Surrounded by the grand rice terraces that look like stairs leading up the sky, the rice fields in Mayoyao, Ifugao bids a glimmer of hope for their farmers.
Unknown to many, these rice fields are also abundant with dojo fish (loach). Dojo is a popular fish staple among Ifugao folks and is best eaten fried or as soup. This fish is also eaten as health food in countries like Japan, Korea and China.
But aside from loach as food, farmers know little about the loach market and the business it can promise.
When young Japanese volunteer Juri Watanabe was dispatched in Ifugao under the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV), Watanabe knew that she has found her mission.
Every year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) sends young Japanese professionals like Watanabe to developing countries like the Philippines to assist in development work.
“I want to help the local farmers in Ifugao find business opportunities in loach farming. Agriculture offices in Ifugao tried loach farming before but they did not succeed because of the complicated technology they’re applying,” says Watanabe.
Loach (Dojo) is consumed as health food in Ifugao and in countries like Japan and Korea.
Along with the Mayoyao’s Office of the Municipal Agriculturist, Watanabe is introducing a simpler and organic way to raise loach.
Watanabe, a graduate of aquaculture in Kagoshima University, is currently developing a loach hatchery in Mayoyao to help increase the farmers’ income.
As part of her activities, she prepared a breeding area for loach, including the natural fertilizers such as compost, manure and grass. Plankton increase in 10 days, after which the fish breeders are selected and brought to the breeding area.
“If we succeed in breeding loach, we can distribute fingerlings to our neighbors and other farmers so that we can revive loach farming in Mayoyao,” says Guanita Baawa, a 62-year-old farmer.
Another farmer, 38-year old Charito Dumangeng says that when the farmers saw the breeding demonstration of Watanabe, they learned technical aspects of loach breeding like how one female loach can produce several eggs.
A farmer can expect to earn as much as P2,000 for every 100 square meters of cultivated loach in a rice field. Since rice is a central part of Ifugao culture, rice-fish farming set-up is an advantage.
Jica is also assisting the farmers in their breeding requirements such as the fish hormones needed for loach breeding.
As part of Watanabe’s work, she is also helping reconstruct the municipality’s hatchery by raising breeders and fingerlings, and distributing them to farmers. She also organizes breeding workshops so farmers can appreciate the market value of loach farming.
“Since high school, I have been passionate about fish. The volunteer activities are an extension of my passion. I try to learn from Japanese laboratories and did my own research to better help the farmers here appreciate loach culture,” says Watanabe.
Indeed, in this small town of Mayoyao, farmers are rediscovering what else an agriculture economy can offer by practicing loach culture.
As omnipresent as the grand rice terraces, the farmers’ collective dream of a better life is driving them more than ever to try loach farming as a good opportunity to make a living.