“My biggest flex today is that I had breakfast with Howie Severino and he ate my oranges,” Celine beamed with pride.
We are conversing over Messenger as we do 99 percent of the time, given the nature of her work. Both old souls bound by a common love of trees, mountains, traveling, and words, our friendship is buoyed across time and space by lengthy after-work texts, emojis, and once-to-twice-yearly meetups with our closest friends.
She was facilitating the ASEAN Biodiversity Heroes Forum, a youth workshop on biodiversity – part of her tasks as a Young ASEAN Storyteller 2022 recipient. Only two days prior, she was in the forests of Bukidnon, where she currently works with the indigenous Manobo kids of the Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests. The latter is one of several biodiversity and Indigenous People (IP) grants she won the past year, this time through the Photographers Without Borders’ (PWB) Revolutionary Storyteller grant.
As an environmentalist and storyteller, an important part of what she does entails learning about the culture and traditions of indigenous people. IPs are often regarded as protectors and guardians of the natural world. Free from the ills of capitalism, their ways of living are based on a centuries-old spiritual relationship with nature. For them, nature is sacred and must be preserved for future generations. Thus, they only source what is needed to survive, then replenish whatever they take. In a world where resources are growing scarce by the minute, this is critical.
Celine treks to far-flung communities to glean from their wisdom on stewardship and living in greater harmony with nature. Using her sharp skills in photography, videography, and storytelling, she imparts what she learned through multimedia content that is accessible to all.
On other days, she’d be found elsewhere in the country, usually in Mindanao, either documenting wildlife in mountains and forests or creating a snappy Tiktok video on Philippine native trees aboard a shared camper van with her husband Dennis – a journey that began on January 2022.
Van life journey
Toward the end of the COVID lockdown, the high school sweethearts pooled years of savings and packed their barest essentials – a few pairs of clothes each, a camping stove and utensils, work-from-anywhere devices, and a trusty camping chair – to set off for the adventure of a lifetime. From their hometown in Angono, they drove Eli – a pre-loved Delica van they fished at a bargain and had customized into a camper van – toward Celine’s mother’s home in Sorsogon for a few weeks, before crossing to Samar and then to Mindanao – both via RORO.
But unlike many van lifers who set out for a nomadic lifestyle in pursuit of a new life, to escape the old, or to check off a before-I-die-bucketlist, Celine’s intention was explicitly geared toward a purpose larger than her. Her goal: to document the Philippines’ natural heritage, with the intention of raising awareness about it and its conservation among fellow Filipinos, and eventually, the world.
“Van life is not the end-all/be-all in any case”, the 31-year-old biodiversity advocate said. “It is simply the means to our end goal, which is to mainstream biodiversity.”
A commitment that goes beyond sightseeing
The Philippines remains one of the world’s most severely deforested tropical countries, losing around 316,000 hectares of forested land every year. As of 2021, it is estimated that less than 7 million hectares of the Philippines’ forest cover remain, or about 24 percent of its total land area – a stark contrast to 27.5 million hectares (70 percent) prior to the Spanish colonial period and 10.6 million hectares before Martial Law was declared in 1972. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cites the logging and mining industries as the top culprits, as well as the conversion of land into residential properties.
With this loss of habitat also comes the fast-dwindling numbers of the Philippines’ beautiful flora and fauna – many of which depend on forests to thrive.
The Philippines is a mega biodiverse country, with an astounding number of endemic species – species that only occur in a specific community or location. The country is home to 25 genera of endemic plants. Up to 49 percent of its terrestrial wildlife are endemic. It also ranks fourth in the world in the number of endemic birds. All these species are incredibly important in ensuring balance in the ecosystem.
Through her work, Celine hopes to inspire and empower everyone to help protect these species and “create a better place for their descendants.”
To accomplish this, she turns to the power of social media platforms in disseminating vital information to a wider audience. This includes setting up a Tiktok account, where she quickly amassed 35,000 followers in less than a year, thanks to her relatable, easy-to-digest, and fun toks on Philippine native trees. Tiktok – one of a few sacrifices for the greater good, she kids, apart from going vegan in an effort to reduce carbon footprint.
I met Celine in 2016 when she was still an Economics teacher in Rizal. Back then she dedicated her spare time to blogging on Celineism, a site that focused on hikes, budget trips, and responsible travel. We moved in the same travel blogging community and sometimes spent weekends hiking mountains together. It was during those hikes and by leafing through her blog entries that I first glimpsed into her passion for the natural world.
However, this innate curiosity actually began far earlier. As a child, she recalls climbing trees at every chance and reading books whose covers always have trees on them.
