On Caringo Island, Women Rule the Guardhouse

Meet a group of eight women spearheading conservation and sustainable revenue streams in the Philippines

January 27, 2017

They call themselves SAMAKA, short for Samahan ng Kababihan sa Karingo, or the Women’s Group of Caringo. On Caringo, an island at the mouth of San Miguel Bay in Mercedes, Philippines, eight women are re-envisioning gender roles in coastal fishing and new market development.

The Caringo Women’s Group takes on a range of responsibilities, some to assist coastal fishers in their trade, and others to keep unsustainable fishing from wiping out the island’s fish stocks and marine ecosystems. The common goal in all of their efforts is longevity — making sure that fishing endures as a tenable livelihood for their families and the generations to follow. Their tasks can be small or spring up with necessity, like selling cooked fish and mending nets, but the group puts most of its muscle into ongoing, dogged efforts in conservation and sustainability.


Morning to Night, the Women’s Group Takes Watch

One effort sets the women apart as bona fide protectors of the island’s precious natural resources: Every day from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, they guard the marine protected area (MPA) around Caringo Island from intruders. The marine protected area, or sanctuary, a 43-acre zone extending from shore to bay, was established in 2010 to protect rich ecosystems like coral reefs and mangroves, and provide fish populations around Caringo room to breed and rebound.

The MPA requires constant surveillance to fulfill its purpose. Fishers enter its waters despite the risk of being reported and facing legal consequences, more out of desperation than overzealousness. Increasing local demand for fish and declining catch leave some fishers looking for fish wherever they can get it. The women’s group has taken the lead in heading off these intrusions, with a deeply-rooted commitment to the sanctuary’s protection.

Their command of Caringo’s guardhouse is unusual among the Philippines’ coastal communities, where fishing and MPA management is conventionally a male-dominated process. “The environment and local ecology is important to us all,” says Susan Aceron, the group’s president and Caringo’s deputy fish warden for the past seven years — a title previously reserved for men. The women’s group built the guardhouse, runs patrolling and log entry, and cleans up the shore where the guardhouse is located. When they catch fishers encroaching on the sanctuary, they don’t go easy on them. “We have encountered people who were angry, angry at us because we’re very strict,” says Aceron. “If we catch someone who violates the MPA, we impound all their fishing gear.”


To alleviate fishing pressure, we must find alternative livelihoods for fisherfolk, and also help the replenishment and sustainable growth of fish stocks.

Jaime Abrerra, Fisherman in the Mambungalon community


Susan once caught a fisher entering the MPA, and without a boat at the time, her first impulse was to jump into the water and swim after him, to confront and report him. “We explain to them that entry to the areas is prohibited to protect and not disturb the fish while they are laying eggs,” says Betty Garcia, the group’s treasurer. “We explain that this is very important because it sustains all of us in our livelihood. It’s hard in the beginning, but when the fish grow and the fishermen get a bountiful harvest, they will be happy.”

Like other women in the group, Garcia is married to a fisher, and is driven by her close personal experience with the effects of declining fish catch on her family. “When my daughter was still young, I would join my husband when he cast off to fish and help him drop the fishing nets,” she says. “There is not much fish to catch now compared to before, when I was always happy pulling the nets back with all the fish we caught. This is why I am willing to help the sanctuary in preserving our fish, and prevent it from being disturbed by illegal fishers.”

This year, the Caringo Women’s Group is joined in their conservation efforts by Rare Fellow Mike Totanes and Assistant Fellow Mildred Loyola. Mike plans to expand MPA protections throughout the wider municipal waters of Mercedes. MPAs are an important part of Rare’s sustainable fishing formula, called managed access + marine reserves. The formula incentivizes local fishers to respect and enforce MPA protections by placing exclusive access areas for those fishers in or along MPAs. This way, fishers can reconcile marine conservation with their own need to continue fishing.

The women’s group has expressed support for the approach Mike has introduced to the Caringo community. In their self-driven, longtime conservation efforts, they’ll be key allies to Mike, Mildred and Rare’s campaign to bring sustainable management to the area’s coastal fishing. Early adopters of conservation are critical to Rare’s behavioral approach to transforming unsustainable norms toward nature. Rare works from the principles that people are deeply social beings, and that word of mouth is critical — members of a community that already possess a strong conservation ethic can connect with others and help diffuse sustainable solutions locally. Entities like the Caringo Women’s Group can set new norms in motion.


Sisters in Seaweed: The Caringo Women’s Group Seeks Out Sustainable Livelihoods

Betty Garcia (left) and Susan Aceron (right) of the Caringo Island Women’s Organization harvesting seaweed. Photo: Jason Houston.

Seaweed grows on the north side of Caringo, hanging from cords in a grid of buoys and stakes for cycles of about two months. Once it’s ready, the Caringo Women’s Group will come to collect it just off the shore, taking large bunches of the yellow-green growth and lugging them onto the beach with help from several fishers. The seaweed is dried for a few days, then sold and used in a host of different products, including medicine, noodles, toothpaste and cosmetics.

The group’s part in seaweed farming reveals an innovative streak. The Caringo Women’s Group took up seaweed cultivation to diversify their families’ income. “We are the mothers, and there is a burden on us when our husbands don’t catch fish,” says Susan. “We are the ones who are then pressured to deliver our children’s needs.” Betty Garcia knows that pressure well: after her husband recently lost his sight, she had to take over as the primary wage earner. Now, Betty both fishes and collects seaweed to provide for her family.

In each of Rare’s programs, whether in the fisheries of the Philippines or the watersheds of Colombia, we explore alternative livelihoods as an important factor in helping communities adopt sustainable behaviors without sacrificing income. Seaweed is a promising source of alternative income: it’s the highest-growth aquatic plant commodity in the world, and sees increasing demand.


The environment and local ecology is important to us all. If we catch someone who violates the MPA, we impound all their fishing gear.

Susan Aceron, President of The Caringo Women’s Group and Caringo’s deputy fish warden


Rare has recently begun piloting seaweed farming in the areas where we pursue sustainable fisheries management, starting in Indonesia. In Karimunjawa, Rare has teamed up with private sector partner Ocean Fresh to test sustainable seaweed farming as a viable source of supplementary income for fishers. Rare and Ocean Fresh have jointly trained farmers to grow more and higher quality seaweed, which Ocean Fresh buys directly from the farmers. The first seaweed harvest proved productive in its early stages, with double to triple farmer net profits over previous harvests. Rare has continued with more seaweed production cycles, and is planning to scale similar projects up in other areas where we work.

Back in Mercedes, fishers like Jaime Abrerra, who has fished in the Mambungalon community for 53 years, are backing such pursuits for their potential to offset overfishing. “To alleviate fishing pressure, we must find alternative livelihoods for fisherfolk, and also help the replenishment and sustainable growth of fish stocks,” he says.

In their exploration of alternative livelihoods like seaweed farming, the Caringo Women’s Group demonstrate that coastal people still have the potential to completely transform their interactions with nature, and the pursuit of its resources. For the group, it’s a matter of urgency. “It’s difficult for us not to take care of our environment and MPA,” says Susan. “If we don’t preserve our environment, our children and generations to follow will have nothing to sustain themselves in the future.”