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Algae Provides New Opportunities for Indigenous Fishermen in Panama

FAO is now providing new opportunities for the Guna people by sharing knowledge about algae production and processing. A new training initiative for coastal Indigenous fishers, particularly women, provides them with alternative sources of income.

Shivam Dwivedi
New Opportunities for Indigenous Fishermen (Pic Credit-FAO)
New Opportunities for Indigenous Fishermen (Pic Credit-FAO)

The Guna people have lived for centuries on the edge of the Caribbean Sea in an autonomous Indigenous Peoples' territory in Panama. It circles the same-named gulf and includes an archipelago of around 300 islands. Naranjo Grande, a coastal town where the sea represents food, work, and life itself, is located within this territory.

Luisa Lopez Hurtado has lived here her entire life. She has fished with her family off Panama's eastern coast for as long as she can remember, as a member of the Guna Indigenous People. "I grew up by the sea," Luisa, a mother of four sons, explains. "I used to accompany my father on his fishing trips when I was younger."

The Guna people have relied on marine and coastal resources for their survival and livelihood for generations. However, Luisa, the president of the Naranjo Grande women's association, claims that overfishing and climate change are making it more difficult for fishermen to make a living.

"Fish production has changed since I was a child. "There isn't as much fish as there used to be, and lobsters, which were plentiful in the past, are becoming increasingly difficult to find," she says. This is confirmed by Maria Dickson, a 24-year-old member of Luisa's women's group. "Production has dropped significantly," Maria says. "Sometimes I think they catch them when they're too small, which is why they can't reproduce."

Women play an important role in the Guna community, with many working in agriculture, tourism, and handicraft production, as well as cleaning and processing fish. However, they are frequently financially dependent on men. The sharp decline in tourism since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with declining fish stocks, has had a devastating impact, pushing many families, particularly women-led households, into poverty.

FAO is now providing new opportunities for the Guna people by sharing knowledge about algae production and processing. A new training initiative for coastal Indigenous fishers, particularly women, provides them with alternative sources of income. The FAO pilot programme, supported by the Panamanian Administration of Aquatic Resources (ARAP) and the territory's Indigenous government, works with 20 women and five men to share knowledge on how to grow, harvest, and process marine algae before transforming it into commercial soaps and creams.

According to Alejandro Flores, FAO's senior regional fisheries and aquaculture officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, the goal is to increase Guna women's resilience and independence.

"We wanted to collaborate with an Indigenous women's organization to contribute to their economic empowerment," Flores says.

Following discussions with the Naranjo Grande Association, FAO and ARAP approached Gracilarias de Panama, a private company specializing in the sustainable cultivation and export of marine algae. The company agreed to train the group for free and to purchase their products. While Gracilarias assisted the Guna women in increasing their capacity to cultivate marine algae, FAO assisted the women in the creation and administration of a rotational fund, as well as in the organization of a cooperative for selling their produce.

Participants began planting green algae in November 2021, with the first harvest taking place in February 2022. They sundried the algae and learned how to extract agar, a jelly-like substance, from the algae's walls for use in soaps and cosmetics. Flores claims that the fund, which was established with the proceeds of these economic activities, will eventually be used to fund other projects and assist families in times of need.

"It's early days, but they've made significant progress," Flores says. "They've harvested twice already." They feel much more empowered now and have contributed more to their families in order to be more self-sufficient."

Maria is already ecstatic about the new skills she has acquired. "I had no idea algae could be cultivated; that surprised me," she says. "I can't wait until we can make products and sell them both locally and to tourists." That will be a huge help to our economy, and I am confident it will have a positive change in the community."

Gracilarias considers the initiative a success and a model not only for women's communities in Panama, but for the entire region. Aside from those who participated, another 150 Guna community members hope to participate in the project in the future.

Gracilarias hopes to eventually collaborate with Guna Indigenous women on the commercialization of dried seaweed and the use of seaweed planting areas as ecotourism centres for local and foreign visitors, in addition to the production of soaps and creams. The project is timed to coincide with the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022), which emphasizes the critical role of small-scale fishers and fish workers, as well as their contribution to lives and livelihoods.

FAO seeks to create a world in which small-scale artisanal fishers, fish farmers, and fish workers are empowered to contribute to human well-being, healthy food systems, and poverty eradication through responsible and sustainable use of marine and natural resources by recognizing the value of their work.

(Source: FAO)

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