“Most naturalists and environmentalists would point to their childhood as their “origin story”: that they grew up “wild” or that their parents exposed them to it at a young age. My childhood is not like that. But I’ll often sneak out of the house to go climb a mango tree, Choco-choco in my pockets,” she laughs. “Then, in the summer, we’ll go on this long road trip to Sorsogon, where I live now, and along the way, we’ll pass by a huge Balete tree. My father would honk at it every time we pass by. It’s a sign of respect to the tree’s resident, my mother said. I never questioned that. To me, it made sense that trees like the Balete are inhabited, that it is a home. I think that was the earliest seed of my very spiritual and intimate relationship with the Natural World.”
From then on, Celine’s love for nature only grew deeper. She immersed herself in days to weeks-long excursions in the wild and consumed relevant books, such as Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree and Mary Oliver’s Devotions.
Even with a full-time job, she sought ways – workshops, conferences, grants – to enhance her know-how, keep abreast of environmental issues, and learn from peers and indigenous peoples. This, she says is also part of her continued efforts to upgrade her knowledge and skills, given her educational background.
“(When conducting workshops) I often get questions about my course in college. Sometimes I overthink, What if they don’t believe what I say because I am a Business major, not a Science major? But our educational background should not define us. Everything we need to learn can be learned by being in the forest. And with public-access research papers and journals, as well as working with a lot of experts for consultation when needed, nothing is impossible. We need to believe in ourselves that we can do it. That we deserve to take up space and have every right to be here. We must not be afraid to be seen. We have to be our number one fan.”
This dedication opened up opportunities for her such as grants that fund her advocacy and some notable wins, including bagging the Best Film Award (Open Category) in DOST-SEI’s 6th Indie-Siyensiya for her micro-documentary on native trees, “K5: Katutubong Kahoy Kontra Krisis sa Klima.”
To further hone her creative skills, she also taught herself bird and wildlife photography during the pandemic. This led to her memorable photograph of the Juvenile Yellow Bittern in Angono Lake, which ranked among 5 out of 165 entries chosen for the Tommy Schultz Travel and Adventure Photography Contest hosted by the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute. These photographs not only make impressive pieces in her larger body of work but also help fund their life on the road.
“Most people think we subsist on grants. The grants usually only cover project costs (production, necessary travel costs), but for living expenses, we get by through freelance work like writing for publications, selling our photographs, and our YouTube channel.”
Challenges and risks
It’s not all fun and rainbows, though, as many would think. Out on the road, van lifers are more vulnerable. Apart from unexpected mishaps, like car troubles in remote places, and not having the safety of a continuous income stream, burnout and depression are also common pitfalls. Hundreds of miles away from friends and relatives, Celine admits to regular bouts of “functional loneliness and exhaustion”.
“We love what we do, but sometimes it feels like we are in limbo. Dennis also sometimes worries that we’re overstaying our welcome on home bases. I have anxiety. There are times I feel really sad and tired and just want to sleep and eat junk food for weeks. In those times, I want to go home to Sorsogon. Be pampered by my Tita Chato. But I cannot due to grant commitments.”
She also candidly shares moments of existential crisis. “I know real change takes time, but sometimes I get caught up in the results and doubt if we are making progress.”
However, one of her bigger challenges as an environmentalist is the threat to life. With 19 eco-warriors killed in 2022, the Philippines remains the deadliest country in Asia for environmental defenders and consistently ranks among the most dangerous in the world for the same. Celine had a recent first-hand experience with such a risk when she was red-tagged by a Tiktok user for simply posting an educational video on Philippine Native Trees suitable for waterways.
“Of course, this frightens me, but I believe that it’s why it’s even more important to keep going. What we’re fighting for is a just and more compassionate world, and we will prevail or we’ll die trying.”
A kinder world for all
As someone who also sows native trees in our backyard only to sometimes find them chopped off by strangers, there are times I feel disheartened about the future of this world. The neglect and lack of respect that many humans exhibit toward nature wear me down. In those times, I turn to Celine. I ask if she ever gets tired of doing her work; how she copes, especially at the rate that global warming worsens by the day. Her words always offer me solace and hope. They leave me wanting to do this world I owe my breath to, this only home, justice.
“There is so much to do. I feel defeated at times because it seems it will not make a difference in the end, especially when I think about the climate crisis. But I also think it counts that at least we are doing something about it. We are here anyway, why not try what we can to make the world more livable? I want to be forever in the service of the version of the World we try to create – a better, kinder, more compassionate one.”
This story is an entry to COMCO Mundo’s “UNMASKED: The COMCO Mundo Write to Ignite Season 3”. The initiative aims to pull and collate powerful stories from the Philippine blogging communities. “UNMASKED” aims to explore how each mask is a person brimming with hope and wonders to share with others, as well as why it is important to tell their inspiring journeys in life. The “Write to Ignite” Season 3 is made possible by COMCO Mundo League of Enterprises, with airasia, Babyflo, PHILUSA Corporation, Century Tuna, Licealiz, Lamoiyan Corporation, Rémy Martin, and Uratex Monoblock as brand partners.
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