Meet 12 young Filipinos fighting against climate change

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Today, as various youth groups in the Philippines march with a global movement through the Youth Strike for Climate, CNN Philippines Life highlights the work of 12 young climate advocates. Illustrations by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When the climate change activist Greta Thunberg spoke, the world listened. But the 16-year-old Swedish student was not the first to rebuke the United States about their neglect leading to the catastrophic climate crisis.

In the past decade, thousands, if not millions, have all lent their voice to the climate crisis. All over the world, men and women of all colors — in Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Taiwan, the Philippines, to name a few — have given a face to climate activism. Today, various youth groups in the Philippines join the call, as they march with a global movement through the Youth Strike for Climate.

CNN Philippines Life touched base with some of the local movement’s most steadfast advocates, and asked what it means to protest, demand, and endure the climate crisis in a vulnerable country that has seen the destructive impact of the climate crisis here and now.

Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Joanna Sustento, witness
LiveRary: Living Books, Learning Live

When Joanna Sustento lost her family to Yolanda, she had little time to grieve. Thousands died when the super typhoon struck in 2013, and survivors were left to fend for themselves as help, slowly and agonizingly, trickled into Tacloban.

“What we recognized was after Yolanda happened, wala kaming grieving process to talk about [it], to really talk about it na raw, organic,” says Sustento. “We were just so busy trying to survive, looking for food and shelter for our families, looking for loved ones. We were forced to be okay, wala kaming choice but to survive. Most of us didn’t undergo psychosocial debriefing.”

Sustento’s story is widely known. After she lost her family in the typhoon, she became one of the climate crisis’ most visible faces, demanding accountability from fossil fuel companies and protesting against oil drills in the Arctic, among many others.

Today she works with communities in the Visayas region, focusing on a storytelling community project called LiveRary: Living Books Learning Live, with two of her friends who are filmmakers. The project was born out of the need for other proper platforms where Yolanda survivors can commemorate their loved ones, and the need to empower them via creative storytelling.

Sustento recalls how on the 4th anniversary of the typhoon, the city government held candlelight memorials and lantern releasing to pay tribute to those who died — an effort she says that lacked emotional impact. “‘Di siya nakakatulong sa community, pang Instagram lang ‘yun,” she says, “[and] you’re polluting the environment.”

On Nov. 7, 2017, she and her friends thus hosted an intimate gathering where people can share stories about Yolanda, as well as music and art that rooted from the experience. “‘Pag may kwento ka, magkwento ka lang. If you want to cry, cry,” she says. The event was called “Mga Larog,” referring to the sediments that settle in the bottom of a tuba jug.

The goal is to tell their own story as opposed to others writing it for them. “We wanted to exercise our rights as storytellers … it was also our form of grieving, to collectively grieve, kasi we shared the same pain as a community, and of course to get strength and hope from each other na din,” Sustento says.

This inspired LiveRary, described as a “safe space where you can converse with experts and storytellers instead of reading a book, directed towards a just, equal and peaceful society based on solidarity and not division.” In LiveRary, storytellers (or “Living Books”) gather and make themselves available to a community willing to listen to what they have to say.

You would think that a place like Tacloban would embrace activism after encountering Yolanda, but engaging with citizens there is still a challenge, says Sustento. People are just beginning to grasp how, even as the Philippines contributes little to the climate crisis, it is still one of the most vulnerable to its effects.

“Some people are just working hard to survive, to provide for daily needs,” says Sustento. “How do you engage people from these communities? That’s why we’re banking on real life stories of people.” The stories ultimately reveal that we all have someone we love, someone to protect, she adds. “It’s the things we value most that are at risk.”

Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Bea Tulagan: storyteller and organizer
Climate Stories Philippines and

When she was younger, Bea Tulagan read poetry, fiction, and non-fiction to prepare her for the scale of her task today: “unearthing lived realities on the ground in the climate change era” via Climate Stories Philippines.

