade. This should also give us a good idea of priority areas for conservation and for future, more in-depth assessments.
Focus Group Discussions
Socioeconomic focus group discussions are usually part of a PCRA. A young employee from BFAR suggested to me that they needed my help to run a few focus groups in the coastal barangays to collect fisherfolk livelihood information. I paired BFAR requirements with activities from PCRA discussions, mostly aspects related to fish catch trends over the years and seasonal trends in fishing and weather. We also collaborated together to form a socioeconomic questionnaire focused on perspectives on coastal resources, livelihood issues, and community problems/solutions. We have finished one, which means we have seven more coastal barangays to go. The first had over 50 people, too many for a focus group, but it was exciting that a women’s group attended and there was more than 50% female participation.
Each year Peace Corps Volunteers around the world engage members of their respective communities in a writing competitions. Students or even community members sit down for an hour and respond to prompts. When reading over the essays volunteers look for imaginative story telling and creativity, grammar and spelling isn’t considered important. The idea is to inspire writing and storytelling. I was really happy to host a Write-On Competition in Almeria, with 25 students from 7th to 10th grade.
I’ve recently been selected to be a part of the Peace Corps Philippines Diversity Committee. Div Com works with staff to provide diversity training for volunteers and trainees as well as facilitates ongoing diversity related projects for promoting cultural understanding and collaboration. I’m really excited to work with the last year’s Div Com members as well as the newly selected people from my own batch. Differences in culture and beliefs are the crux of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, perhaps even more than the environmental work, and Div Com will allow me to work toward a Peace Corps experience that is more tolerant, accepting, safe, and that best represents the United States as well as our own unique individualism.
What else? Oh yeah, I’m also growing hundreds of papaya seedlings and giving them to whoever wants them. This isn’t a Peace Corps project, but I was curious about growing papaya and so I consumed some (lami kaayo!), dried the seeds, and planted them in different substrates to learn what worked best for future plantings. Some of the papaya are almost half a foot tall already, and I’m giving them out to friends, coworkers, my host family, and anyone else that wants them. In my mind I though, the community can eat from these trees after I leave, a little going away gift back to a wonderful place. Ha! The first person in my office I said something similar to chuckled and told me that I could eat the papaya with them. Papaya grows fast, and I was told they could be bearing fruit as soon as 10 months. Oh…
cheers from Biliran,