Interview | Dr Aisa O. Manlosa

food4future introduces the scientist behind the project

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Aisa O. Manlosa is a social scientist with a background in environmental sciences, social systems and sustainability. She works at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) on the food4future project “Institutional evolutions for aquatic food production along 'No Land' and 'No Trade' triggered tipping points”.

The project focuses on the shift from capture fisheries to aquaculture in three municipalities in the Philippines located along the Manila Bay area. In the past, this area had a strong capture fisheries economy. Since the 1990s, a shift from capture fishery to intensive aquaculture took place. As small-scale fishers typically do not have the capital to invest, it was mostly rice farmers who needed to find alternative sources of income when they lost arable land to intruding salt water. The supply of feeds and fingerlings (juvenile fish, which are used as input in aquaculture) also developed as ancillary industries with trade relations. About 20% of the Philippine’s fishery exports go to Germany.

Besides institutional evolutions, Aisa will study the impacts of the food4future “No Land” and “No Trade” extreme scenarios on German aquaculture and the tipping points of those scenarios.Institutions are found in very different forms and the term is used differently depending on different contexts. Aisa defines institutions as rules that people use to structure how they interact. Institutions can be formal, such as laws and policies of a country. On the other hand, there are unspoken rules which a certain group can understand because of their shared past and experiences. In the area of sustainability science, there is a growing emphasis to leverage institutions for positive environmental and societal change. Policies, rules, laws, and other forms of institutions affect people's behaviours and the consequences of those behaviours.

Aisa has a Philippine heritage including language skills which allows her to get in contact with stakeholders in her study area easier. We talked to Asia about her field work, challenges and limitations and the impacts of COVID-19 on her work.

What does your field work look like?
Hagonoy town center. Photo: A. O. Manlosa, ZMT

There are different phases of my field work: setting up, collecting data and then wrapping it up and analysing the data. During those different phases, my work looks different, too. In the beginning, I needed to get to know who the relevant actors are and who I can contact. It started before I came to the Philippines by informing the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the main government actor responsible for managing and conserving Philippine fisheries. The national office forwarded it to the regional office in Central Luzon and one representative assisted my entry to a community where they have their own office station. My first interview was mainly about selecting the most sensible municipalities to work in, then learning about the fishers associations: what they do, who they are, who to contact. The first interviewee facilitated initial contact with the local government units where the approval of certain activities such as my research takes place, as well as with “fisheries and livelihood development technicians” who liaise between BFAR regional office and local governments. They were very knowledgeable about the different actors in fisheries and aquaculture.  

An oyster farm in Paombong, Bulacan, Philippines. Photo: A. O. Manlosa, ZMT

Those people accompanied me during the first two weeks and I was a bit concerned that people might answer differently because I came with government employees.  Eventually, I got to know more people and different actors on my own. I finally had a sense of where to go, who to talk to, and people in the community to approach.
Then, I would, for example, go to the municipality of Hagonoy to a fish market. I would sit at those sometimes very noisy markets, talk with a Consignación [editor’s note: trade entity] owner, and observe how the transactions are being done there. I would do interviews with a duration from 20 minutes to two hours or more. After doing interviews at the fish market, I would walk to a local government unit nearby to get some data they were willing to share or interview the staff. Additionally I would visit fish farmers at home, who have small fishponds in their backyard, or those with bigger houses and larger ponds, and once also a very large fishing conglomerate where they process the fish that they have produced.
I recorded all interviews and took notes to subsequently transcribe them. That's what I base my analysis on.
I also did participant observations where I wasn't interviewing. That means I was just there and joining, for example, in harvesting in the fish farms. Those observations sometimes were really fun: being there very early in the morning and watching all the steps from harvesting different types of fish and shrimps, and sorting fish with the help of neighbours, to going to the market and selling fish. I went out with the fishermen, too, installing the fish traps or observed the transactions made at fish markets. My fieldwork differed substantially between the communities.

Breeding fiberglass tanks in a backyard. Photo: A. O. Manlosa, ZMT
Was it sometimes difficult to maintain your professional distance? What other challenges did you encounter?