“We're a media non-profit [that] is completely crowdfunded and just starting out,” says Tulagan, one of the founders. “We trace our beginnings to a community member in Bataan telling us that they're not being given enough attention by the mainstream media unless there are killings or big protests in their area.”

The community member told them that climate change is neither advocacy nor campaign: it’s a daily reality affecting health and human rights. The non-profit’s launch piece reflected this crucial lesson, as it delved into the “coal death march” caused by a power plant in Bataan.

“Climate change is all about people,” Tulagan says. “It’s about the already marginalized rendered twice vulnerable by climate impacts”: fisherfolk and farmers with dwindling catch and produce, women and LGBTQ+ at risk of higher sexual violence when stranded in evacuation centers, people with disabilities affected by lack of inclusivity in adaptation practices, and community activists getting killed as they protest environmental destruction.

The need for more compelling stories is crucial for the lived reality of climate change. Tulagan, who is also the East Asia regional field organizer for, does her part by organizing and storytelling. “My hope is that the stories will inspire a whole new wave of support for the movement, and the people will want to organize and directly campaign for climate justice.”

Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Krishna Ariola: activist
Linghod Ph and Youth 4 Climate Hope

When Bacolod needed a strong environmental movement, a network of youth activists, led by Krishna Ariola, “stepped up to the call.” Ariola is the lead convenor of Youth 4 Climate Hope (Y4CH), a coalition of youth movements promoting climate action, as well as a leader for Linghod Ph, an environmental organization with members from across the Philippines.

Linghod Ph started over “cheap brewed coffee at the local market,” but soon grew into Y4CH — which also includes Youth Empowering Youth Initiative (YEY!), Humanist Alliance of the Philippines, Jr. (HAPI Jr.), Negrosanon Young Leaders Institute (NYLI), Akbayan Youth - Bacolod, and Bacolod CORE.

The groups have seen the passage of a Bacolod ordinance on plastic regulation, as well as an executive order declaring Negros coal-free. “Our campaigns, both online and offline, have worked wonders in the city level,” says Ariola. But the executive order is yet to be implemented properly. Officials still continue to discuss proposed coal power plant in their sessions.

Even so, Negros holds potential for advancing climate action in the region. “Negros Occidental is the renewable energy hub of the Philippines and the solar power capital of Southeast Asia, and we are positive that Negros is capable of developing renewable energy further,” Ariola says. “We see it as a model province that is fully capable of frontlining the battle for sustainability.”

This battle has found its way into the streets. On March 2019, Linghod and Y4CH joined protests simultaneously with the Global Youth Strike for Climate, this time calling for an ordinance for renewable energy growth. On April, they also joined calls for youth voters to elect leaders who will prioritize climate action in their agenda.

“Protests are our way of putting our campaign out into the streets. Digital activism has become the mainstream for 21st century advocates, but we've found that a multi-faceted approach works best, especially in a grassroots movement,” says Ariola. Beyond Negros, they plan to help organize localized, “geographically-relevant campaigns” in other cities. “We believe in starting movements from the grassroots level and empowering local initiatives,” she adds.

“Movements aren't all about protests, rallies, and demonstrations. It includes letter-writing, paperwork, endless calls, and other things that sound laborious and boring, but it's part of creating change,” says Ariola. “You have to keep moving, whether in front of a computer or out in the streets, and hope that one day, you win. And with enough wisdom, the right people, and an insane amount of bravery — you probably will.”

Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Aya de Leon and Niner Guiao: non-traditional lawyers

Parabukas, the law firm established by Aya de Leon and Niner Guiao, has a distinct portfolio: reporting on climate and forest policy, key stakeholder consultations on agriculture, participation in the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework for Climate Change, and a teleradyo show titled “Tayo Tayo,” among others.

“We see the value in applying our expertise to contexts and situations where there is a lack of attention to, or capacity in, legal and policy issues,” says de Leon.

The team works with government, NGOs, academe, and research groups to build connections between seemingly disparate stakeholders and to enrich law practice. “Although we are engaged in the practice of law, Niner [Guiao] and I have never seen ourselves working in a ‘traditional’ law setting,” says de Leon.

