Welcome home, Bernaditas de Castro Muller!

Last December 14, 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland, Bernaditas de Castro Muller passed peacefully into eternal life. Ditas was a Filipino diplomat with only a few equals, a champion of developing country interests, lioness and dragon lady of the climate change negotiations, and my comrade in the fight for climate justice and my good friend.

Today, Saturday, the 16th of February 2019, her family and the Filipino diplomatic and climate change community will welcome Ditas home. We are grateful to her husband and daughter for bringing her ashes here to the Philippines and giving us whom she work with and this country she served a chance to tell her: Maraming salamat, Ditas! Thank you very much for all you have done for the Philippines, for developing countries challenged by climate change and other global issues, and for our planet endangered by the foolishness and greed of men!

It was not a coincidence that Ditas left the world last December as the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP 24) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was drawing to a close in Katowice, Poland. I was there when the news of her passing spread and universal grief was the response in the halls of the International Congress Centre where COP 24 was being held. Secretary Emmanuel De Guzman, Vice-Chair of the Climate Change Commission and head of delegation of the Philippines, acknowledged this in his final statement: 

“For the work we cannot finish in our time, we shall pass on to our younger colleagues. After all, climate change is an intergenerational challenge that requires the passing of the baton of responsibility from one generation to another.

It is in this context, Mr President, that the Philippines conveys its appreciation to the COP Presidency and the Parties for the thanks extended to Bernarditas de Castro Muller of the Philippines. 

Ditas, as colleagues fondly called her, passed on peacefully yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland. She was one of the prime movers of the Convention. For many years, she led the climate finance negotiators of the Group of 77 and China.

Bernarditas was once described by the Guardian as the “dragon lady” of the climate negotiations. Others have called her the “lioness” of developing countries. She was feared by some but loved by many. But we were always awed by this magnificent woman who dressed in the colors of Asia and Europe, who pulled everywhere her roll-on luggage full of COP decisions, who would recall with unparalleled mastery every article of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement, and who always spoke with impeccable English. 

Above all, we remember her passion for people and this planet, and for climate justice. We remember Bernarditas for her generosity, especially in mentoring young Filipino and developing country negotiators. Beyond her institutional legacy, she lives on in the hearts and minds of the younger colleagues she had taught and inspired.

Mr. President, with the passing of Ditas, the Philippines lost a dear colleague; the developing countries lost a champion of their cause; and the world lost a great citizen. 

May the passion and commitment we saw in Ditas inspire us and those who will come after us to carry on the work in the climate negotiation process. 

Let us honor her by making the Convention and the Paris Agreement work for all humanity.”

A few days later, in Manila, Senator Loren Legarda described very well the legacy of Ditas:

“Ditas rigorously served in the Philippine Foreign Service and in environment and climate negotiations, having been involved in the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in 1991 that established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and elected as co-chair of the Standing Committee on Finance (SCF) in 2017.

She led negotiations for the G77 and China negotiating bloc, where the Philippines is affiliated, championing ever so passionately the interests of the poorest countries in climate talks especially in the provision of climate finance, paving the way for the eventual creation of the green climate fund.

Her fierce negotiating style had earned her the name “dragon woman”—a character feared by industrialized countries but adored by poor countries. She would however always insist that she was not working for the developing countries, rather “for their children’s children and what we will leave the world.”

I will remember Ditas in our common advocacies in the environment and climate change, as well as in our shared aspirations for a just and fair world.”

As for me, Ditas was my colleague in the climate change delegation of the Philippines for nearly 25 years. We fought battles together, sometimes disagreeing on strategies and tactics, but always coming together for a common purpose – to obtain the best outcome for the Philippines, all developing countries, and for the planet. I am so proud to have worked and learned from her, to have her as a friend.

Ditas’ last climate meeting was in Songdo, Republic of South Korea last July 2018 for the board meeting of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). In retrospect, this was appropriate because Bernaditas, among others, was one of the prime movers in the creation of the GCF. From the first conference of the Parties in Berlin, she led developing countries in advancing the idea that the climate convention needed an independent party-owned financial mechanism. That was resisted at first, certainly by most developed countries and even by a few developing countries who were content with the existing mechanisms. But she was stubborn and led a United Group of 77 and China COP after COP for 15 years until the GCF was finally created in Cancun in 2010. After that, she continued to be active in the processes that made sure the GCF would get off the ground, serving as the close-in adviser of Philippine Governor Joey Salceda, who served as founding Co-Chair of the GCF. 

In his tribute to Ditas, Vice Yu quotes Martin Khor of Malaysia, who had taken Ditas on as a special adviser on climate change when he was the Executive Director of the South Centre:

“Never have we known someone so totally deeply committed, indeed so fully in love with the Convention, with its faithful interpretation and implementation, with the rights and interests of the developing countries that she came to symbolize so much, for the climate, for Mother Earth and for the people of the world, South or North, East or West, old or young.

Those are her finest legacies to us; the formidable spirit of defending the Convention and what is right, the spirit of taking part despite difficulties and pain, the generosity of sharing, the love for her friends. And in the climate change negotiations, the need for developing countries to unite positions and to put text on the table.”

Vice asked: “What motivated Ditas to be so passionate and committed to the climate change negotiations?”

Quoting Vice again, “Ditas once said, in an article in The Guardian nine years ago, that climate change is the most complex and satisfying of all the diplomacy she has done because there is so much at stake. Get it right, she said, and the world has the chance to both halt catastrophic climate change and find a better path to develop. Get it wrong and all the injustices and disadvantages that developing countries now face will be magnified 1,000 times in the coming years. She said that “I am not working for developing countries but for our children’s children and what we will leave the world.” Clearly, Ditas not only loved the negotiations and regaled us with stories of negotiations past; she even more so loved her family, and would regale us with stories of the antics and affection of her grandchildren. For her, her work in the climate negotiations was all about leaving behind a better world for her grandchildren to grow up in.”

I last met Bernaditas de Castro Muller in Songdo during the GCF Board meeting. We spent a few hours then working on a common project for the Philippines. As we parted, we embraced and promised to see each other in Katowice In a few months. 

I make mine the poem of Zaheer Fakir from South Africa, with whom Ditas worked on climate finance issues and who was a Chair of the Green Climate Fund Board (thanks again to Vice Yu for quoting this). It is entitled In Loving Memory of Our Ditas: 

“You never said you were leaving us/You never said goodbye/You were gone before we knew it/And only God knew why.

A million times we needed you/A million times we’ll cry/If love alone could save you/You would never have died.

In life we all loved you dearly/In death we love you still/In our hearts you hold a place/That no one could ever fill.

It breaks our heart to lose you/But you did not go alone/A part of us goes with you/The day God took you home.”

For us in this country, who loved the woman who has given so much to this country and our people, we exclaim with great love and affection: Welcome home, Ditas!

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