A transformational journey with the youth of Palawan

They say that youth are the next generation of changemakers. But do the youth of today wield the traits and skills needed to solve present and future global issues? Read along as I share a reflective account of my experience with inspiring youth leaders of Taytay, Palawan.

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EXPLORING THE “STAR OF THE NORTH”. Taytay, Palawan boasts of the famous Lake Manguao and historic Fort Sta. Isabel. My second visit to the municipality was last June and that was when I got to explore the Fort. I took a picture overlooking the huge Taytay signage with Ms. Joy Pavico, Executive Director of the Center for Environment and Sustainable Development, who served as resource person for our Science Camp.

How do we view the youth? Do we think they are just carefree, energetic, and feisty kids giddy to take on life’s adventures? Or do we see them as lazy, passive, and easily distracted millennials? Or maybe both?

For a long time, I viewed younger kids negatively. I thought they were mere bystanders swiping endlessly on their smart phones, waiting for change instead of being changemakers. I was not sure that I would meet young people who would change my perception.  But deep inside, I looked forward to the day I would meet kids who ignited hope among their peers.

Luckily, my field work in Palawan for the Coral Triangle Initiative-Southeast Asia (CTI-SEA), a regional coastal resources protection project of the Asian Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility, proved to be a game-changer.  Last June, I ventured for the second time to the municipality of Taytay and met groups of young people who defied my expectations. It was an adventure that led me to self-discovery, as I met high school students who later on became my source of inspiration, courage, and renewed hope.

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BUDDING ENVIRONMENTALIST. That’s me on the first row, leftmost, wearing a red polo shirt and blue shorts. As Development Communication Assistant for CTI-SEA, I have had the honor of helping in creating knowledge products (communication materials) to help our stakeholders protect the Coral Triangle. In this picture, we organized a knowledge sharing workshop for high school teachers from Taytay and Balabac in Palawan to help them design materials that would increase interest and participation in their environmental projects.

I left Manila on June 7 with our team members to assist in this year’s celebration of Coral Triangle Day in Barangay Poblacion in Taytay. CTI-SEA is among the many initiatives that celebrate this momentous day every June 9. People from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste celebrate the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity through coastal cleanups, mangrove reforestation, photo contests, among others. This year, we wanted to make it extra special by holding a Science Camp for Grade 7 to 10 students of Central Taytay National High School.

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CELEBRATING CORAL TRIANGLE DAY. More than 130 students from Central Taytay National High School welcomed our team at KampoNatin (Our Camp) Park, which is just a few meters away from the school grounds. We joined forces to clean the trash at the park and planted ornamental plants to beautify the place.

Working with youth from coastal communities during those three days in our Science Camp taught me that they are active and passionate learners. They are curious about technical subjects and are open to share what they know. During the camp, when our Deputy Team Leader Mr. Raul Roldan asked kids the local names of coral reefs and seagrasses, many of them quickly raised their hands. It was refreshing to see that they were excited to broaden their horizons. They are like sponges – they absorb information quickly and are not afraid to go beyond to learn more.

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TEACHING MANGROVE BIOLOGY. See those specialized root structures jutting from the ground? These are called pneumatophores. During the youth camp last March, Sir Raul teaches students how they help mangroves breathe. I admire Sir Raul because his vast experience in coastal resource management enables him to guide the youth to succeed in their projects. He also has a great sense of humor that makes learning fun for everyone.

I believe that teachers and local officials can harness this unquenchable thirst for learning. With enough know-how, motivation, and mentoring, youth can translate their knowledge into concrete actions that can help their communities. These kids are the next marine science experts, journalists, law enforcers, etc. We have a responsibility to train them to be wise and proactive stewards of the environment.

I also observed that students are smart and creative. They are quick thinkers and they can create something out of the box. During the Science Camp, we asked them to create their group names and cheers. Each group named themselves after marine resources, e.g. crown of thorns, stingrays, sharks, shells, corals, etc. They related these resources to human traits while highlighting the importance of each creature, big or small, to our ecosystem. I was very impressed with how they connected the dots.

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DRAW YOUR PLEDGE. For the last part of the Science Camp, we asked each of the ten groups to draw their vision and message for the Coral Triangle on a piece of cheese cloth. I was amazed at how the kids created a simple, unified, but powerful message. I hope that they commit to this pledge and continue being stewards of tomorrow even when they grow older.

Team Shell, for example, explained that they named their group such because even though they are small, they are important. Shells may be small, but they contribute to our ecosystem by serving as home to fish.

Furthermore, I discovered that youth are critical thinkers with strong leadership potential. I must admit that when I was in high school, I was not involved in any leadership position or advocacy. I was just a cool, calm, and collected student who focused on getting good grades. I went through elementary and high school without even planting a single tree or learning how to segregate.

