In the Capital

I recently visited Romblon, Romblon, the capital of my province. It is known for its marble and I got a special tour of the process:

The huge slabs of marble are brought from the quarries to these processing plants where a diamond-studded blade is used to cut them.
The huge slabs of marble are brought from the quarries to these processing plants where a diamond-studded blade is used to cut them.
Then highly skilled artisans fashion the marble into banisters, statues, tables…etc. Most large orders are shipped to Asia
Then highly skilled artisans fashion the marble into banisters, statues, tables…etc. Most large orders are shipped to Asia.
This Indian looks like it belongs at Lake Latonka!
This Indian looks like it belongs at Lake Latonka!
The fort of San Andres, built by the Spanish in 1644, which overlooks the entire town and harbor to protect against Moro raiders and Dutch pirates.
The fort of San Andres, built by the Spanish in 1644, which overlooks the entire town and harbor to protect against Moro raiders and Dutch pirates.
The town of Romblon, looking down from the fort.
The town of Romblon, looking down from the fort.
My home for the next two years!! I think I won the Peace Corps lottery.
My home for the next two years!! And there is great diving in that blue water in the distance too!

Rice (Oryza sativa)

There is an elementary Tagalog song that begins, “Planting rice is never fun…” and goes on to say, “cannot sit or stand,” in reference to the back-breaking work of a day spent bent over in the rice field.
There is an elementary Tagalog song that begins, “Planting rice is never fun…” and goes on to say, “cannot sit or stand,” in reference to the back-breaking work of a day spent bent over in the rice field.

There are 3 different words for rice in Tagalog: kanin (cooked rice), bigas (unhusked, uncooked rice), palay (rice plant). Furthermore “ulam” literally means “food eaten with rice” and is a general term for everything else. And the word “kain” means “to eat.”

American food culture revolves around bread as the major source of carbohydrates, while Filipinos eat rice with every meal (so much so that a meal without rice is not a meal and a Filipino will likely want to eat again a short while later). Which is better? Bread and rice offer similar nutritional content, especially when eating white bread or white rice, which generally lack the vitamins and minerals found in their brown counterparts. Rice deals a higher dose of carbohydrates per serving, which may or may not be advantageous depending on your specific dietary requirements. Wheat bread and brown rice differ more significantly in the amount of micronutrients: brown rice has more magnesium, used to make lipids and DNA, regulate hormone balance and support cell communication; wheat bread has more iron needed to transport and store oxygen; both contain similar amounts of fiber.What about gluten?! Read this article and decide for yourself whether choosing rice is preferable merely because it is gluten-free: http://toitangata.co.nz/uploads/files/Gluten-free_Julia_Buhs-Catterall.pdf

Be it production or texture, America is more of a bread culture, but the Philippines is very much a rice culture. In an attempt to more fully understand rice culture, I recently visited a rice field and learned to harvest rice alongside Filipinos.

Harvesting my first few stalks of rice!
Harvesting my first few stalks of rice!
The labor intensive process: after cutting the stalks with a sickle-like blade, they are passed through this machine to separate the rice grains, which then need to be laid out to dry.
The labor intensive process: after cutting the stalks with a sickle-like blade, they are passed through this machine to separate the rice grains, which then need to be laid out to dry.

While living in the Philippines has not completely cured me of my tendency toward bread, I do eat rice (at least a little) for lunch and dinner everyday. To explore another carbohydrate option, I have found corn to be available, cheaper, and more nutritious than rice. So why does rice account for 85% of Filipino cereal consumption, while corn is a meager 10%?* Corn is generally considered ‘poor man’s food,’ while rice is historically associated with the elite. In pre-colonial times2:

  1. Rice was a prestige food, produced in limited quantities by labor-intensive means.
  2. Rice was given as tribute to chiefs and overlords.
  3. Rice was consumed in large quantities in postharvest feasting.
  4. Rice was an article of trade.

*Note that the remaining 5% is bread and pastas. Some traditions may be engrained in culture, however in urbanized areas, like Metro Manila, a much higher proportion of bread, noodles, biscuits…etc. are consumed regularly.2

I got to try! Be careful, the machine sucks stocks so fast it wanted to take my hand too.
I got to try! Be careful, the machine sucks stocks so fast it wanted to take my hand too.

Sources:

  1. http://www.livestrong.com/article/448451-rice-vs-bread/
  2. Aguilar, F.V. (2005) “Rice in the Filipino Diet and Culture.” Philippine Institute for Development Studies. Discussion Paper Series No 2005-15. http://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:ew0S16d60EYJ:scholar.google.com/+philippine+diet+rice&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5.

The Comfort Room

Notice the empty toilet paper holder in my CR. The green cup is my taboo and it is sitting on a larger bucket that I use for a bucket bath each day.
Notice the empty toilet paper holder in my CR. The green cup is my tabo and it is sitting on a larger bucket that I use for a bucket bath each day.

