Shout out to the south: Learnings from young environmental heroes of Zamboanga, Philippines

Mainstream media often associate Mindanao with conflict and drought. But there’s more from there than just that. Let’s talk about the young people who lead change.


“Isn’t that place dangerous?” This was what people asked me when I told them about CTI-South East Asia’s youth camp. The camp was held at Buug, Zamboanga del Sur on April 12 to 15 2016.

Living in Luzon for most of my life, all that I knew about Mindanao were the great dry spell and armed conflicts. Yet since day one, I felt that being with the children of Zamboanga is like being home.

In this post, I’m sharing personal learnings at the youth camp from a facilitator’s perspective.

Day 1: Combining marine science and pick-up lines

I learned that for young people, making a difference and having fun go hand-in-hand. This means that there is no concrete separation between work and play. Work can be a form of play, and play can be taken seriously as well. Teens are curious, creative, and desire to create an impact as young as they are.

When I asked the kids about their expectations about the youth camp, they said that they wanted to learn and have fun. At the camp we talked about the big topics that challenge this generation. These are climate change, coastal management, fisheries. We hope as early as now, young leaders are nurtured to safeguard the Dumanquillas Bay Protected Landscape and Seascape (DBPLS).

“I realized that I must become a concerned citizen for marine ecosystems because a lot of us depend on these things,” shared Divine Grace Sapuras, a student of Kabatan National High School at Vincenzo Sagun.

Yet even while discussing pressing issues, the students couldn’t keep their playfulness to themselves. They dropped anonymous messages at the camp’s unofficial message box. The students eagerly wait for the facilitators to read the messages out loud. There were no brakes on sending out jokes and clever puns.

“Dear crush,” writes a student nicknamed Brow, “You are as beautiful as a coral reef, and should be loved and protected.”

#Hugot from the deep, dark sea floor. Students wait for their messages to be read for a daily dose of amusement.

We learned about the Coral Triangle, coastal ecosystems, threatened species, and environmental laws. Fishery laws were a hot topic among them. Armed with curiosity, they asked where the huge fines paid by fishery law offenders go to. Divine Ignacio, Fisheries Officer from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources – Zamboanga City, was more than happy to answer that. The funds from the fines are allocated for fishers in need of fishing equipment or vessels.

Dusk came and little did I know that I was up for a pleasant surprise. At the fellowship night, the students showcased dances, songs, dramas, and poetry fused with environmental themes.  They had little time to prepare but their performances exceeded everyone’s expectations.

One of the most memorable ones were a song and dance production about the Subanen, a river-dwelling indigenous group by Lapuyan National High School. Kumalarang National High School performed a spoken word poetry on pollution. Both schools are from Zamboanga del Sur.

Wrath of the sea faeries. Students from Kabatan National High School perform a fantasy play featuring sea nymphs and dynamite fishers. (Click to see GIF)

“Everything was new to me. I never felt bored,” said Etienne Krista Ang. Krista is a student from Toribio Minor National High School in Margosatubig, Zamboanga del Sur. Krista and her schoolmates role-played as quirky “conyo-speaking” illegal fishers turned environmental advocates.

Quick tip: Harness the power of play.

When students are in a relaxed and friendly environment, they allow themselves to be true to who they are: energetic and upbeat. A youth camp is a suitable setting. It is interesting to see them contextualize knowledge in a way very different from an adults’ (who would think of socialite dynamite fishers?) or propose off-beat ideas without fear of being judged.

How to do it better: Have them come up with their own games or ice breakers to get a sneak peek of what is fun for them. Fun can be different from kids their age and “kids” our age.

Day 2:  Going on a sun-blissed coastal adventure

I learned that young people who get in touch with the outdoors discover and develop a deep love for nature. Valuing nature at an early age can influence a child’s future professional inclinations.

The sky was clear and it was a perfect day to go to the beach. I summoned my inner teen self as we explored Silupa. The exercise was called a transect walk. Students visited the area to identify coastal habitats. After the walk, they also prepared transect diagrams. The diagrams show the economic uses and threats faced by coastal habitats.This helped them identify local environmental challenges in their own communities.  It was also the first step in preparing a proposal to address these challenges.