These students, on the other hand, gamely crafted, defended, and carried out mangrove reforestation and solid waste management projects to help their barangays adapt to climate change. I witnessed this when I first went to Taytay in March 2017 with the CTI-SEA team to hold a three-day youth camp on coastal resource management and climate change adaptation.

The games, lectures, and group activities deepened the students’ environmental consciousness by educating them about the value of coastal resources, such as coral reefs, seagrass, and marine life. I listened to their project presentations and saw a ray of hope. The kids were assertive and fearless in expressing their dreams for the Coral Triangle.

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HOPE OF TOMORROW. In our youth camp last March 2017, Mary Rose Francisco (right) and Maricel Punsalan (left) presented Abongan National High School’s proposal. They wanted to lead a solid waste management project in their school that uses jingles and contests to motivate students to segregate properly.

Looking back, I felt a bit jealous because I think they fared better than I did when I was their age. They are just in their teens yet they committed themselves in projects that could change the lives of people around them. They plant trees and they are learning to properly segregate their waste.  They even teach their communities about their initiatives and how they can help. They know that these small steps are significant and will move the community forward.

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FORMIDABLE YOUTH LEADER. Marc Autencio (leftmost in the photo) shares their journey as heroes of the environment to entice more students to join in their crusade to reforest Taytay’s mangrove forests. Marc was among the participants in our Science Camp. He’s only 15 years old, but he has all the traits of a capable leader: assertive, composed, and well-spoken. He helped us facilitate the sessions during the Science Camp. His good composure and wisdom enabled him to facilitate the sessions without any hint of fear or nervousness.

I recalled a study I did in 2015 for my undergraduate research where I identified communication factors that influenced youth’s knowledge and participation in environmental conservation. I surveyed 329 grade 10 students in public and private schools in Los Baños, Laguna. I found out that students had high awareness but low knowledge of biodiversity. I also discovered that public school students tend to be more involved in conservation activities. Around 44.5% of the public school students I surveyed were involved in conservation activities. For private school students, the number was far lower at 29.4%. Public school students are also more knowledgeable about conservation concepts. In a 25-item exam on my survey, public school students scored 14.0 on average while private school students scored 12.4.

Ultimately, it is not enough for the youth just to have a positive view and deep knowledge about the environment. The attitude and knowledge need to be translated to decisive actions that will make a long-term difference.

My study also delved into communication factors that affect awareness, knowledge, attitude, and practice. These include the type of information sought, number of sources of information on biodiversity, frequency of seeking information, duration of seeking information, among others. These factors made up another main variable termed “overall information seeking.”

This variable helped me assess whether students were active or passive in seeking information about the environment. Results showed that most of the students (about 60%) were passive information seekers. They were not curious to learn more about the topic. This was an important finding because I found out that the higher the overall score in information seeking, the higher the students’ awareness, knowledge, attitude, and practice.

The result implies that schools, NGOs, and media institutions should make environmental information more fun and accessible so more students are eager to learn. I believe that these students in  more urbanized areas have the potential. They can be as eager and knowledgeable like the youth I met in Taytay. If teachers and journalists work together to write materials and design activities that will engage these young people, they can all make a difference.

Many of the students I surveyed also had heard terms such as invasive alien species, biodiversity, and chlorofluorocarbons. But they were not able to connect it to their existing knowledge base. Most of them were not even aware that there are existing policies and republic acts protecting wildlife. The kids, however, had positive attitude. They were willing to join environmental activities. They would also report illegal poaching if ever. But they had poor practices. Out of the 329 students I surveyed, more than 60% have not joined any tree planting, cleanup activities, etc their entire life.

To help students achieve their fullest potential as heroes of the environment, we need to strengthen the support of institutions for students.  Schools and local governments must work hand in hand so students would feel confident to design bold initiatives, get advice from mentors, and receive continuous support to conduct and sustain projects. Ultimately, it is not enough for the youth just to have a positive view and deep knowledge about the environment. The attitude and knowledge needs to be translated to decisive actions that will make a long-term difference.

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PLANTING TOMORROW’S SEEDS OF HOPE. During the second day of our Science Camp, students planted ornamental plants in KampoNatin Park. They planted these so they can beautify the park and entice locals and tourists to go there. The park was once a place for gathering during town feasts, and different tribes showcased their various products.

Finally, I may not remember everyone’s names and faces, but I am very thankful. I went back to the city with renewed hope and learning to take with me forever. I spent most of my life thinking that young people around me are lazy and incapable. But my adventure led me to young people who had bold ambitions and deep commitment to save the world.

Youth in Palawan are creative, daring, and insightful. What really makes them stand out is their strong desire to put their communities at the forefront of environmental protection. I believe youth in more urbanized areas can be as committed as the students I met in Taytay. We just need to give them the platform and guidance needed to incite change. At the end of the day, we need to rally every young person to secure the future of the next generation.

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