Here in the Philippines, the bathroom is referred to as the Comfort Room or the CR for short. Using the CR in the Philippines is a very different experience than in the States. Most toilets do not have a seat and are merely a toilet bowl on the floor. The question of how to flush this lone standing bowl was a confusing puzzle the first time I used it. The solution is to pour a cupful of water (much more for number 2) into the bowl. Gravity then pulls the extra water down into the pipe system – flushed! I am fortunate enough to have the comfort of a toilet seat and a handle for flushing within my Filipino home. However, the CR experience is still very different from America for a second reason: there is no toilet paper1 in the Philippines! For many Americans this may be an impossibility. However, consider that the average American uses approximately 57 sheets of toilet paper per day, amounting to 3.2 million tons of toilet paper consumed in America annually and 54 million trees cut down each year to support such practice.2 On the other hand, the average Filipino produces zero paper waste whatsoever.3 A Filipino accomplishes this magical task with the help of a tabo, a water dipping cup. After you finish using the toilet, you fill the tabo with water and pour it to clean yourself. If you are squatting over a toilet bowl, you might consider putting one hand on the back wall to brace yourself as you pour water down your front or back. For particularly messy dumps, you then use your hand to clean yourself, along with more water. Then, consider shaking yourself dry a little if need be. Following the gravity-assisted flush, proceed to wash your hands and hope that there is soap (Maybe keep track of your wiping hand and your eating hand haha).

While it may seem like a big adjustment to first break the habit of tossing toilet paper immediately into the toilet and then secondly to eliminate the use of toilet paper at all, be reassured that it is possible and this country has been operating toilet paper-free for generations. If you are feeling adventurous give this method a try the next time you use the bathroom at home.

Notes:

  1. Toilet paper can be purchased from local drug stores, but it is not typically used. If you want the comforts of Charmin Ultra Soft when you finish your business you should plan to bring your own and also carry it out with you when you finish. Filipino piping systems cannot handle tissue and easily become clogged. The occasional fancy CR equipped with toilet paper will also feature a small trashcan to dispose of this waste.
  2. Robbins, N. (2010) “Flushing Forests.” World Watch Magazine. Vol 23. No 3. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6403
  3. Diapers are a common waste problem here. They can be found floating in the ocean and washed up along beaches. Luckily, the beaches of Romblon are mostly free of diaper pollution, however shorelines that face the China Sea receive a much greater abundance of beach litter.

Seaweed Farming

Our boat to Sibuyan. We needed a backhoe to unload all of our supplies.
Our boat to Sibuyan. We needed a backhoe to unload all of our supplies.

This past weekend, I traveled to Sibuyan Island, considered “the Galapagos of the Philippines” for its endemic terrestrial diversity. While I hope to return in the summertime to hike the infamous Mt. Guiting Guiting (6,752ft), the objective of this trip was distributing materials for seaweed farming to local fishermen as an alternative livelihood project. These materials are provided for free to the fisherfolk families as compensation for damages to the fishing industry in response to Typhoon Yolanda and also as a means to reduce pressure on declining fishing populations.

Rope, twine and floatation rings were distributed to fisherfolk after a training session on seaweed farming methods. Here is the basic construction of the farm: a net system that has seaweed seedlings tied in rows, and grows in the ocean just off shore.

In 2009, seaweeds were the 3rd largest fisheries export from the Philippines after tuna and shrimp.* The seaweeds grown are often shipped to France, Denmark, Japan, USA or UK after processing in the Philippines. Although raw seaweeds are used for consumption, died seaweeds are often processed for carrageenan, commonly known as seaweed flour, or kelp powder and in a huge variety of products.

What everyday goods are made from seaweed components? Toothpaste, shampoos, ice cream, yogurts, pill capsules, paints and much more! Eucheuma seaweed is a commonly farmed red seaweed, however many different types of seaweeds can be farmed. Check out the link below for more info.

*http://region5.bfar.da.gov.ph/PDF/Seaweed.pdf

Ma'am Rita teaching a fisherman how to attach seaweed seedlings to the rope net.
Ma’am Rita teaching a fisherman how to attach seaweed seedlings to the rope net.
Briefing the fishermen on farming practices before dispersing materials. Notice the stacks of materials on the right ready for dispersal.
Briefing the fishermen on farming practices before dispersing materials. Notice the stacks of materials on the right ready for dispersal.

Crown-of-Thorns

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The Crown-of-Thorns (CoT) sea star (Acanthaster planci) can pose serious threat to Pacific coral reefs. The CoT varies from traditional sea stars in that it may have anywhere from 7 to 23 limbs and possesses numerous, long, sharp, toxic spines. In normal quantities this invertebrate is an appropriate part of the Pacific reef ecosystem. However, recent, increased, massive outbreaks of CoTs are highly problematic because the CoT is a corallivore, meaning it feeds on coral. Thus, outbreaks have the potential to destroy entire reefs. The CoT eats the fleshy polyps of a stony coral colony leaving behind white scars of the remaining dead calcium carbonate coral skeleton. In a balanced ecosystem CoTs feed on fast-growing Acroporid coral species, however when CoT numbers are abundant they begin feeding on slow growing coral colonies like Porites, which can devastate reefs for many years into the future.

