The Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat in the far-western Philippines is the country’s last ecological frontier and a consuming passion for Filipino-Australian Karina May Reyes-Antonio.
Located in the long, narrow Philippine island of Palawan the CNCH covers an area more than 16 times larger than Sydney and is the archipelago’s biggest critical habitat.
Yet while Reyes-Antonio is extremely proud of the work done to create and expand the habitat, it has been a challenging process dealing with region’s many stakeholders.
These stakeholders range from local community leaders, to national politicians, to landowners.
And Reyes-Antonio juggles all these groups’ competing needs and priorities while confronting the issue of her being a woman conservationist in the Philippines’ rather traditional patriarchal society.
Reyes-Antonio who is the Co-Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Philippines Centre for Sustainability (CS) says in the Philippines the youth are expected to simply respect and obey their elders.
It has been a hard slog for the Australian expat conservationist to gain the recognition of much older leaders and decision makers.
“We are two young women, Jessa Garibay and myself, that are the principal lobbyists and managers in our team and from day one of the project we have worked in a male-dominated environment,” she says.
Karina May Reyes-Antonio (left) and the Philippines Centre for Sustainability team.
Photo Credit: JR Lapuz
“Our abilities have been questioned every step of the way - from our physical strength in hiking to reach our remote indigenous communities or to withstand treacherous and gruelling expedition conditions deep into the jungle, to our capabilities in successfully lobbying and making ourselves heard.”
On different occasions, she has experienced stakeholders offer her fashion advice as well as “request my marital status in the middle of a presentation; advise me that hiking is not an appropriate activity for women.”
Despite these challenges, the CS team of six members continue to liaise with countless stakeholders from the local to international level, and conduct field work in a forest area covering 413.5sq km.
“At any given time, our team can be split between conducting a field expedition deep in the jungle like climbing 60-metre trees for reforestation activities, holding a community meeting in a local hall, lobbying to a government official in town, meeting with a scientist in Manila, and even pitching for funding overseas.
“Sometimes we’re doing a combination of these tasks at the same time.”
She says the whole project has been a wonderful demonstration of people from around the world and Filipinos coming together to make positive change for future generations.
The sheer diversity and size of the critical habitat is reflected in the fact that it contains the highest mountain and largest water drainage basin for Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa City. It’s also home to countless endemic flora and fauna, and the ancestral domain of the last 200 members of the disappearing indigenous Batak tribe.
Palawan is known as the last frontier because of its large expanses of ancient, untouched forests.
The CNCH has critical habitat for about 85 percent of the mammals and birds that are found only in Palawan, including the Palawan hornbill, Palawan forest turtle, Palawan bearcat, seven-foot long Palawan monitor lizard, and Palawan pangolin, the critical habitat’s designated mascot.
Reyes-Antonio says a huge threat to the ongoing work of CS in the area is the lack of human resources dedicated to this project.
She says funders are generous in covering project costs, but “allocations for the talent that make these projects successful and sustainable (especially in terms of transforming communities and influencing politicians which only happens by building human-to-human relationships) is markedly limited.
“It is a vicious cycle, we take on more sub-projects so that the allocations of each combined make up a meagre salary that we can survive on, but it leads to increased workload and eventual burnout.”
The team’s youth can also prove to be a problem on occasions as they often negotiate with people more than twice their age.
CS conducting a community meeting. Photo Credit: Centre for Sustainability
“When we first started this project in 2014 the average age of our team was 21 - our youngest team member was 17, and I was the oldest at 28.
“I accept these ‘weaknesses’ but respond with continuous effort and resilience to overcome challenges,” she says.
Reyes-Antonio’s journey to becoming a conservationist started as a community organiser in South America working with impoverished urban communities affected by narco-trafficking.
Her lightbulb moment arrived when she undertook a distance university education about environmental security - it changed her thinking about community activism.
She realised how disconnected her work and the communities were from their immediate environment “despite how vulnerable our location was to environmental disasters, especially landslides”.
From that point, Reyes-Antonio pursued community development projects that connect communities with their immediate environment to overcome their impoverishment.
“I haven’t looked back since.”
Closer to home, Reyes-Antonio despairs about the slow destruction of Australia’s natural wonders such as the Great Barrier Reef.
She says a major part of the problem is real conservation progress isn’t being made at present because of vested political and industry interests and agendas.
These same vested interests are hindering many conservation projects around the world and Reyes-Antonio says conservation lobbyists on the ground feel “like we are fighting a veritable behemoth that has resources and funding far beyond our reach”.
“Most Australians want to protect the Great Barrier Reef, but the challenges associated with doing this are depressing and overwhelming.”
“Our job as conservationists is to focus less on the problems and more on becoming a part of the solution through simple acts, like social media engagement with campaigns to build sustained momentum and support which lobbyists can take to politicians to create real change.”
Karina is one of many National Geographic Explorers attending this year's National Geographic Explorers Festival. The festival is held at National Geographic's HQ in Washington DC and brings together innovative scientists, conservationists, explorers, educators, storytellers, and changemakers from around the world to share their discoveries, insights, and solutions for creating a more sustainable future. Explore the festival with Karina via our National Geographic Australia Instagram @natgeoau.
Lead Image: Australian-born National Geographic Explorer, Karina May Reyes-Antonio. Photo Credit: John Christian Yayen.