Future looks bland for land of salt
DASOL, PANGASINAN — Every day before sunrise, Glomie Baldonado, 42, would start working in a salt farm at Bobonot village in this western Pangasinan town by filling 30 banigan (salt beds) with briny water from the bandeha, the pond where seawater has been stocked for days, making it concentrated and ready for turning into rock salt.
Baldonado would fill each banigan with 2-3 centimeters of water before returning home, leaving the scorching sun to work its magic.
He would then return at 2 p.m. to push the arpil (salt crystals) down to the beds to hasten evaporation. An hour later, the salt beds would have turned snow white, ready to be harvested.
His wife Lea, 31, would help as a kariador (scraper or sweeper), and together they would use makeshift rakes to shove the still wet rock salt to the banigan’s corner, forming mounds of the sparkling rock salt they call barara.
Baldonado would gather the crystal-like salt into a kaing (woven bamboo basket) before taking it to a makeshift stockroom near the highway. Just as the sun began to set, work for the day would be done for the couple, and other asindero (salt farmworkers).“It’s backbreaking work,” Baldonado, who only reached high school, said of the “job” he has been doing since his youth.
But he said he liked it, enjoying the wonder of seeing sea water turn into salt.
Baldonado is one of hundreds of Dasol residents who rely on the town’s salt industry for their livelihood. Dasol has about 10,000 banigan in eight villages that produce 18,000 metric tons of rock salt a year.
Dasol takes pride in this product, with local officials saying local rock salt is of the best quality and sold for P450 to P500 per sack of five cans (14.6 liters) each, at farm gates.
But the production is just a drop in the bucket of what the country needs, which was “neglected” for decades, resulting in dependence on importation since the 1990s, according to industry players.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said it would need investments in programs and projects for the local salt industry to regain its status and help lessen the country’s dependence on imports.
Citing Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data, BFAR says the country imports 550,000 MT of salt yearly, which translates to about 92 to 93 percent of the country’s requirements.
The country’s salt needs are estimated to increase by 7 to 8 percent a year because of the increasing population and demand for the commodity.
Salt has 14,000 uses in food manufacturing, chemicals, meals, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
“If you see sodium as an ingredient, then it has salt. We cannot live without it, but despite being a necessary commodity and a food security issue, salt production was long neglected in the country,” Gerard Khonghun, president of the Philippine Association of Salt Industry Network (PhilASIN), said during a dialogue with salt farmers in March.
Salt growing is almost always a family affair, with the husband, wife and their children working together.
Baldonado was a worker for his late father, who was the tercera worker of the salt farm.
When his father died, he inherited the position as tercera, a Spanish word meaning “third.” In salt farm lingo, it means the worker gets a third of the total daily harvest as his share, leaving the rest to the farm owner.
No government agency was overseeing the industry until the Department of Agriculture (DA)-BFAR was tasked with revitalizing it, just two years ago.
Salt farmworkers said that while they were engaged in the grueling work, the job paid almost nothing.
A tercera worker tending 25 banigan could have a share worth P131,250 for six months work, including the two months that they are not paid for preparing the farm.
This translates to P21,250 a month in earnings, or about P10,937 each for the husband and the wife. If the wife does not work, the tercera worker hires workers and pays them with his share of the harvest.
The farm owner gets two-thirds of the harvest and pays for taxes and expenses for the salt beds’ maintenance.
The salt farmworkers lamented that they were beyond the radar of the government for support.
Farmers get support for seeds, fertilizers and even machinery, while fishermen receive boats and gear, but they get nothing, they said.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, salt farmers did not receive any kind of support or ayuda (aid) that farmers and fishermen received, said Jose Valenzuela, a member of the Dasol Salt Makers Association, during the dialogue.“Our struggle begins with salt production, and it gets worse when there are no buyers,” Valenzuela said.
Plagued by major challenges and getting no government intervention, the salt industry faces a possible shortage of workers in the future.
Baldonado said if he could help it, he would rather have his children acquire enough education so they could find yearlong employment with better pay, and not half-year jobs with minimal income.
Annabel Briz, 37, a daughter of tercera parents, said she was sending her two children to a state university because she did not want them to go through the same hardship she went through.Briz herself used to cook rock salt to turn into into a fine and very white powder.
Another young worker, Jether Mariano, 23, has been supporting his college education by working at the salt farm owned by an uncle, whenever he had no school work.
‘Verge of death’
PhilASIN president Khonghun, during the First Salt Congress held in November last year, shared a grim scenario: the country’s salt industry is on the “verge of death.”
This is because of a lack of government support or recognition of the importance of salt, despite its being an important basic commodity.
If nothing is done, by 2030, when the country would need 1.3 million MT, at least 96 percent of salt supplied in the Philippines would be imported, he said.
PSA data showed that at present, the Philippines imports 70 percent of the local salt requirement from Australia (446,000 MT) and 20 percent (87,000 MT) from China.
The sad situation is far from the country’s salt industry before, when it was almost self-sufficient and production was at its peak in the 1970s.
Dr. Paulo Cenas, former vice president for research and extension of the Pangasinan State University, said several factors contributed to the declining yield and the eventual massive importation of salt.
He said some salt workers would rather have their children veer away from the labor-intensive and low-paying industry. Also, salt farmers are displaced when the foreshore lease agreements issued by the government expire.
Then there’s the depreciation of facilities, with salt makers having nowhere to turn for help, as even the government is seemingly unaware of the situation.
Cenas said there were no salt farms developed in the last three or four decades, and the existing ones were taken over by urbanization and converted into commercial or housing areas. At present, there are only around 2,000 hectares of salt farms in the Philippines, and these lack management, equipment and technology.
“While the demand is increasing, the salt farms are not improving,” he said.
Even in Dasol, there have been no additional salt farms developed in the past decades, said Mayor Rizalde Bernal.
The Pangasinan provincial government, however, is helping increase salt production by operating a 473-ha salt farm at Barangay Zaragoza in Bolinao town.
The farm has been idle since February 2021 after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) revoked the private operator’s foreshore lease contract that expired in 2002. The area used to be the country’s largest salt producer, contributing up to 25,000 MT a year to the country’s total salt production.
In December last year, Gov. Ramon Guico III signed a memorandum of agreement with the DENR for the “interim management” of the area for salt production and other related activities, such as bangus (milkfish) production.
The national government, through the DA and the BFAR, and the private sector have also started working side by side to try to prevent the industry’s total collapse.
The BFAR is tasked with helping revitalize the industry, allocating P100 million in 2021 as a budget for projects to redevelop the industry, especially in its main production areas in the Ilocos, Western Visayas and Zamboanga Peninsula regions. This year, the government allocated an additional P100 million to expand the scope of the project to include Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa and Central Visayas regions.
BFAR Director Demosthenes Escoto said Ilocos, which has vast potential for salt-making, got a big slice of the budget, which it used to train fisherfolk from the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union and Pangasinan on producing salt.