On Community, Conservation and the Centre for Sustainability: A Conversation with KM Reyes

Palawan, the final frontier – or rather, the Philippines’ last ecological frontier. Long ago, 95% of the country was covered with virgin rainforests, now only 3% remains. Yet somehow the Philippines remains one of seventeen megadiverse countries with the highest concentration of terrestrial biodiversity on Earth. This means that on one square meter of Philippine land, you’ll find more diversity of flora and fauna than anywhere else in the world.

For the past five years, Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, has been home to KM Reyes, a conservation lobbyist, community organizer and National Geographic Explorer. I first found the group through Instagram – sometimes social media can do some good things. The organization was raising funds for it’s rangers, who were part of the Indigenous peoples group in the area they were working in. I quickly read through their work and story and was immediately sold on this group. Eventually I got in contact with KM and we’d go back and forth through Instagram DMs about sustainability, racism, gender equality. Today I set up my laptop, hope the internet connection is stable enough and get on a Zoom call with KM herself. In an interesting turn of events, she’s in my home base of Metro Manila, while I’m dialing in from the paradise she calls home.

Where it all started – An origin story

KM comes from a line of very strong women. In the 1960s her grandmother left an unhappy marriage (something that would have been unheard of, especially in Philippine culture) and migrated with her eight children to the country of Australia, around the time that Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law on the nation. Her mother, a journalist, single-mom and change-maker taught KM that, in her own words, “Even kapagmahirap, what I learned was, even if you’re in a really hard position you should always serve those that are in a harder position than yourself.”

Named after kabataan muna (Youth first), KM is taking after her trail-blazing role-models and is setting her own path – living youth first, no matter what age she is. At twenty, she left Australia to spend a few years in Europe and Latin America – the latter being where she started getting involved in change-making work, specifically in conservation work.

A visit to the motherland

In 2014, KM headed to the Philippines for the first time, found a new home in Palawan, and together with fellow activists, started the Centre for Sustainability Ph, or CS. CS is a women-led, youth, environmental non-profit organization founded on the sole purpose of conserving the remaining pristine rainforests.

Moreover, CS has a heart for empowering local communities. It is an Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) organization, which means that CS is made up of members who are themselves part of the communities it works with. This is important to KM, as when she made the decision to go into environmental conservation, she realized that if she wants to do meaningful work with communities and empower them, she has to do it through connecting communities with their immediate environment. From communities, for communities and to communities

This is an especially crucial endeavour in Palawan, and Cleopatra’s Needle was one place where CS’ work is evident.

Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle is the highest peak and largest watershed of Puerto Princesa City, rising 1,593 meters above sea level. It’s also home to the disappearing Batak Indigenous Peoples Group,with about 200 members left).The peak of this mountain is sacred to the community, known as the Puyos ni Bayi (the hair bun of the woman Bayi, a common woman of the forest and the foremother of the Batak).This is one reason why it was important to KM and the rest of the CS team to establish the area as a critical habitat, along with it being the biggest watershed of the city, and home to 31 globally threatened species and countless unique flora and fauna. The organizations’ latest research shows 61 endemic Palawan species in the area alone.

The other founding members of CS grew up in the area, and view Cleopatra’s Needle as their home, so in 2014 the team started the process of working with the local indigenous communities, obtaining their consent to establish the area as a critical habitat, which is an environmental designation which labels the land as protected, giving the indigenous peoples first rights to the area.

The CS team did this through community organizing (gathering stakeholders in the community such as Local Government Units and Indigenous Communities), scientific research (which KM refers to as the fun part, launching expeditions into the area and discovering all the different species) and eventually, once getting the support of the communities and scientific data, then political lobbying to the decision makers/politicians. For Cleopatra’s Needle, this process took CS four years to accomplish.

On Empowering Local Communities

Empowering the local communities to speak out about what they want for their community and the critical habitat is important to CS. For KM, true sustainable work only comes if you empower all the indigenous communities to speak up rather than being dependent on them as an organization.

