How this Filipino photographer is documenting the effects of climate change

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A photo of Manobo leader Marites Babanto at the Agusan Marsh. Photo by GAB MEJIA

Gab Mejia considers himself a conservation photographer. Mejia, who was recently included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for The Arts in Asia, got his first camera at 18. Since then, he has spent most of his waking hours taking pictures outdoors — striking photos that would captivate anyone looking through his Instagram profile: mountainscapes in purple, blue and marigold, white flowers blooming along the edge of a marsh, and the red-orange tarp where Kali, the last captive bred tamaraw, lay after her passing. Though he says, “I don’t want these stories to just be on an Instagram feed... but something that can reach and educate others about the importance of these places that we document.”

His advocacy began even before he bought his first camera. “I actually was very interested in photographs already. Maybe not yet taking pictures but looking through Nat Geo magazines when I was a kid — my dad subscribed to National Geographic — and watching Animal Planet or National Geographic on T.V.”

Gab Mejia began his work with National Geographic when he turned 19 after winning first place in the Global Youth Wetlands Youth Photo Contest in 2017. Photo by AJ CONCEPCION/Courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Mejia said that mountains have been one of his greatest sources of inspiration since childhood. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Mejia began his work with National Geographic when he turned 19 after winning first place in the Global Youth Wetlands Youth Photo Contest in 2017, which got him connected to the organization. The winning photo: a view on the summit of Mt. Sawi, the plains of Nueva Ecija stretching into the mountains, rivers cutting through like scribbles.

The photograph of the the Gabaldon Floodplain which Mejia submitted to the Global Youth Wetlands Youth Photo Contest in 2017. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

From here, he found out that something called an early career grant was being awarded to young photographers. But to have a shot at it, “I needed to think of a story, a bigger project,” he said.

Mejia turned his sights on the Agusan Marsh, a wildlife sanctuary in Agusan del Sur, Mindanao. First, for its environmental relevance: “More than 67% of our wetlands all over the world are gone. It’s something that’s really drastic because wetlands are natural climate solutions. They really protect us from the effects of climate change like typhoons,” he said. Second, he wanted a story closer to home. “All the stories that I’ve grown up with reading National Geographic or watching the channel — there's not so many stories about the Philippines.” He added, “Most of the stories that we know have been tainted in war, conflict — not sharing about the true beauty of the Agusan Marshlands.”

The project took two years.

Mejia plunged into the Agusan Marsh, a mosaic of greens partly submerged underwater, and home to species that constantly shift depending on the dry and wet seasons, including crocodiles. From February to December, when the rain is at its strongest, new lakes form where ducks come to nest. “Do you know Lolong?” Mejia asked excitedly, referring to the largest saltwater crocodile ever discovered. “Lolong was actually found there.”

A photo of the rare Mindanao Hornbill, taken after two days of waiting in the swamp forest. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Mejia was also able to take his share of bird photos. One of his favorites is of a rare bird called the Mindanao Hornbill, found in a swamp forest nicknamed “the Wonderland” due to countless cautionary tales of people seeing spirits and getting lost. Observing the ethics of wildlife photography, he and his team waited, silently and patiently, for two days until it appeared. “It perched on the tree for about five to seven seconds and it flew away.” But Mejia was able to photograph it.

Another favorite picture is of the Brahminy Kite, wings spread against a blue cloudless sky. “I remember that moment when I shot that photo.” He beamed. “I was going down to the boat, so it was really wavy and I had my cameras and bags. It literally came flying up the river. I had to really get my camera and like shoot, shoot, shoot as much as I can. Hopefully it’s sharp. Luckily, I got that shot as well.”

A photo of the Brahminy Kite, taken while Mejia was on his way down to a boat. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Beyond the lens, he witnessed firsthand how the marsh was suffering. “There were droughts. I was beating on the fires.” The smoke and ash destroyed the trees and killed the birds like the Mindanao Hornbill and the Brahminy Kite. And he took pictures of those too.

“I think one of the most amazing experiences there was being and living with the indigenous communities — the marginalized communities, which are the Manobo tribe,” Mejia said.

Mejia's photo of the Agusan Marsh taken from above, the floating houses dotted along the water. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Living in wooden houses that float above the water, the Manobos are losing their livelihoods, which depend on the use of “barotos” or dugout canoes, to forest fires. “They’ve been living there for centuries, coexisting with the marsh, and these are the stories that we don’t get to hear out there. These beautiful people have embraced their heritage and protected their home without changing much of their way of life.” The droughts and the development of palm oil plantations are taking away what is sacred to them, instead bathing it in smoke and ash. “They are losing their way of life in the marsh.”

Amplifying the message, not only have Mejia’s photos reached the governor, government agencies like Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and international conservation organizations, but he also worked with local filmmakers, Ivan Torres and Andrew Gregory, to develop a documentary that features the people in the community.

He said, “We really wanted to do a screening for it in the marsh as well so that the communities can show it and the leaders, the datus, of the Manobo tribe can watch it themselves first before they show it to the public. It should always be approved by the people we were filming and that they resonate with it, that they take ownership of it first.”

He has since co-founded the Youth Engaged in Wetlands in 2018, an international youth team that aims to represent the voice of the youth and vote in governmental bodies.

Manobo Elder Mario Francisco taken in the Agusan Marsh. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Another direct effect of the pandemic is an increase in poaching, which brings the already critically-endangered tamaraw even closer to extinction. Photo courtesy of GAB MEJIA

Mejia has also worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help raise funds to secure the jobs of the rangers protecting the last 500 tamaraws.

Read: Saving Mindoro’s last tamaraws amid tragedy and pandemic

But perhaps his impulse to tell stories is most felt in his work with the World Wide Fund for Nature’s National Youth Council. Where the UNDP needs him on the field, collaborating directly with veterinarian doctors and tamaraw rangers, the WWFNYC takes him to different educational institutions, including public and private schools and universities, to teach kids about animals and the environment.

“As a storyteller, I really want that love for the animals and that love for nature to be with other kids or youth,” he said. “We are the ones that are going to inherit these places and having that active engagement with the youth community in a youth organization that works for these conservations sites and these conservation areas — it’s gonna go a long way because we’re really building this generation that has a culture of care for animals and care for nature.”