Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Jan 7: Improving livelihood and Philippines crossings

Another day waking to look forward to and as usual the electricity was cut short exactly at 6 a.m. Even when you feel tired you'll soon be jolted up by the sweat accumulating on your body and the heat getting un bearable. Walking to the toilet and splashing the collected rainwater onto your body brings instant relief and also a shot of cold pain. The plan was for a visitation to the participant’s farm farther off at the North point of the Banggi Island near to the Philippines border. We were loading drums of gasoline by the gallon to be distributed to the workers and participants for their boats and headed out in the larger vessel due to the distance we needed to travel and cargo allowance. The journey was about the same, Mr Ramlan followed us today tagging along was Jai and the boatman. Took about an hour or more to make the route, as we passed through islands, mangroves, small inlets and isolated villages with the only thing to do was stare into the infinite spaces and enjoy the scenery. Over the far off horizon I could make out the heavy rain clouds releasing torrential rain into the sea, yet our area was still as bright as ever though cloudy in parts.

We passed through the same area we headed through yesterday and soon we found ourselves skirting the coastline, to the right of us was the horizon stretching as far as the eye can see, the open ocean, the South China Sea, whatever you wish to call it. We stopped by several test plots where seaweed lines were strung to check their suitability and what did we find? Nothing. All the seedlings planted there were gone, just barren strings with overgrown algae. Mr Ramlan iterated that the main problem for seaweed cultivation was the sea turtles, far from being on the endangered list; the numbers of turtles here are quite large (thus the proposal for a marine park within the vicinity) and with farmers putting up seaweed lines its kin to an open invitation for them to feast. The funny part is that the turtles far from eating every single Eucheuma plant there are very selective in the species they choose to dine on. Put a cottonni and spinosum side by side and you’ll see the turtle deciding to go for the former as if a cat has the choice between a generic cat food brand compared to a Friskies meal.

Boats moored near the jetty from the village.

The string line method is the most cost effective method there is to be introduced for impoverished farmers unable to afford costly equipment. Yet this also allows any predator to enter freely and graze the few main culprits being turtles, herbivorous fishes and sea urchins. The only protection so far that has been tried is to erect a net frame around the site but this is costly or to grow the seaweed in specially constructed net rafts which is also uneconomical. The turtle too are not afraid of humans, one of the villagers related that he once saw eye to eye with a reptile casually munching on his seaweed and didn’t even budge an inch though they were in close proximity and only flitted off after the took a few soft raps onto its head. He even jokingly said it would’ve been better if they just threw some fish bombs into the water to only see a small smile as he saw the environmentalists cringe. Things were so bad they even sunk a makeshift scarecrow replete with attire and headgear underwater but of course it was ignored. I entertained the notion of putting underwater sounding devices near the farms to scare them off but it’s just a thought.

Navy vessels berthed near Karakit for security purposes.

On our way along we passed by a navy ship anchored by the coast, apparently of late they stumbled across a smuggling ring which left behind several cartons of cigarettes, shabu and fish detonators as they saw the officers approaching their hideout. It was a huge vessel and the crew were all armed, highlighting the problems inherent in safeguarding a vast sea border with thousands of island to hide in. Our first village we stopped at was an hours away from the Philippines border. Here we met with one of the local participants who filled us in about the latest happenings. To obtain new strains of seaweed as well as seed stock it was arranged that a large boat was rented and several villagers would set off to the islands on the Philippines side to make purchases, money in the form of Pesos were handed to them for the transaction. All this of course was not entirely legal as no permission nor border check was carried out for the journey but so were many of the villagers without actual identification papers and ICs so no surprise there.

Collected seaweed being brought on board to be weighed.

We didn’t stay long, after a short discussion with the participants and ensuring that plans were to proceed smoothly we had to make our way to the other village to drop off fuel. Here we waited as they harvested their fields and bags of newly formed Eucheuma were hauled onto our boat to be weighed. Prices for the farmers were 30 cents for 1 kg of seaweed, these sold to the factories would increase in prices of RM3 and processing carrageenan would be worth hundreds of dollars. To this point the project focuses on teaching the farmers to cultivate their fields with UMS project farms supplying healthy seedlings to them. In the end it is hoped that the villagers would be self sustaining and be able to produce the seaweed with little or no assistance. At present it is still frustrating as the villagers sometimes do not follow advice such as on methods to improve yield nor do they actually care in terms of quality and more concerned on getting quantity as well as good prices.

Continues in Part 2.............

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