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KM Reyes: CS, a Passion for Conservation

Towards the conservation of Palawan’s last remaining forests thru CS

As Palawenyos, we grew up swimming in the sea with turtles and exploring the wild forests of our island, but a lot has changed between childhood and adulthood.

KM Reyes on what moved her to spearhead the establishment of Centre for Sustainability PH

We are on the last week Philippine Environment Month! In this month’s Pinay Narrative, we are glad to share KM Reyes’ story whose work at Centre for Sustainability (CS) PH has been paving the way towards the conservation of Palawan’s last remaining forests.

KM Reyes is the Co-Executive Director & Co-Founder of the Centre for Sustainability (CS) PH. CS is a women-led, youth, environmental non-profit based in the island of Palawan – Philippines’ Last Ecological Frontier. They work to conserve land and protect Palawan’s last remaining forests by the establishment of protected areas, through community organising, scientific research, and political lobbying. She is also a trailblazing National Geographic Explorer whose work also relates to environmental conservation.

Her passion for communities began in South America where she focused on empowerment projects in education and non-violence with impoverished urban communities affected by narco-trafficking. For KM, her outlook on community work drastically changed when she observed the disconnection of people with their immediate environment despite vulnerabilities to environmental disasters. This led her to pursue development projects encouraging communities to protect immediate nature and wildlife that surrounds us.

We asked KM Reyes what moved her to spearhead the establishment of Centre for Sustainability PH

As Palawenyos, we grew up swimming in the sea with turtles and exploring the wild forests of our island, but a lot has changed between childhood and adulthood.

KM Reyes

Today Palawan’s natural beauty is under real threat from unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources and unsustainable development programs, and our seas and forests are no longer like they were. Cleopatra’s Needle in Puerto Princesa City (PPC) is one of these wild forests that we explored since childhood that was threatened from this unsustainable and illegal exploitation, and we had a dream to protect it. Cleopatra’s Needle is the highest peak and one of the largest watersheds of PPC, the ancestral lands of the last 200 members of the disappearing Batak tribe, and home to countless endemic flora and fauna, including the world’s #1 poached animal, the Philippine Pangolin, and other charismatic species like the Asian Small-clawed Otter, the Palawan Bearcat, the Philippine Cockatoo, the Palawan Hornbill, among countless others! However, our experiences had taught us that nobody will seriously listen to us neither as youth, nor as women, so decided to create the Centre for Sustainability PH, Inc. (CS) to better organise our passionate efforts and have a stronger voice to influence decision-makers to protect Cleopatra’s Needle and all other forests of Palawan!

The Philippines is 1 of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world, hosting 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. It used to be 95% covered in rainforest, but now only 3% of this forest remains, mainly in Palawan.

TFJ asked KM, “As a young founder of an award-winning organization, what is/are the most challenging conditions that you had to deal with in your mission?”

She shares 4 challenges as a woman leader in the field and the conditions CS has to deal with.

Being a woman leader and lobbyist. We are two young women, Jessa Garibay and myself that are the principal lobbyists and Co-Directors of CS. From day one we have worked in a male-dominated environment where patriarchy reigns supreme from field work to board rooms. Our abilities have been questioned every step of the way—from our physical strength in hiking to reach our remote indigenous communities or withstand treacherous and gruelling expedition conditions deep in the jungle, to our capabilities in successfully lobbying and making ourselves heard by older, male decision-makers. On different occasions, I have experienced stakeholders tell me how to dress; interrupt my presentation to request my marital status; advise me that hiking is not an appropriate activity for women; openly make lewd comments to me; and even clearly show disinterest in relating to me as a leader because I am a woman.

Funding for human resources in environmental projects is extremely scarce, and it effectively renders us career volunteers, rather than conservation professionals. While funders may be generous in covering project costs, 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—at CS we often take on more 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. So being able to attract talent to CS, and then sustain and build our team so we can make concrete conservation impacts in Palawan is one of our toughest challenges.

CS is a tiny team, executing huge projects. For example, in our flagship site Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat (CNCH), we are 6 staff liaising with countless stakeholders from the local to international level, and conducting field work in a forest area that is 41,350 ha., or two-thirds our National Capital Region! 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! And sometimes we’re doing a combination of these tasks at the same time! So that said, while the lack of human resources has been extremely challenging, fighting day in, day out for over 6 years despite the overwork, and still coming out triumphant has been monumental!

We’re young, and we’re a young organisation, but we’re trying to convince powerful decisionmakers that are often twice our age! When we first started working in Cleopatra’s Needle the average age of our team was 21—our youngest team member was 17, and the oldest 28. We have all been brought up to simply respect and obey our elders, so it has been really challenging for us to have the confidence to speak out, and gain the recognition of much older decision-makers across all stakeholder groups—from local community leaders to national politicians—and most importantly, for them to listen to us! Even more so as projects of this magnitude are usually executed by bigger and older international organisations who are far more qualified and experienced than us—so at times we have definitely felt insecure, overwhelmed, discouraged, and just plain mad to take on an endeavour this big!

CS currently works with 12 communities and this is how they identified them

At CS we work in two major sites: 1. Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat in Puerto Princesa City (since 2014) 2. Kensad watershed in the municipality of Narra, which is our new target site for environmental designation (since 2019) At CNCH, we work with 7 lowland coastal communities and 3 upland Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities (10 total). At Kensad, we currently work with 1 lowland community and 1 upland IP community (2 total), though we will be working with more communities from this area by 2021.

