Communist Cuba, indigenous tribes, and Taylor Swift songs: all part of a young woman’s journey to defend the Philippines’ rainforests
Some people have meetings over Zoom, others trek for hours into remote rainforests to meet over coffee. KM Reyes does both.
The Australian-Filipino woman and five other youth behind Centre for Sustainability PH spent two years going back and forth just to earn the trust of communities living in the forests of northern Palawan island, Philippines. A journey easier said than done.
“It was 60 to 90 kilometers on our motorcycles,” KM recalled, mapping out their journey for me, “plus another hour of hiking from the highway, including 10 river crossings to actually make it to settlements.” That’s river crossing by foot, not by bridge—straightforward in the dry season, but frequently fatal once monsoon rains arrive.
Drowning isn’t the only risk they face. Though it’s safe for tourists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders. Palawan’s old forests are full of illegal miners, loggers, property developers, wildlife poachers, and other operators who prefer to have no witnesses to their work.
Dangerous as it may be, to KM and her team, the reward is worth the risk: they’re on a mission to protect the Philippines’ last 3% of primary rainforests. Those cups of coffee and dinner conversations in the heart of the jungle laid the foundations for what eventually became the Philippines’ largest critical habitat: Cleopatra’s Needle.
From university dropout to intersectional environmentalist
Ironically, KM’s route to environmental work in the forests of Palawan started with waiting tables in cities on the other side of the world.
KM laughed when I asked how she got started as a conservationist. “For Australians, it’s like you either finish high school, take a gap year, go overseas, travel. Or you finish high school, finish university, and then go overseas and travel. Or you go to high school, start university, feel really lost, drop out, and then go overseas and travel.”
She smiled wryly. “I was that third option.”
She found her way to Spain, then France, then eventually Latin America, sustaining herself by working nights in restaurants. Several years into her travels, Spanish skills earned her work behind a bar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, she also got involved with communities fighting for housing rights—her first foray into community organizing.
It wasn’t her last. When her visa expired, she traveled onwards to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the favelas of Rio, she continued community organizing work, this time with youth affected by narcotics trafficking.
One year later, a war between Venezuela and Colombia complicated KM’s travel plans. Concerned about her safety, her mother suggested she instead go to another country: Cuba.
At first, KM was taken aback. “Normal mothers, when their daughters are considered unruly, they send their children to boarding school or to, you know, somewhere strict or something.” KM laughed. “My mother says, ‘No, you should go to communist Cuba.’” Incredulous as she was, she went. “I thought I should listen to my mum for a change.”
On the surface, Cuba seemed similar to other Latin American countries, thanks to its language, climate, skin colors… but because of its purportedly egalitarian society, it was different. It felt different. The change in perspective inspired KM to try education again. She enrolled in an online course on environmental security… and eventually connected the dots between social and environmental justice.
“I was living in and with these communities very closely out of these really impoverished conditions: poor sanitation, poor access to education, terrible transport. The connection to all of that was our environment.” At the time, she was working with women in communities perched on hills threatened by landslides and scarce resources. She realized if communities reconnected with their environment and addressed problems like pollution, a healthy environment might solve some of their health issues, too. “Finding that intersection between community and environment was when everything kind of shifted.”
Returning to her roots
Seven years after she left to travel the world, KM returned home to Australia. But coming home made her realize there was one more destination she had to visit: her motherland.
Born in Sydney to Filipino parents who fled a dictatorship in the 1970s, KM had no personal roots in the Philippines. Not that she could separate herself from her heritage; growing up in majority-white Australia, she was no stranger to people questioning her origins because of the color of her skin. The racism made her try to bury her heritage. “I pursued friendships with a lot of ‘white people,’ I think because I wanted to feel like I’m not so brown.”
But after years of working with communities around the world, KM learned that being Filipino has benefits: compared to white people, it’s easier for brown people to be accepted by and work with other communities of color. “I was looked at as a colored person, even though everyone knew that I was Australian. They accepted me.”
After years of grappling with color complexes, her experiences working abroad paved the way to self-acceptance. The logical next step was to reconnect with her roots, so KM and her mother packed their bags and traveled to the islands of Palawan, Philippines. Six years later, KM is still there.
The importance of protecting paradise
“How to describe Palawan?” KM paused for a moment at my question, before a knowing smile tugged at the edges of her mouth. “It is, from ridge to reef, paradise.”
“The mountains are green and covered in lush, verdant rainforest. When you get down off the mountains, you hit the sand. And it’s turquoise waters, snorkeling in amazing pristine coral reefs, with turtles and giant clams. It’s just… it is paradise on earth.”
Paradise as it may be, Palawan is also extremely vulnerable. The long, narrow island cluster is known as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier. 95% of the country used to be covered in tropical forests. Now, only 3% are left, primarily in Palawan.
The islands’ dense canopy now shelters both threatened flora and fauna, and the industries threatening their existence. From pangolin poachers to tourism developers, the rainforests teem with people ravaging their resources for profit.
Localized as the threats may seem, protecting Palawan is everyone’s business: its forests are of global importance in our climate crisis era. Protecting biodiversity is crucial because deforestation and species extinction make pandemics more likely (the COVID pandemic is one example). “Old growth” forests are vital for carbon absorption; climate scientists say it’s essential to protect at least 30% of our natural land and water to avoid the worst disasters. Protecting environments like Palawan’s are key to all of our survival.
Ancestors of the forests
But how do you protect a rainforest the size of the state of Connecticut?
That’s where Centre for Sustainability PH comes in.
