Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

I am wildlife biologist. I get paid to study wildlife and the complex relationships they have formed with other living beings and their environment. Well, I used to get paid, that is. I recently came back to the Philippines after completing my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, and since then, I’ve sent out somewhere around 50 job applications and inquiries. With all the none-responses and rejections, I can’t help feeling inadequate. Here I am, almost 30, with a master’s degree, without a job and still a nomad. So I write—papers for publications, more application letters and inquiries, and this blog.

If I am truly honest with myself, as much as I don’t like the word, it is my career. I maybe passionate about it, but I can’t help but think I still lack something (and perhaps that’s why I still don’t have a job). In a way, I envy the people who’ve lived all their lives in the natural world. They’re so entrenched in it that they can feel its pulse. No one is more attuned to it than they are—jungle tribes, desert people, mountain villagers, seafarers. I have to use a GPS to navigate the forest (and even then I still get lost), while these people use memory. I can barely identify plant species, let alone tell you what they’re useful for, but these people can not only name them, they can tell you a dozen ways on how to use a particular plant. I will be hard up detecting a leopard cat’s track on the moist and litter-covered forest floor, but these people can not only tell the animal have just been where you are, they can also tell the direction it was heading, and perhaps, whether it’s a male or female. The list just goes on. Perhaps they’re not as backward as we like to think they are.

Maybe instead of us going to them with our donated clothes, medical missions, high-tech gadgets, and teaching them about what we call the ‘civilized’ world maybe we should turn the tables around. Maybe during one of our international conferences, instead of academicians and scientists presenting the results of their studies from their sterile labs, or the far-flung wilderness (where they hire these people to be their guides and porters!), maybe we should have one of the indigenous peoples speak to us. Teach us how to be connected once again to nature—one that we’ve kept at bay with our well-manicured lawns, pesticides, and the exterminator. One we’ve flattened by our parking lots, shopping malls and carefully landscaped suburban villages. One that we only have a glimpse of through our shiny car windows, infrequent trips to the zoos, texts we read on our Kindles, and wildlife films we watch on our huge HD TVs and Blue-Ray players. One that is increasingly becoming largely a part of our museums, and our distant past.

I’m not advocating going back to the caves. Or living with the tribes. I just wish we’re not so disconnected. I’m getting preachy. I should go back to job-hunting.


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It has been months since my last blog and I surely owe a number of articles.  I have yet to update my ‘blogger information’ and thought that perhaps this is the best way to do it.

Last September, I celebrated ten years of working for conservation.  It does not seem like such a long time, and indeed I feel that there is still so much to learn, but I also feel that I have crossed a threshold.  Before my ten years were up, I felt a need to venture out onto a more challenging realm: higher education.  By this, I mean not so much my own, but of others younger than I am.  Having been accepted into the University of the Philippines College of Veterinary Medicine (UPCVM), I proceeded to try to re-educate almost half of the student population at the College.  It was a big challenge, I realised, especially after announcing to the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines that the UPCVM 2009 class would have graduated knowing more about Philippine biodiversity compared to their predecessors.

At the beginning of the school year, I was asked to co-ordinate the Wildlife and Laboratory Animal Medicine class.   I felt that it was the opportunity I was waiting for.  My methods were unconventional as they were ones I learned from my years of experience in conservation education.  It was a different way of learning: holistic, participatory, playful and hopefully, one that my students will remember.  We had debates on which conservation fields veterinarians could contribute best; games about animal taxonomy; interactive on-line quizzes; and a noisy obstacle race that served as the students’ third exam.

Wildlife medicine students take their third exam in "fun mode"

I know that we might have a long way to go and that my job takes me away from in-situ work, but I realise that we all have to make small sacrifices somehow and no one can beat the satisfaction of realising that now, my students can name more than ten animals that are endemic to the country.  (At the beginning of the school year, they only knew the Philippine eagle and the Tamaraw.)

Hands-on learning

I hope that in time, I would have contributed to improving the Filipino veterinarian’s role in our own country’s conservation.  For now, it makes me happy to know that a number of my students are interested in knowing how to treat illnesses of Philippine sailfin lizards, finding out what parasites infect Philippine forest turtles and determining baseline blood values of Visayan tarictic hornbills.  These are tiny steps, yes, but paces that will serve as bases for a bigger niche for Filipino veterinarians in conservation.

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i was there

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy reading about the same piece of news over and over.

