(Text by Euden Valdez; Photos by Alex Delos Santos)
“WE like to consider ourselves as strong, empowered women,” said Jessa Belle Garibay of herself and Karina May Reyes-Antonio.
No doubt they are!
As co-founders of Centre for Sustainability PH Inc. (CS), both women led the establishment of Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve as a critical habitat. Located in Puerto Princesa City, this 41,000 hectare, bio-diverse forest is home to some of Palawan’s endemic species, as well as the last remaining members of the indigenous Batak tribe.
On February 22, Jessa and Karina took a break from their work in Puerto Princesa City and shared their inspiring stories as women in environmental conservation at R.O.X.’s series of talks dubbed “Outdoor Guide.”
As administrative leaders of CS, Jessa and Karina told the intimate audience that it took them four, long years of convincing the Batak people and Puerto Princesa locals to join their cause, as well as never-ending lobbying with government organizations before the realization of their dream.
Cleopatra’s Needle was finally designated as a critical habitat by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a multi-sectoral and intergovernmental body, in November 2016.
According to Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, a critical habitat is a “portion of land outside a protected area that is characterized by the presence of threatened species, considering its endemicity and richness in the area as well as the presence of threats to its survival.” (“Cleopatra’s Needle in Palawan declared critical habitat” Rappler.com, 2016)
This has made Cleopatra’s Needle as only the seventh critical habitat in the Philippines, where ONLY 3 percent the forests are left. (It’s the heartbreaking truth.)
To be part of such a noble environmental movement in their own right truly proves that Jessa and Karina are strong and empowered women.
But needless to say, being young, petite and women in environmental conservation has brought them countless challenges to hurdle and difficult barriers to break.
The most prominent being the misconception that they lack strength. But don’t be fooled. Both Karina and Jessa have been molded tough by experiences and expertise.
Jessa is a marine biologist who has trained in making sustainable and environmentally correct trails in the US, while Karina is a community organizer who has dealth with communities involved in narcotics across South America. These are just the few of the many societal and enviromental work they have accomplished.
Eventually, they heed to the call of home. Upon returning, they realized that more than anywhere else in the world, here is where they can make a a bigger impact. Thus, the birth of Centre for Sustainability in Puerto Princesa City, the very birthplace of Jessa and other CS members.
So do they work full time in CS? “I say overtime,” gushed Karina.
She explained that the establishment of Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat was actually just the beginning. With it ensued more work from properly managing the area with the help of the Batak and locals, to putting up policies and resolutions —all because threats to the critical habitat remain to this day.
This summer, for example, CS will lead a training program that will deputize 40 community members as forest rangers. Another ongoing project is the protection of Almaciga trees, an endemic and endangered flora specie that is sacred to the Batak.
Beyond Cleopatra’s Needle, Karina and Jessa understands that Palawan’s treasures — not its famed islands but its prime, pristine forests — still need protection. Thus in the future, CS, through its women leadership, will set forth another ambitious environmental conservation effort: the designation of a new critical habitat in Sultan Peak, south of the province.
Even if it takes another four, long and challenging years.