The rainbow reefs of Palawan, the snow-white beaches of Boracay, the surfing mecca of Siargao – the waters of the Philippines are precious places, harboring some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity, drawing visitors from around the world and supporting a top fishing economy.
Yet, the Philippines is among the three biggest plastic polluting countries and is the most dangerous for environmental defenders, putting the health of its coastal ecosystems under ecological threat.
Alongside the growing global youth movement acting to fight climate change, young Filipinos – and ocean-sport athletes in particular – are making their waters the focus of their careers and lives, to clean them up and keep them intact for the future. In this two-part series, meet four.
Read part 2 of the series here.
Marja Abad, founder of Siargao Environmental Awareness (SEA) Movement, surfer, Siargao
“I was born in Manila but a part of my childhood was in Davao when it was not so much of a city as it is now. I grew up jumping in clean rivers, biking in mountains and not seeing any rubbish. When I go back to the city, I feel like, ‘What’s going on? Is it always going to be like this?’ We tend to abuse what nature is offering us, which is why we are stepping in – to remind people that we cannot be taking more than we should from the ocean or environment.
“Tourism has changed the relationship between the people and the ocean. Ten years ago, people relied on fishing and surfing. Now people rely on the road for business: shops, cafes bars, resorts… And that’s why now we don’t have as many fisherman. It’s dangerous, so why risk your life when you can make more from the road?
“We have to prevent water from being contaminated, which requires a proper sewage system. We don’t put much effort into this now because our priority is solid waste management, but without water, we won’t survive. Second, we need a stricter policy on not allowing plastics in. Inland people still throw trash everywhere, and when there’s a typhoon and the wind and currents change, trash is blown into the ocean. Third, we need education to continuously educate the communities, and fourth should be encouraging businesses to offer solutions.
“We work with kids because it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks. I see hope whenever we work with children. It makes you forget about the big problems that we have because it brings you back to that innocence. We want to keep teaching them how to live a better life and be better members of the community.
“Surfing also teaches me patience and knowing that it’s going to be calm. There’s going to be chaos, but then the winds will change and it will be okay again.”
Anna Oposa, executive director of Save Philippine Seas, scuba diver, Manila
“When I was growing up, I would be told, ‘Don’t go to the beach because you’re going to get dark,’ as in you’re not going to be pretty if you’re dark. These are major cultural things that prevent us from being outdoors, passed down from one generation to another, that need to change for Filipinos to start caring about the ocean.
“I’m lucky because my dad took me and my brothers outdoors. I was raised by the country’s first environmental lawyer, so I grew up thinking it was normal to go to reforestation projects in marine protected areas (MPAs) and for every dinner topic to be about environmental law. I wanted to be a writer, but I guess my upbringing caught up to me. Save PH was supposed to be on the side as a passion project after I graduated college, but then it ended up becoming my life’s work.
“I’ve worked in several other Pacific Island states where people have such a strong connection to the ocean – you see it in their restaurant logos, whatever. But here, 70 to 90 percent of kids have never been in the water, have never been in an MPA, have never used a snorkel and mask in their lives And we’re one of the most biodiverse countries in the world for marine life. There is just this big disconnect.
“It’s not so well-known here, how rich is the biodiversity. People are surprised when I tell them we have more coral species than the Caribbean or Great Barrier Reef. I guess there is this colonial mentality that it’s much better to look outside than to appreciate what we have..
“Boracay is the equivalent of Cancun. I’ve seen it change from a sleepy town with a few bars to feeling like Manila with a beach. It’s the perfect case study of how greed can destroy a community and the environment. There are now stricter policies, and a lot of companies want the fun, different CSR project to their name. But how do we put institutions in place for when it’s not a hot topic anymore? There’s a certain culture in the Philippines called Muskegon, where you start out well but can’t sustain it.
“What Filipinos don’t realize is that the ocean is our source of life. A lot of our economy depends on the ocean – shipping, fisheries. It’s also our source of oxygen. We’re not just hippie environmentalists trying to protect water. We’re protecting our lives, our economy, our future.”