Maintaining the professional distance is a challenge and was sometimes tricky for me. I feel like I have a very weird position of being insider and outsider at the same time -  mainly because I keep myself updated with what is happening in the Philippines, although my previous work focused mainly on Ethiopia and the African context. Looking back, I feel that it was good to have been away from the Philippines because it gave me some distance and I was able to incorporate a lot of thinking from my work in Ethiopia and Germany.
But eventually, it still gets a bit difficult, because when I listen to issues, I listen as a researcher but also as a Filipina. I have really vested interest in the things I hear. At some occasions I realized that I should not forget to step back and be the observer rather than actively feel the situation and be involved.
What also really fascinates me, are the interactions with people and how different people think differently. As a researcher, I go into my work with my own research questions in which I am really interested in - institutional change, in this case. But not everybody I meet is interested in institutional change: People are, for example, interested in what happens to their fish and how much money they can get for it. Or how to prevent water pollution to keep their fish healthy. So I need to connect with the interests of the people I talk to, but also to address our research questions and try to link both. People would always ask ‘what can I get from your research?’ or ‘How can I benefit from this?’ That, to me, is never an easy question to answer because I don't want to make grand promises that will not be fulfilled.  Communicating and making that connection is key to being understood, as well as making sure that eventually the research will be relevant to the lives of the people I work with.

Milkfish is the most widely cultured fish in the Philippines Photo: A. O. Manlosa, ZMT
What was the moment that remained in your memory the most from either the fieldwork or other related to your research life?

There was one incident that is really still very clear in my memory from my primary field work in Ethiopia, Africa. There are easy days of fieldwork and there are difficult days. That day was a difficult one. We were supposed to go home, but were not able to get to our field house because of strong rains and blocked roads. We ended up staying in in a hotel in that area for the night. We didn't have enough clothes. We were cold and wet. Nevertheless we finished the following day and the last survey. I was sitting at the back of the car and I could see the road behind us. As we were finally leaving the village, I was really overwhelmed by the fact that I might not see this place again. I realized that within the time I could return, people would continue to carry on with their lives. That things might change outside of our control and that whatever paper we would publish, it wouldn’t immediately touch the lives of those people who are living so remote. That showed me the limitation of research: We need to work more on linking our research to what actually happens on the ground and to creating positive benefits for people. After my work in the Philippines, I have also felt the need to get involved more with not only discourses in Germany, but also discourses in the Philippine setting and to discuss how we could use what we have studied so far.

Your flight back has been cancelled several times because of the COVID-19 pandemic - your fieldwork finished around the end of March. Was your work affected by the impact of the pandemic during your fieldwork?

I think I got really lucky there, if I may use the word fortunate, that is. By late February, I had already moved to Manila, interviewing people in a big aquaculture company.  There were still about three to five interviews that I needed to do in my research area, which had to be moved to phone calls. Luckily, some of those interviews were with people I already spoke before. The interviews were follow-ups to clarify some gathered data, so it was not much of a problem. I went straight to transcribing and then analysing which anyone can do on the desk with Internet or without.

Mariculture facility. Photo: A. Schlüter, ZMT
The hope is voiced that the COVID-19 pandemic could trigger the change to a more sustainable agriculture. Do you think the pandemic has the transformative potential for promoting a more sustainable fish production?

I think in many respects, it is definitely an opportunity to restart in a more sustainable way. I am not sure that it will be a large scale transformation yet, but I think the pandemic will lead into changes that can eventually be transformative in the long term. But in terms of aquaculture, I think that bigger changes are unlikely at the moment - mainly because many of the large and powerful aquaculture players are able to keep things as they are.  At the moment, many of the feed is readily available and not too costly for larger players with enough financial buffer. So there is no need for them to resort to the more sustainable organic moss as a feed and they are able to maintain their traditional way of working.
At the community level, I seem to see that while the small-scale farmers started experiencing problems with sourcing fingerlings and selling at a good price, the fishers were and are still able to fish. They still have crabs and shrimps from the sea, their work is not very input-dependent. It shows that people can still source food locally and naturally through capture fishery. This might again bring back the importance of the latter and reverse the trend towards aquaculture. But I this is very much a hunch and not backed by evidence yet.

Do you think the pandemic will have a great impact on aquaculture in Philippines?

I have started contacting some fish farmers I spoke with during my field work. Most of the problems linked to the pandemic derive from a drastic decrease in price because of the restrictions in mobility and export. People are not being able to go to the fish processing plants because of physical distancing. Additionally, the pandemic coincided with a fish kill in the study area. This usually happens around this time of the year, in April and May, which are the driest and hottest months in the Philippines and only little freshwater is coming from upstream. Different factors came together all at once: when the fish had started dying, it became a problem sourcing fingerlings from Indonesia because of transport problems. Now they have managed to restock their ponds, but we're not sure what the long term effects will be.
We submitted an abstract to maritime studies, based in the Netherlands, for a special issue called “Social Imagination's of COVID-19 in Marine Ecosystems”. We would like to further expand the investigation to do more interviews and ask fish farmers how they were affected.

Thank you very much for taking the time to give some insight on your research.

(Editors: A. Neumann, J. Vogt, IGZ)