Pollution and poverty are two issues that seriously plague the Philippines today, and we often think we can only solve one problem at the expense of the other. But a company called Net-Works is proving that it’s possible to both care for the environment and help people lift themselves out of poverty.
Net-Works is the result of a partnership between the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Interface. ZSL is a conservation charity with projects all over the world, while Interface is a global carpet tile manufacturer.
Since 2012, they’ve been teaching fishing communities along Danajon Bank—a double-barrier reef that runs for 97 miles between Bohol, Cebu, and Leyte—to recycle fishing nets into carpets. Their efforts were even featured in National Geographic’s June issue on the global plastic problem.
The way it works is that residents receive payment for gathering discarded fishing nets on the beach, or bringing their old ones directly to Net-Works. The nets are then sent to Aquafil, a global manufacturer who recycles the nets into yarn and supplies them to Interface, who uses the yarn to make eco-friendly carpet tiles.
This method solves several problems at once: the fishermen of Danajon Bank are motivated to clean up their beaches and provided with a proper way of disposing of their old nets, which, according to Net-Works, could encircle the world 4.5 times if they were laid out end to end.
At the same time, because they have an alternative source of income, they no longer have to eke out a living through unsustainable practices. Net-Works also helps the residents set up community banks in which they can deposit their earnings. This allows them to build savings and take loans with lower interest rates for school fees and tools for their livelihood.
The community bank members even voluntarily pool their savings to guard and maintain their marine-protected areas. This way, coral reefs, mangroves, and sea grass are given time to regenerate.
Net-Works has also begun teaching communities to farm seaweed using sustainable methods: growing them in the right habitat without destroying coral reefs, and using the right materials in order to reduce plastic waste.
"On the efficiency side of it, we’re looking through the supply chain to see where we can add value and how we can ensure there’s a way of getting actual value down to the community," says Dr. Nick Hill, Senior Technical Specialist at ZSL's Marine & Freshwater Conservation Programme. "This is actually what we learned from our experience with the nets. The nets are very low value, so the only way we can make it happen was if we could find the most efficient supply chain possible so that we could pass a high value to the communities and our costs of running the program were as low as possible."
Seaweed farming is a great opportunity for Filipino fishermen to have an alternative source of income—seaweed is in high demand since its extract, carrageenan, is used in the food, firefighting, cosmetic, and toothpaste industries. The seaweed farms also form a “biofence” around the marine protected areas.
It’s clear to see that recycling and seaweed farming has given new life to both the local fishing communities and Danajon Bank itself. The fishermen have gained a more reliable source of livelihood, while Danajon Bank is left alone and given a chance to flourish.
But for Amado Blanco, ZSL’s Policy Coordinator for Net-Works, the most striking change he’s seen is the sense of empowerment communities have derived from taking charge of their income and their environment.
“It’s very humbling, it’s very fulfilling to see a community that traditionally looks at themselves as very poor and very disempowered,” he says. “We’re recognizing their full potential. For instance, most of these communities were very dependent on external support systems like local government units, other NGOs, [and] government programs who were making things to support initiatives like marine protected areas.”
“But at Net-Works, we have empowered communities so that they are able to generate income from their own pockets that they can use to support the basic requirements of maintaining or managing their marine sanctuaries,” Blanco continues.
For instance, in Barangay Guindacpan, Bohol, the community banks pooled P19,000 for a solar panel. “[It will] provide power to the guardhouse which is where the bantay-dagat will charge their flashlights,” Blanco says. “And that’s a lot of progression because in previous years, these communities looked up to other support systems for these types of support.”
“That’s all their own doing, their volition,” Dr. Hill adds. “Now people are being empowered to make a change, to make a difference. That’s been a massive and humbling shift, and that’s fantastic to see. Now they’re very sufficient. They decided, ‘Right, we’re going to set up this environment fund, we’re all going to contribute something to it, and then we’re going to use that money to make our barangay and our ocean a better place. They made the decisions, they decided what should be done with that money and it’s really inspiring and amazing to see.”