“When we went to the mangrove forest, I learned so much. I saw different kinds of mangroves. I learned where they should be planted. Each species suit a certain zone,” shared Alainne Joyce Ivory Aya-ay of Kabatan National High School, Vincenzo Sagun, Zamboanga del Sur.

Students from Lapuyan National High School, Zamboanga del Sur take note of resources at Silupa Beach.


A perfect day for exploration. Students follow Raul Roldan, CTI-SEA Philippine Deputy Team Leader as he talks about mangrove species, how to identify them, and their ecological and economic importance.
Roldan shows a pagatpat (Sonneratia spp.) seed.
Never too young. Grade 8 students, Shelu delos Reyes and Krimar Pineda from Buug National High School are now both 13 years old and were among the youngest campers.
Get set. Campers enjoy a quiet moment before things get rowdy as we play games on the shore.
Youthful energy as strong as ocean tide. Glenn Cavan of Toribio Minor National High School sits atop sun-bathing Ardin Ordiz and Sanito Nunez from Buug National High School as we play by the beach after the transect walk.
Fun truck. It sounds bad riding a dump truck on the way back, but everywhere and anywhere could be a theme park for the kids. As if in a game, we ducked and dodged tree branches along the way, cheering all the time.

“The kids were really inspired. They asked me about environment-related degree programs like oceanography, environmental science, and even the study of mangroves. They want to take these up when they get to college,” shared Science Teacher Nancy Fontanil from Kabatan National High School.

Quick tip: Make use of daily things.

We were able to visit the beach because it was only a few minutes from base camp. But what if there was no beach or forest nearby? What if bad weather has kept us from going outside? In situations like these, we can bring pieces of nature in a room for observation. (Think: like being in a laboratory). Rocks, leaves, soil, or even everyday things like food, cosmetics, and household products can be specimens. Observing and describing the usual things will help students appreciate nature’s gifts. They will be surprised to know that products we use every day come from nature.

How to do it better: Ask the students to star in challenging roles like a seashell, a root, or sand. Role-playing can help deepen their connection with the natural environment. Harvest the students’ personal and emotional responses in connection with nature. This can be through a theater or monologue-like exercise.

Day 3: Pitching ideas and bringing value, the Gen Z way

I learned that young people know the wisdom behind old ideas and are bold enough to put a modern spin on these.  Teens that come up with their own solutions and act on these themselves give added value. Likewise, they feel valued in the process.

The last day seemed to have arrived too quickly. The students with their teacher-advisers worked on their schools’ project proposals until very late in the evening.

“The values we learned from the camp were enough to get us moving,” said Science Teacher Aida Catienza from Lapuyan National High School.

Morning came and everyone was excited to share about their proposals. There were creative performances with dance music on protecting the sea, a river rehabilitation project (aptly called River-mazing), an in-school mini-forest, building compost pits and a material recovery facility, and more.

“I’m hoping that our project can help save nature. It may be simple but we may start big things from this,” shared Nadzmar Husnol from Malangas National High School.

Quick tip: Know how to communicate meaning.

When engaging youth in environmental projects, it is important to facilitate discovery of meaning. A seemingly small action can be meaningful when the focus is on the reason behind doing it.

How to do it better: Help the students appreciate both present and future impacts. Ask them to write a letter addressed to themselves and their peers before they take on their projects. This can help them identify the possible change they can do for themselves and others today. It also helps them define the legacy they can leave behind for the future. Make use of technology on hand and constantly get progress updates from them through social media.

I may mix up the students’ names but I’ll surely remember their faces. Facilitating youth eco-camps is like swimming in a sea of great potential.

I guess the main challenge for facilitators is to connect with young people despite age gaps; and help children develop their ideal selves as they work towards the kind of Earth they want to live in.

Photos and story by Dana Rose Salonoy. Dana Rose Salonoy is interested in youth engagement and environmental conservation. She writes, designs, and illustrates.


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