COTABATO CITY: Maria, 47, and Jurharie, 48, had been engaged in seaweed farming in Tawi-Tawi for many years.
But for the couple, the seaweed, or agal-agal in Sama and Tausug dialect, is more than a sea product. It is their life.
For Maria, her day starts by tying seaweed seedlings on ropes known as “tai-tai.” Those seedlings, she said, would be planted under good weather.
She would tie the seedlings on 25 ropes of one meter each.
”These are a lot. Even if we are not in the farm, we can accomplish something,” Maria said in Filipino.
The seedlings will then be planted in neat rows in the warm, shallow waters of the coastal areas of Barangay Pasiagan in the capital town of Bongao.
After 35 to 40 days, Maria will harvest the seaweeds to be dried under the sun before delivery to the “bodega” or warehouse of local traders.
About six kilos of fresh seaweeds are needed to produce a kilo of dried seaweeds, said Maria. Thus, she said, she has to continue doing some farm work to improve the harvest.
”The more hardworking you are, the more produce you can sell,” she said in Filipino.
But sometimes, as Maria herself has experienced, hardwork isn’t enough.
In June, for example, the couple was able to bring roughly 10 pikol of dried seaweeds to traders. A pikol is equivalent to 100 kilos. The price of dried seaweed is P2,200 per pikol, or P22 per kilo.
For a period of 43 days, Maria said she earned P22,000 which, she said, was not enough for her family as she also sends her children to school.
Her eldest, Shariffa, 21, had just graduated from college but the others were still in school.
”Over a period of one year, the family would harvest about seven times. Their earnings would depend on how much produce they could bring to the local traders. Sometimes it’s enough, but more often, it falls short of their needs,” she said.
For this harvest, Maria is worried traders may not be able to buy their seaweeds since they have not dried up because of continuous rain.
The seaweeds, she said, could be damaged by rain and traders would offer a very low price.
She said traders always set the price of seaweed from P16 to P40 per kilo depending on quality and dryness.
Seaweeds that pass the industry standards are generally brought by local traders to big companies in Zamboanga, Cebu and Manila, or even sent directly to foreign ports.
Seaweed, usually of the agar-agar and eucheuma varieties, is used different industries: food, beverages, pharmacy, cosmetics, among others.
What Maria sees as a solution to help seaweed farmers earn more is to organize themselves into cooperatives and eventually operate like traders.
“If we have our own warehouse, we will gather our own seaweeds and we will deliver them to the different companies,” she said in Filipino.
Whenever farmers, like her, do not have seaweeds to sell and they need money, Maria said she, like the others, would resort to borrowing from a local lender who would charge high interest rates.
She said once she was forced to borrow P5,000 because she needed to pay for her kids’ enrollment.
In the 1970s, particularly in Barangay Tong Tsina in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, there was a company dealing with directly buying seaweeds from the farmers. It was known as the Marine Colloid Company where seaweed farmers directly sold their dried produce so that they would not have to travel to buyers in Zamboanga City.
But while the province of Tawi-Tawi boasts of being a major producer of seaweeds today, the farmers of the commodity, Maria included, have continued to be at the mercy not only of nature but of traders, as well.