Identifying our community partners goes like this:
1

We determine the unprotected Key Biodiversity Area that we think could be valuable to protect.

2

We identify the concerned Local Government Units, both municipal and barangay.

3

We approach these LGUs, and present our organisation and our work.

4

Once we have established relationships with these LGUs, LGU staff will connect us to their constituent communities and relevant leaders of these.

It is crucial to note that our community work is the basis and compass for all our conservation efforts. So each step we take is based on due process of consultation and consent with the relevant communities which then directly guides how our work evolves weekly, monthly, yearly. We only decide on and take further steps in our sites based on the information and wishes communicated to us by the communities. So coordinating conservation efforts with the local communities during quarantine has been near impossible as we cannot visit or gather, and our most important work has effectively stopped during this period. We have remained in phone contact with our lowlander communities and local leaders, and they have been able to communicate any emergency concerns or needs they have there. For example, when the community forest rangers at Cleopatra’s Needle encountered illegal forest fires for swidden farming during quarantine, we facilitated coordination with appropriate government agencies via phone communication only. Our indigenous partners have limited to no phone coverage so it has been very challenging to know how they all are. However, when they have had emergency needs they will go down to their fellow lowlander community members who have then communicated to us. For example, they had problems securing face masks and rubbing alcohol so we conducted donation drives through our social media which we then dispatched to them.

Greatest achievement KM values most as an individual explorer and as the co-founder of Centre for Sustainability PH

As CS Co-Founder, our greatest achievement so far has clearly been the legal establishment of Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, now the Philippines’ biggest Critical Habitat!

KM Reyes

Cleopatra’s Needle

However, on an individual level, my proudest moments are always those involving our communities. An early example is that of Nanay Erlinda Delos Angeles, sole female tribal councilor of her indigenous Batak community and mother of 3, who stood up to her powerful male co-councilors in a key community decision-making meeting. She looked small and weak, but her Batak words were BIG and STRONG. “The talking has to stop!” she said. “It’s time to act, and it’s time to act NOW.”

So we all listened to her, and we have not looked back since! As a National Geographic Explorer, a recent example has been bringing community and IP forest rangers from CNCH who are trained as para-biologists, to assist in conducting scientific research over at our new site Kensad! With the support of the National Geographic Society last year, CNCH forest rangers successfully completed trainings on not only how to conduct independent biodiversity research (and thus reduce dependency on outside scientists to understand the biological importance of their own area), but also how to disseminate their findings with their communities and key political decision-makers to shape environmental management on this island. So witnessing conservation efforts spread on the ground directly from one community to another is definitely one of the greatest achievements I value most. I highlight here that this achievement belongs to the CNCH forest rangers because they sacrificed a lot of time, energy, income, and attention away from their families, to complete these trainings.

Future plans as a woman for conservation

I have a few plans on my wish list:

1. With our team at CS, we hope to complete the protection of all Key Biodiversity Areas of Palawan. The United Nations says that 30% of the Earth needs protection by 2030 (a mere 10 years!) if we’re to ensure clean drinking water and a stable global climate for all. Our mission is to complete protection of Palawan’s forests—with only 300,000 ha. remaining (or 7 times Cleopatra’s Needle), it really is a concrete and attainable goal!

2. I want to professionalise conservation meaning I want the philanthropic community to really recognize the talent and professionalism that goes into conservation by allowing more funding for salaries and compensating conservationists for their hard work. I have seen so many young and bright conservationists give up promising and impactful careers in the sector, and move to other more lucrative but less impactful professions because they also have to support their families and make a decent living. Considering the state of the world today, and how much we need conservationists, this is really heartbreaking for me.

3. By professionalising conservation, I hope this will attract more WOMEN to stay in the sector, because women conservationists are as endangered as the species we protect! We are endangered as conservationists because we are excluded on so many levels—in field work, in STEM careers, in being heard in political circles about resource management, development, and sustainability, among countless others! Most importantly, because conservation careers are unsustainable, and women are often major breadwinners in our households, we are excluded because it is a financial luxury or sacrifice to be a woman conservationist, and we are pressured by our families and society to pursue more sustainable professions.

KM’s 3 takeaways for individuals who also want to get involved and support conservation efforts in the Philippines

Conservation starts at home. So make sustainable choices. Some obvious examples are: 1) Refuse, Reduce, Reuse; 2) avoid single-use disposable plastic and be ready with your own reusable gear; 3) use public transport

Volunteer at your LOCAL nature/wildlife organisation. If you have the means, Donate to your LOCAL nature/wildlife organisation if you believe in their work. Very importantly FOLLOW your local nature/wildlife organisations on social media—when we have a ‘following’ decision-makers listen to us.

Get outdoors to discover nature and wildlife—the more you learn to appreciate it, the more passionate you will be to protect it!


Get in touch with Centre for Sustainability PH, Inc. through the links provided below:

Center for Sustainability PH

Insights by KM Reyes and The Filipina Journal

Images by Centre for Sustainability PH Team, Duncan Murrell, Kyra Hoevenaars, Kyle Venturillo, JR Lapuz, Singtel Optus & John Yayen

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