Climate justice heroes

“How wonderful it is to witness young people join the fight against the worsening climate crisis”

This week, we celebrate Bonifacio Day as we do every November 30. Time was when it was also celebrated as National Heroes Day – which has been moved to the last Sunday of August since 1987.

Andres Bonifacio is known as the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” as the founder and leader of Katipunan.

With many others, he fought for Philippine independence during colonial rule.

While his leadership and death have nuances, it is only right to say that he is one of our national heroes, equal in my eyes to Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, Gregoria de Jesus, and Melchora Aquino.

Ninoy Aquino, Edgar Jopson, Lorena Barros, Macling Dulag, Liliosa Hilao, Cory Aquino, and more recently Dinky Soliman, Chad Booc, and Kerima Tariman are in my view also heroes.

Likewise political detainees Leila De Lima and Myles Albasin are heroes.

So is Nobel Prize Awardee Maria Ressa and my friend Eva Galvey — both of whom have been recognized recently by the Ateneo de Manila University for their contributions.

Indeed, when we think of heroes, we usually think of big names, past revolutions, martyrdom, and renowned awards. However, as they say, not all heroes wear capes.

A classic example of this are the diverse indigenous peoples in the Philippines who have been environmental defenders before the term was even born.

Many have become martyrs in fighting for their ancestral homelands, the most well known of whom is Macli-ing Dulag in the Cordillera who led the resistance against the Chico River Dam Project during Marcos Sr.’s martial law.

(Editor’s Note: Macli-ing Dulag, who led the opposition to the Chico Dam project, was a respected elder of the Butbut tribe in the mountain village of Bugnay, on a hillside above the rice terraces near Tinglayan town in Kalinga. He was murdered on April 24, 1980)

Another one I remember as an environmental hero is Chad Booc who I lawyered for.

Before his unjust death, he was a volunteer teacher for ALCADEV and the Lumad Bakwit schools in Cebu and Diliman. Chad was only 26 when he was executed with a fellow Jurain and three others in Mindanao.

I had been red-tagged for my love and support for Chad and his fellow teachers and the administrators and students of the Lumad schools but I am not cowed by this. Chad is my hero as Macli-ing Dulag is.

Finally, I saw a different kind of hero when I attended the 27th Conference of the Parties this month in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt and witnessed many Filipino climate justice heroes at work.

COP 27 as my 23rd COP.

And with how often I’ve gone and how slow progress has been all this time, it is easy to succumb to despair.

However, as I found myself walking at Sharm El-Sheikh amongst tens of thousands of climate justice advocates from the youth, I found myself clinging onto hope.

How wonderful it is to witness young people join the fight against the worsening climate crisis. In a space where grievance is easier to feel, they reintroduce perseverance and resistance.

In fact, during my time in Egypt, I met with some of the youth from the Philippine delegation– Atty. Joy Reyes, Atty. Hazel Acero and Tonichi Regalado from our very own Manila Observatory team, Mitzi Tan and Alab Ayroso from Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), and Jeff Estela from Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines.

Thanks to the Youth for Climate Justice in Mindanao, a new group, we even included other young Filipino climate justice advocates like Bernadette De Belen and Dinah Faye Balleco through Zoom.

We discussed what topics they have been following throughout COP 27 such as indigenous peoples, women, loss and damage, youth, and adaptation.

I also shared with them that frustrations in conferences like this are inevitable.

Tonichi shared that COP 27 proved to be a struggle when it came to the unification of vulnerable countries–what each country is willing to accept in terms of negotiation.

Each country has a different set of priorities and vision when it comes to the climate crisis.

But these frustrations and struggles are exactly the reason why we keep doing what we do.

Mitzi also says, in a youth panel she attended, there is resistance in caring for one another, in love, in community. And these, despite hardships, are at the core of our advocacy.

Aside from the group I met, I also note there were many other young (and older) Filipinos in Sharm, from very diverse backgrounds.

It was the biggest group I have seen in the 30 years I have participated in conferences of parties.

I am particularly proud to see so many of my long-time colleagues, mentees and former students who were there fighting for climate justice.

These included among others climate process veterans Lidy Nacpil, Ateng Ballesteros, Rodne Galicha, Albert Magalang, Baby Supetran, and Gerry Rances, scientists from MO like Fr. Jett Villarin, Rosa Perez, Faye Cruz, and Lau Jamero, lawyers Vice Yu, Anna Teh, Gia Ibay, Avril De Torres, Joyce Tan, and Cristina Mundin, local government experts Marvin Lagonera and Jimmy Castillano, and young activists like Krishna Ariola and Chad Sadorra.

To see that I am fighting alongside these Filipinos whom I see as modern-day heroes gives me a sense of certainty that all will be well.

They convinced me to continue doing this work.

Most especially, the courage and hope that the youth tirelessly bring are contagious.

To work with them is to be convinced that they deserve to look forward to a future where climate justice is achieved.

Yes, we struggle together. We owe it to them to keep going. After all, real heroes don’t and can’t work alone.


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