“We’re facing a huge environmental crisis around the world”, says KM. “ we’re really losing our last wild places very fast. We see what’s happening in the Amazon, we see what’s happening in Indonesia, we see what’s happening in Malaysia, in the Philippines – all around the world these last reservoirs of biodiversity that also provide clean water and clean air parang (like) they’re all being destroyed. A big reason why they’re not being properly protected is that the communities that are living in and around these areas, who are basically the gatekeepers, can destroy the area, they can protect the area, they can also defend the area. But none of that happens because they’re not empowered to do so, So in terms of significance of what IPLCs can do, it’s central to any kind of sustainability plan that we’re going to have as a planet – statistically, indigeneous communities are actually responsible for 30% – indigenous lands make up 30% of wild places around the world- so 30% of land. So if you look at it statistically, if we already empowered indigenous communities to be able to protect their land, ayun na (then there) we would’ve already protected 30% of the planet. So the significance of indigenous and local communities in conservation cannot be underemphasized. There’s a lot of lip service about local communities doing this work. Put them in a situation where they don’t have to exploit the resources and put them in a position where they can defend these areas, that’s already going to make a huge shift to how conservation looks and it’s much cheaper.”

For KM, community involvement is the most important part of sustainable development, without having the frontline communities on board, the rest is moot.

On Gender Equality in the field of Sustainable Development and Environmental Conservation

“Firstly, in the field of sustainability and conservation, it’s completely gender unequal and this is obviously a huge issue. In terms of harmful development and ineffective conservation, women are always the worst out. We’re the more vulnerable of the genders and all kinds of policies will always affect us, or more negatively affect upon us than the men,” says KM.

“Decision makers are overwhelmingly men, they’re also overwhelmingly white. The policies, the benchmarks they all come from the global north. So you’re looking at predominantly white men who have a disproportionate level of power over decisions in sustainable development and conservation – and you have these decisions disproportionately and negatively impacting women of color in the global south. So there’s just a complete gender imbalance.

There’s actually a really big reason why, Centre for Sustainability Ph, we’re incredibly vocal about being a women-led organization. As soon as we assert our achievements through the prism of being a woman – it’s standing up for yourself, and that in itself is a political statement because you’re basically trying to shift the power dynamic around the current narrative of who can achieve what and where and how.

A couple of months ago during international women’s month here in the Philippines, I was talking to my colleague Aubrey, and I said to her ‘hey could you help me brainstorm what are the advantages of being a woman?’ and she just looked at me and was like ‘uhhh wala (there isn’t any)’. So I think it’s also really important to highlight that. That everything we achieve in the conservation space and the sustainable development space in general is not at all because being a woman serves us in any way. We’re dealing with making decisions at the political, social and economic level and the fact that about 50% of the population, that’s just not being consulted in a meaningful and impactful way to influence these decisions. If we look at the multiple crises that we face right now, there is something to be said about the fact that we are going through these crises at the same time that the vast majority of our decision makers to make these crises is skewed towards one gender and therefore it is impossible to untie that from our cups. So yeah, I mean obviously I very strongly believe in gender equality, it needs to happen – there’s no two ways about it.”

Advice for young people who want to be change makers

“Sustainability, change making work, and conservation starts at home. Becoming more sustainable in your own life is very important before anything else. Doing research about what exactly to do is also very important. And I guess, I always say – well not one size fits all, but the way that I did it was that I started by volunteering to get to know organizations and to better understand what I do and don’t like. Through volunteering, it really informed what I wanted to study, what actual real paying jobs I want to pursue in this space. So yeah, I’d recommend volunteering. Luckily now, because of the pandemic, ironically, there’s a lot of opportunities for a lot of volunteer work. So I always say start local, try to find your own local organizations or projects or movements or groups that are doing change-making work here in your immediate environment, in your immediate neighborhood. Volunteering is the quickest and easiest way to kind of get a name for yourself in your chosen field of change making and getting to know the players and also without having to feel the need to perform, to be good, because obviously when you’re a volunteer there’s just a lot more room for error that when you’re studying or getting a job. So yeah, it’s good for your resume and you meet lots of people through it. So I would say, once you’ve done the change-making work in your own space at home – then volunteering is a way of finding out what you’re really interested and passionate about.”

ACTIVATING A GENERATION