Natural predators of the adult CoT include titon triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens), white-spotted pufferfish (Arothron hispidus), napoleon wrasse, humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates), giant triton snails (Charonia tritonis) and painted shrimp (Hymenocera picta). Overfishing of these predators, particularly the Giant Triton, valued for its large, beautiful shell, may have led to increased CoT outbreaks. Furthermore, it is possible that our wastewater and fertilizer have also contributed to these outbreaks. Scientists theorize that nutrient-rich runoff into the ocean from human activities has enabled more CoT larvae to survive, because CoT larvae feed on planktonic algae and an increase in nutrients favors excessive algal growth. Thus more nutrients –> more algal –> more CoTs –> greater damage to coral reefs.

Methods of CoT control:

  • Land Disposal
    • Collect CoTs, handling them with large serving tongs. Bring them to land and bury them.
    • When stressed CoTs will attempt to spawn, therefore it is essential to remove them from the water as quickly as possible.
  • Cutting up and Crushing in situ
  • Tying in bags in water
  • Poison Injection (acetic acid or sodium bisulfate)
    • Injection causes the CoT to disintegrate
  • Using dead CoTs as material for compost has been practiced in Fiji

Currently, we are exploring these methods at my site and will be developing a removal program in the future!

2nd Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network National Symposium

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I spent the past week in Subic Bay at a conference about Marine Mammal Stranding (http://www.oceanadventure.com.ph/symposiums-and-workshops/philippine-marine-mammal-stranding-network-national-symposium/). In the Philippines most strandings of dolphins, whales, dugongs…etc. are caused by toxins in the water, blast fishing, or entanglement. At the conference we talked about best practices for release, rehabilitation, and euthanasia of these animals and the decision making process involved in these 3 options. It was also a great opportunity to meet representatives from throughout the Philippines working in Coastal Resource Management.

We stayed at Ocean Adventure, similar to SeaWorld on a smaller scale, but also a marine mammal rehabilitation site.
We stayed at Ocean Adventure, similar to SeaWorld on a smaller scale, but also a marine mammal rehabilitation site.

I traveled with my Filipino counterpart Ma’am Rita and our participation was graciously funded by the College of Charleston’s Graduate Student Research Grants. At the conference I learned about the “Dynamite Girls,” 3 dolphins successfully rescued but unable to be released because of permanent acoustic damage due to illegal dynamite fishing. Because these dolphins cannot hear properly, they cannot echolocate; unable to find food they can no longer survive in the wild. Thus dynamite fishing, an illegal practice although still widely prevalent, poses significant risks to marine mammals in addition to the coral reef it blasts apart. I hope to use the “Dynamite Girls” as a youth mascot to inspire community action to reduce destructive fishing methods, protect marine mammals, and minimize personal environmental impacts.

The highlight of the conference was definitely the Marine Mammal First Responder course. If you have ever taken a CPR/First Aid course, imagine if your victim was now a dolphin! Here are some steps to keep in mind:

Approach with care
Approach with care
Protect the Blow Hole. Protect the eyes. Support the animal in an upright position.
Protect the Blow Hole. Protect the eyes. Support the animal in an upright position.
Keep the animal moist (use a towel). Protect from the elements (use an umbrella).
Keep the animal moist (use a wet towel). Protect from the elements (use an umbrella).
Move to a more ideal location as needed
Move to a more ideal location as needed. (We had a human serving as a dummy dolphin in this shot)
Exercise crowd control. Remember, human safety comes first.
Exercise crowd control. Remember, human safety comes first.

Why spend large amounts of money and effort to save one dolphin?!

Many people argue that limited conservation resources would be better invested in trying to reduce the blast fishing that caused the initial stranding event, rather than trying to save one dolphin that, in the case of the “Dynamite Girls” is not even fit to be released into the wild. However I disagree. If done properly, a marine mammal stranding event and rehabilitation or release has the potential for large environmental gains beyond the immediate animal. Dolphins, whales, sea turtles all fall into the category of charismatic megafauna, meaning large cute animals which generate lots of public support from kids to grandparents. I hope to teach about the value of ocean health, the threat of climate change, and the impact of pollution, all through the story of one dolphin.

Humans gravitate towards stories. Studies have found people are more likely to donate money or support after hearing the story of one child who lives in poverty and needs money for school tuition than when told of an entire nation of children who cannot afford schoolbooks. We like to know that we are making a difference and oftentimes problems like pollution seems insurmountable to the individual (google the North Pacific Garbage Patch!). But even a child can understand that reduce, reuse and recycle or “I don’t need a plastic bag” – at a grocery store, may help to protect the home of the dolphin that he/she just helped to save.

So if you like dolphins or sea turtles learn about the ocean that they live in and see what small actions you can take in your daily life to keep it healthy!