Their work takes them out of the courtroom and into the world, as in “Tayo Tayo,” a teleradyo show that attempts “to make these discussions more accessible and digestible, and to make the point that environmental concerns don’t exist in a vacuum,” says Guiao.

De Leon and Guiao observe that while climate change concepts are generally familiar to Filipinos, “there is still a lot of room to fill in terms of ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what now,’” says Guiao. Climate change in the Philippines, she adds, “is still often viewed from the perspective of disasters and disaster risk reduction and management, the worsening heat we all have to endure, erratic weather patterns” — in other words, from the perspective of mitigation.

“Climate change and how we must respond to it — especially in the Philippines — is much broader and more nuanced,” says Guiao, stressing the importance of adaptation. “Adaptation is about increasing our resilience, as well as reducing our vulnerability. Resilience doesn’t stop at being able to get up again after a crisis; it’s also about working on avoiding going through the same crisis a second or third time.”

Going beyond law and into policy and influence, De Leon and Guiao do not subscribe to any single solution, method, or system, even as ideas such as ending capitalism to fight climate change, among others, gain popularity. “We certainly understand the perspective linking climate change to capitalism, and that ending it, so to speak, would require an overhaul of the world’s economic, industrial, and even political, systems,” says Guiao. “The reality is, though, that we have very little time left to act.”

“We can’t afford to wait for the system to change before we act — we are changing the system as we act.”

Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Carlo Africa, Lou Gepuela, Paulo Burro, Pauline Alejandro, Ruzzel Morales, Asia Wy, Nicole Ponce: lobbyists
I Am Climate Justice

In his book “Shooting Stars, Dancing Fish,” environmentalist lawyer Antonio Oposa, Jr. talks of the LAW of life: that of land, air, and water. The young group I Am Climate Justice — comprised of law students, lawyers, educators, and community coordinators — also refers to such LAW when talking about the dangers of the climate crisis.

“Our aim is to show the world that young people are fighting for their right to live in a future with a balanced ecology,” says one of its members Asia Wy. “Especially from the youth in the third world countries or global south, which stands to be most affected by climate change.”

The group tries to address the climate crisis from multiple fronts. First, they urge young people to start local movements in their barangays or municipalities via the people’s initiative, an overlooked method of direct participation in the law. “This is a practice of direct democracy that is embedded in our Constitution, which states that people can petition their local governments to pass ordinances by initially gathering a minimum of 50 signatures for the barangay and 100 for municipality,” says Carlo Africa, one of the more visible faces of the group. These ordinances can be environmental ordinances that mandate road sharing, rainwater garden collection/edible landscape, marine sanctuaries and waste management, adds Africa’s colleague Paulo Burro.

“We think that this is an important strategy because in the Philippines, we can see the gap between written environment laws and actual implementation, particularly at the local level,” says Lou Gepuela. “Through grassroots organization and by mobilizing the community, we are empowering them and instilling co-ownership, letting them be part of this issue as well as part of the solution.”

The second front is the national government. Members of the group are lobbying for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Climate Change Commission, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources to sponsor a resolution in the next United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September.

“The resolution will trigger an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the question of ‘What are the duties of states to protect life, including human life, in light of the climate crisis?’” says Pauline Alejandro. “We filed the petition last April 22, 2019, Earth Day, and will re-file the petition on June 5, 2019, World’s Environment Day, where we hope to get a million signatures from our country.”

All these may sound overwhelming, but the truth of the climate crisis is it demands multi-sectoral efforts directed towards multiple levels of governance. It demands constant coordination, sustained pressure, and urgent calls for action repeated over and over again for as long as it’s not yet too late.

Will it be worth it? “We believe that anything that endangers our human rights to live in a balance and healthy environment is worth investing for,” says Ruzzel Morales. “It is unfair that the ‘business-as-usual’ mindset of the majority of the past generations will lead to a future that we are not secure about. The youth of today is taking action to reclaim this security to live.”