Women Are Leading the Charge to Save the Philippines’ Last Frontier

The lush island province of Palawan is under threat, and conservationist Jessa Belle Garibay-Yayen has made it her mission to protect it for both her own generation and generations to come.
Jessa Belle Garibay-Yayen conducting an environmental education program with kids in Kalakwasan

Courtesy of Jessa Belle Garibay-Yayen

Caffeine factored heavily into Jessa Belle Garibay-Yayen’s early days of getting the Centre for Sustainability PH off the ground. Six years ago, when she and her cofounder, Karina May Reyes, were developing their vision for protecting the lush island province of Palawan from deforestation and development, they would visit community members’ homes just to talk. “I like to say we’ve mastered the art of drinking coffee—we were having about eight cups a day,” Garibay-Yayen says with a laugh. “Because of this strategy, we've planted ourselves deep into the community and now we have a strong backing from local stakeholders. We really take pride in that. And the Indigenous peoples that we work with actually grow their own coffee, so that was quite nice too.”

Garibay-Yayen also takes pride in the fact that the Centre for Sustainability is a woman-led organization. “Not only is this society itself very patriarchal, but conservation and nature work are male-dominated, too, even though many women in Palawan were raised exploring the outdoors,” she says. Typically, she adds, it is men who speak out in the community meetings of the Batak people, the tribe living in the northeastern portion of the island that is also considered one of the most threatened Indigenous communities of southeast Asia. “Women have different strategies as far as leadership and working with communities are concerned.”

Seeing women at the helm of the Centre for Sustainability, she notes, helped encourage some Batak women to speak up for the protection of their forest home. Together with Garibay-Yayen and her colleagues—who worked in close collaboration with government agencies and other NGOs—they helped secure the November 2016 designation of Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, named for the peak (locally known as Puyos ni Bayi, or Puyos for short) that forms the centerpiece of the forest. That measure set aside 100,000 acres of the landscape, home to the remaining 200 members of the Indigenous Batak tribe and a stronghold for threatened and endemic species like the Palawan hornbill, Palawan forest turtle, Palawan bearcat, Palawan monitor lizard, and Palawan pangolin. With its new designation, the Palawan forest became the Philippines’ largest critical habitat (a portion of land sheltering threatened or endemic wildlife outside a protected area) by sevenfold.

Garibay-Yayen holding a Palawan horned frog

Erickson Tabayag

Garibay-Yayen is a hometown conservationist, having grown up in Puerto Princesa, a progressive city that comprises the central 20 percent of the long island of Palawan, known for its picturesque limestone caves. It’s considered the Philippines’ “last frontier” because until now, due to a relatively low population density, it has mostly staved off the deforestation that’s devastated other areas of the country. About half of the province’s primary forests remain intact, and it’s been internationally recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1990. But, Garibay-Yayen says, a lot has changed since she was a child and Palawan now faces threats from mining as well as the impacts of unregulated tourism—including poor waste management, water pollution, and biodiversity loss—happening throughout the island. “We saw a challenge but also an opportunity for us to protect the province where we come from. Conservation work is an urgent matter, and it needs to be taken up by the young people who are going to inherit this land.”

At 29, Garibay-Yayen is one of the people whose generation’s future is on the line, and she recognized those stakes early on. After participating in a leadership program in high school where she spoke to students about environmental issues, she stumbled into a Japanese scholarship program that provided funding for her to study biology and marine environments in Palawan. (Only later, after a stint doing trail work and habitat restoration with EarthCorps in the Seattle area, did she shift her focus to the terrestrial environment.) “The scholarship program was super effective because I realized how beautiful my home is and how much work is needed here. So that basically started everything,” she says.

Save the Endangered Species Act

Garibay-Yayen’s path of advocacy for her home turf led her to Geneva in 2019, where she was a key participant in a meeting during the 18th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There, she served as a technical advisor to the Philippine delegation and helped win protections for two otter species: the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter. The Asian small-clawed otter is endemic to Palawan but both face such severe threats from the pet trade, poaching, and habitat loss that they are considered vulnerable to extinction. In an effort to protect the otters from the global wildlife trade, the Philippines joined forces with India and Nepal at CITES to list them on Appendix I, granting them the highest level of protection under the international law.

Garibay-Yayen felt inspired by the experience of seeing the international collaboration firsthand. “It was also so amazing at the end of the process to go back to my small community here in Palawan, where people are seeing the animals on a regular basis, and experience how CITES directly affects us and the work that we do,” she adds.

Garibay-Yayen conducting a meeting with Batak

Courtesy of Jessa Belle Garibay

Paul Todd, a senior staff attorney at NRDC and part of the organization’s international wildlife conservation team, helped secure the funding for Garibay-Yayen to travel to Geneva to participate in the meeting and to establish educational programs about enforcement. He initially connected with her through Alessandro Ponzo, the executive director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, a group that collaborates with Garibay-Yayen on the ground and has worked with NRDC on various otter advocacy efforts. “I can’t say enough good things about Jessa,” Todd says. “She’s a vibrant leader who brought great energy and knowledge to the meeting. I think it was an important learning experience for her, and it’s great to have a strong, local partner in this incredibly diverse region of the Philippines.”

While Garibay-Yayen looks forward to the next CITES meeting, her focus remains at home. She recently returned from a 10-day expedition in the forest, working with scientists and local community members to assess habitats and which species are thriving. Meanwhile, the Centre for Sustainability is hard at work trying to secure protections for an area in the south of Palawan that is threatened by extractive activities. As Garibay-Yayen signs her emails: “Power to the Forest!”  

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