Sibalom, Antique – “We have planted over 10,000 seedlings in those mountains,” gestured Villa Abagon, a 70-year-old Forest Warden from Barangay Cabladan, toward the highlands of Antique. Heavily-denuded after the Second World War, the Sibalom Natural Park slowly regained its forest cover with the help of a few mothers, sisters and lolas (grandmothers, usually a term of endearment).
Though most of the country’s Bantay Gubat and Bantay Dagat (Forest and Coastal Wardens) are men, Lola Villa has been patrolling the woods and planting native trees as a female Forest Warden for over 40 years.
Dubbed the “mothers of conservation,” many women have become icons for the environment – Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Sylvia Earle, even young climate campaigner Greta Thunberg. The Greek personification of the planet Earth, Gaia, is a woman. Philippine tribes once revered the Babaylan, usually a woman who was part healer, part spiritualist or medium.
In many countries, however, women’s voices are still marginalized and unheeded. They may be ignored or undermined, which is why the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and United Nations Development Fund’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (DENR-UNDP BIOFIN) is working to mainstream gender equality in all aspects of governance and decision-making in environment and natural resources management across 41 countries.
To celebrate the Women’s Month, let us meet the women protecting and sustainably managing their home forests in Antique. “They showcase how women can make conservation more effective despite being busy with household chores, farming and other income generating work, plus their never-ending tasks as duty bearers,” said Anabelle Plantilla, National Project Manager for the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (DENR-UNDP BIOFIN). “These women put great value, time and effort into protecting forests. This is their avowed commitment,” she added.
This initiative is part of BIOFIN’s efforts to assist the Sibalom Natural Park in Antique develop its tourism products under the Year of the Protected Areas or YoPA Campaign that seeks to increase public awareness of protected areas (PAs), encourage people to visit and in turn, and increase the PAs’ revenues from tourism.
From Offices to Field Sites
“It’s been 35 years since I started working at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR),” mused Cynthia Blancia, Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer for Antique. “In my experience, women make great mediators as they are non-threatening and open to quiet discussions, listening to and drawing out people’s ideas. Almost all of our line managers and section heads here are women.”
Cynthia said she never experienced discrimination as the DENR is fair, progressive and gender-inclusive. “Food preparation is usually led by women. For fieldwork, we regularly hire both men and women as rangers and park wardens. Men and women have complementary skill sets. Though not as [physically] strong or tough as men, women are [characteristically] thorough and have a flair for style and beauty.”
Across Philippine offices and field sites, women are doing their part for conservation. The women rangers of the Sibalom Natural Park in Antique are no exception. They keep loggers at bay, plant both upland crops and native trees, and even extinguish the occasional deadly brush fire.
“My scariest moment as a Bantay Gubat was when we had to put out a raging fire. Even today, I can feel the searing heat and hear the crackle of dry leaves and the sizzle of burning timber. That was a long time ago – but I can still see flames eating up part of a mountain,” recalled Forest Ranger Lumen Tiongco.
Working alongside men, Lumen and other women rangers regularly clear brush to create fire lines, making the Sibalom Natural Park safer for visitors. “We also stop honey collectors from smoking out bees from their hives. As we learned the hard way, forests and fire could be a fiery combination.”
New Generation of Leaders
“The woods provide us with an endless array of non-timber products. We can harvest vines and leaves like Bakan, Balud, Bulo, Pandan, Rattan and Tapuyay to make hats, bags, baskets, hammocks, twine and anything else we can sell to augment our families’ incomes,” said Fe Geraldes Lonasco, the president of a people’s organization (PO), while showing off various locally-made handicrafts.
In return, the PO actively works to protect forests, sending out teams of volunteer wardens. “We don’t just protect these mountains. We help useful forest products flourish.”
Though most farmers and rangers are in their 40s or older, there’s a new generation of young women determined to take on their work.
“We had a brilliant biology teacher in school and I wanted to be just like her. I was eventually accepted at the DENR and I couldn’t be happier,” shared Sibalom Protected Area Management Office staff Elizabeth Ann Daquipil. “Today, we study and protect breathtaking areas like the Sibalom Natural Park, home to giant Rafflesia flowers and endangered birds like Walden’s and Tarictic Hornbills. It’s just as I always dreamed of. Biology!”
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Five (SDG-5) focuses on pursuing real and sustained gender equality. UNDP recognizes that truly sustainable human development can never be achieved unless women are able to contribute on an equal basis with men in their respective societies. “Promoting gender equality in all projects is just one aspect of BIOFIN’s work to develop and implement inclusive funding mechanisms to sustain biodiversity conservation,” said UNDP Resident Representative Dr. Selva Ramachandran.
As they have done for decades, the lolas, mothers and sisters of the Sibalom Natural Park in Antique continue to serve as stewards of nature, helping make forests safer and more productive for all.
“I’m near the end of my days and know that I won’t see many of the trees we plant grow tall,” mused Lola Villa. “I won’t see them, but my 15 grandchildren will. What we plant today connects our generation to theirs. Like our kids, these new forests are our legacy.” (BIOFIN 2/ Gregg Yan)