Inquirer.Net: Senate approves renewable energy bill on 3rd reading
ABS-CBN News: Senate OKs renewable energy bill
BusinessWorld: Renewable energy bill OK’d by Senate; bicam is next step
Manila Bulletin: Senate passes Renewable Energy bill
GMANews.TV: Senate approves clean energy bill, seen to cut oil dependence
The Manila Times: Senate approves Renewable Energy bill

Some people in the Senate gallery clapped, something that’s usually frowned upon during session. Nobody tried to shush them, I mean us 🙂

Image: A father-and-daughter who signed our support RE Bill board during the RE COalition exhibit at Greenbelt a few months ago

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Just saw this story in Inquirer.net, which immediately transported me into a state of nostalgia and melancholy:

Help save Sierra Madre, tribe leader urges media
By Delfin Mallari Jr.
Southern Luzon Bureau

LUCENA CITY, Philippines — Using a borrowed mobile phone, a tribal leader in Sierra Madre in northern Quezon asked for media’s help to stop the renewed illegal logging operation in the mountain ranges.

On Monday evening, Eric Avellaneda, vice chairman of mountain tribe association called “Adhikain ng mga Grupong Taong Katutubo na Nagtatanggol” (Agta), sent a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and reported that more than 30 chainsaws were sneaked into the mountain and were now being used by unidentified groups in their renewed unlawful cutting of trees.

In a follow-up phone interview, Avellaneda said he just borrowed the mobile phone from a lowlander to contact the media to ask for help to stop the illegal activities.

“The media is our only hope to stop and prevent the further destruction of Sierra Madre. Illegal logging stops every time it was reported in the media,” he said in Filipino.

Full story here

I guess there’s a bright side to this. That a tribal leader is actively engaged in protecting his ancestral domain, that the ubiquitous mobile phone has given him access to media, that the reporter who got the message actually wrote about it, that the government initiated action on the complaint. It shows the power of the individual, the power of the media, the power of, well, texting.

Just what the extent of that power is, I don’t know.

Illegal logging has been systematically wiping out the Sierra Madre for years, even decades. It’s one of those situations where the problem seems so big that one is tempted to just despair and give up hope that it’s ever going to go away. The loggers are rich, powerful, and armed. The government officials are on the take. A lot of upland residents are too poor to have much livelihood options other than the destructive slash-and-burn farming. And the felled logs continue to float down the river, continue to breeze through the checkpoints.

Three years ago, the Sierra Madre was the scene of heartbreaking tragedy as the denuded mountain slopes broke loose after days of heavy rains, triggering landslides and flashfloods. The disaster killed more than a thousand people, destroyed property and infrastructure, and rendered farmlands useless.

I had the opportunity to listen to some of the victims during a forum we organized at the Haribon Foundation about half a year after the tragedy. I wrote about their story for the Haribon website, where I now go back to go over it once again.

The article was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to write. I remember sitting in front of the computer listening to the tape from the forum, trying to hold back tears as I listened to the speakers.

“Hanggang ngayon maluwag sila sa pagbibigay ng permit para mailabas ang kahoy na dapat sana’y tulong na sa amin. Masakit para sa aming tanggapin na yung mga kahoy na yon ang pumatay sa mga mahal namin sa buhay samantalang kami walang maipag-pagawa ng bahay… Tone-toneladang kahoy ang lumalabas, sabi nila total log ban daw, sabi nila ibibigay daw sa aming nasalanta, pero marami sa amin ang walang bahay.”

“Sa totoo lang po gustong-gusto naming hukayin yung bangkay ng mga mahal namin sa buhay pero wala kaming magawa. Syempre po yung mga natitirang nabubuhay may mga pangangailangan naman na dapat tingnan,”

“Ang mga ganitong pagsasalita ay mahirap para sa amin…sa bawat pagkakataong nagsasalita kami ng ganito ay para naming hinahalukay ang aming mga namatay na anak. Pero kung hindi po ako magsasalita ngayon sa harapan ninyo, para ko ng kinalimutan yung pagkamatay ng pamilya ko, ng anak ko.”

Two of the speakers very understandably broke down and cried in the middle of their talk, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears as well. But they very bravely told their stories, because they knew that the world needs to know what happened, what is still happening, in Sierra Madre.

“Huwag nilang ibaon sa limot ang trahedyang ito …kung dadaain natin sa limot ang mga bagay na ito, ilan pang bayan at ilan pang Sierra Madre ang luluha?”

It’s a sad story, it’s one that’s been going on for years, so much so that even the media entities do not put it among the big headlines. Still, Agta leader Eric Avellaneda had enough faith and determination to send in that text message, to do every little bit within his capacity, in search of solutions. It’s a sad story, but I don’t want to think, not yet, that it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Photos by Don De Alban

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