In typical traveler fashion, upon her arrival in Palawan, a Couchsurfing host recommended KM connect with Centre for Sustainability PH. The team of young environmentalists were well-versed in the biology of conservation work, but lacked community organizing experience… a gap KM was perfectly suited to fill. She and the team hit it off immediately, and soon the five Palawenyos — who all hail from indigenous and local communities of Palawan — plus KM were venturing out to talk with the locals who know the forests best: their indigenous people.
Their focus was a sprawling region of mountainous forest in northern Palawan, crowned by the pointed peak of Cleopatra’s Needle. CS works with several indigenous communities in the region, including the Batak tribe. Cleopatra’s Needle has long been Batak domain, but years of encroachment on their lands have caused their domain to dwindle: there are only several hundred Batak people left on Palawan. Luckily, knowledge of the forests is not something people can easily take away from them.
“[Batak people] look at the forest like we look at Google Maps. They look at trees like signposts and landmarks,” KM explained, laughing as she told me of the times her team got lost and had to be rescued by their Batak partners. “They will definitely talk in terms of, you know, ‘the third tree at the fourth river crossing that had the white mark’… these are things that especially for me as a city person that I just don’t understand at all—I just see a tree. And when I’m in the jungle, I see lots of trees.”
Powerful as the Batak community’s ecological knowledge is, their power to legally defend their lands was limited. Because Cleopatra’s Needle was designated as public land, the Batak community couldn’t hold land grabbers accountable. Language barriers and lack of resources made it difficult for them to claim “ancestral domain”, the indigenous rights to their land.
Recent years brought yet more challenges: not only does the Batak community have illegal land grabbers to contend with, they now have to deal with tourists, too.
For a long time, Batak people dressed in loincloths made out of bark. KM explained that now, “they wear a lot of clothes because of the fact that there are a lot of outsiders coming in, and they don’t want outsiders peering at them strangely… they’re very sensitive to that.”
But outsiders haven’t changed everything. “Because of those changes, they’re very cognizant of how that looks, the optics of it. But at the same time, they know very clearly who they are. And because of this connection to their land, they’re not going anywhere.”
Knowing the harms of invasive outsiders, whether to work with the Batak community was a tough question for CS. “Is this really an ethical thing for us to be doing to be coming in, to be meeting with them?” KM asked. Even though some of the team members are indigenous, the answer wasn’t clear. “Half of the community initially didn’t want to work with us. They just wanted to be left alone.”
Ultimately, the team decided to try, because “If we don’t, if it’s not us that comes in, someone else will come in with very different objectives.”
We’re never ever ever getting back together
The Batak community wasn’t convinced overnight. Even after two years of trekking into the forest to meet with Batak leaders and collaborate on smaller projects, not everyone trusted the young CS team.
Frustrating as it was, KM can laugh about it now. “I always joke that it was like that boyfriend out of that Taylor Swift song ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. Like, are we together? No, we’re not. We are together! No, we’re not!” After months of indecisiveness, KM’s patience ran out. “I remember saying to my colleague, ‘Okay, if they say no, this time, we are never ever ever getting back together. I’m not coming back here. That’s it.’”
The community gathered for a final vote on the matter, but the outcome seemed grim: all the male leaders were still adamantly opposed to working with the young, women-led team.
Fittingly, it was the sole woman tribal councillor who stood up and changed everything. “You can keep saying yes and no, and too-ing and fro-ing,” KM’s eyes glowed with respect as she recounted her speech, “But every single time we lose time, we’re losing more forest. We’re losing more ancestral domain. Our kids are losing their access to their land.”
Because of that woman, everything changed: the community agreed to work with the CS team. Together, they spent years co-developing conservation projects, researching the area, and lobbying politicians. After a long, uphill battle, in November 2016, the group’s demands were met: almost 100,000 acres of forest were officially declared Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, the largest protected critical habitat in the country.
A critical new era
Protected status isn’t an instant cure, but it is a powerful defense. Before, the indigenous communities had little control over the people coming to exploit their land. Now, they have the weight of the law behind them.
Since the designation, CS has since worked with the Batak and other indigenous communities to train members to work as park rangers. Not only do they defend Cleopatra’s Needle from unscrupulous outsiders, the rangers also conduct research in the area, both for academia and to strengthen their case when authorities are needed. A management team is now devising a sustainable tourism plan to support the rangers’ work.
As for KM, her roots seem to be firmly planted on Palawan for now. She and the rest of the CS team are already busy with their next major project: protecting 10,000 more acres of critical habitat in an area known as Kensad.
When I asked KM what her end goal was, she laughed and answered honestly: she wants to protect all of Palawan. A tall mountain for KM and her coworkers to climb—and possibly get lost on—but protecting 100,000 acres of rainforest by the age of 30 is certainly a solid start.
How to support KM and the Centre for Sustainability PH
We all need to work together to fight climate change. Grassroots organizations like Centre for Sustainability PH are some of the most effective changemakers, and they need all the help they can get. Here’s how you can lend a helping hand from home:
The easiest, cheapest way to support their work is to follow them on social media and engage with their content. Sounds simple, but KM likened it to volunteering for them. Don’t just like their posts—comment, share, and/or save posts when you see them.
Centre for Sustainability PH social media:
Why do socials matter? When the team meets with politicians, politicians look them up. Widespread support on social media can convince politicians as much as carefully crafted proposals. KM credited Cleopatra’s Needle’s success to their social media campaign.
Donations fund a variety of projects—their most recent fundraising campaign was to pay the indigenous rangers a fair wage for the dangerous work they do (they’ve volunteered for years).
Sharing CS’ work with your own networks can help them reach new audiences. All the CS team members are happy to be hosted on podcasts, conduct webinars, give talks, etc. If interested, contact them on the Centre for Sustainability PH website.
Author’s note: Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.