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TOYM Acceptance Speech

8 April 2022

Okada, Manila


For the past 62 years, JCI has been recognizing young leaders who have made significant contributions to their fields. Every cohort is diverse, and the categories we are recognized for provides a picture of the crises that the Philippines is facing. Take one look at the 10 of us and you'll see right away what the biggest issues of our country are.

The other day, the headline on the front page of a newspaper about this year's TOYM was: "JCI Phl to honor young, tireless achievers." We're young, sure, but I don't know about "tireless." I’m tired. I’m tired and I know I’m not the only one. The work we do everyday can be tiring. Sa totoo lang, minsan talaga, nakapagod din magmahal ng bayan.

And yet we're here. We persist. To be outstanding doesn’t mean we don’t get tired or never rest, it means persisting even when we are tired.

I co-founded Save Philippine Seas (SPS) in 2011. It began as a social media campaign in response to an illegal wildlife trade case. I had just graduated college with a degree in BA English Studies, and #savephseas was meant to be a temporary passion project. It slowly grew as a movement and into a non-profit organization, and I grew up with it. A lot of people have described SPS as my child. In some ways that's true: I take care of it and make sure it stays alive. In other ways, I also feel like its child. It has raised me. Our seas have been my greatest teacher and harshest critic.

From hotspot to hope spot

As an English major, I was trained to think about what words we use and how we use them. Take, for example, one term that I often use in my field: “marine resources.” The closest Filipino translation for "marine resources" is yamang dagat. Ang ganda, noh? Yamang dagat. Napakayaman ng dagat ng Pilipinas. It’s been said that the Philippines is worth dying for, but it’s also worth diving for. Our country is made up of over 7,000 islands, and we are completely surrounded by water. Our seas have shaped what languages and dialects we speak, what resources are available and accessible, and our way of life. Scientists around the world have said that the region we’re in has more species of plants and animals than any other place in the world. This means that the Philippines is at the center of marine biodiversity.

But we are also at the center of adversity. So many kinds of illegal and destructive activities are being done to our seas by Filipinos and foreigners alike. We've already lost 70% of our natural vegetation and we continue to be at high risk for environmental destruction. This classifies the Philippines as a biodiversity hotspot. There are also multiple studies that name the Philippines as one of the largest contributors to marine pollution. Our seas are also severely overfished. Next time you're in a family reunion and you're told, "Wag kang mag-alala na single ka pa, there are many fish in the sea!", pwede niyong sabihin, "Actually, Tita, 10 out of the 13 fishing grounds of the Philippines are already overfished." Hotspot talaga.

To be recognized by TOYM in the category of marine conservation means that maybe, the Philippines is also a hope spot. In SPS, we call our community "seatizens." It's our way of reminding all of us that we're not just citizens of the world but also seatizens - because we are all connected to the sea, no matter where we live or what work we do. There are so many seatizens making waves to meet this moment, turning our hotspot to a hope spot.

To keep, together

The origin of the word “conservation” comes from two root words: con- 'together' and servare 'to keep.' Conservation literally means to keep, together. We have to save the seas together, because what we do to one sea, we do to another. After all, you can't tell fish and plastic to stay within a country's borders. A few years ago, I participated in a coastal cleanup in Jakarta, Indonesia. A fellow participant picked up Green Cross alcohol and Pau liniment - walang ganun sa Jakarta, so saan pa galing ‘yon? Ibang level na yun ng "I will cross the ocean for you."

Marine conservation is a community effort. It has to be. It's only my name that's on the trophy, but this is a recognition that belongs to so many others.

I share this with my professors in UP, some of whom must be named: May Jurilla, Judy Ick, Aileen Salonga, Jeena Marquez, and Butch Dalisay, who was a TOYM Awardee in 1993. My English degree is the foundation that I continue to build this advocacy upon.

I share this with Dennis Bait-it, a dive instructor based in Cebu who believed that we could establish the country's first shark and ray sanctuary. When we started our project in 2012, we'd invite 70 people for a community consultation and seven people would show up -- and only for the free food and drinks. Now the local dive guides, coastal law enforcers, and dive operators work together with Dennis at the center. Coastal communities have to lead in marine conservation efforts because they are the first to be affected by the impacts of climate change.

I share this with AA Yaptinchay, a marine ecologist, and Vince Cinches, an environmental activist, who both co-created a national network of shark conservationists with me in 2014 while eating ramen and drinking beer on a rainy evening. Now we're working on a national policy to make sure that the baby sharks all over the country are able to grow up into grandma and grandpa sharks.

I also share this recognition with my friends and my partner who don't work in marine conservation. They work in education, entrepreneurship, utilities, marketing, law, and humanitarian efforts. Being able to talk to them about everything from lipsticks to life dilemmas is like coming up for air. How appropriate that the Filipino translation for "friend" is "kaibigan." The word ibig, or love, is at the core of these relationships.

This recognition belongs to my parents. I'm so lucky that both of them are here today. Almost 30 years ago, my siblings, my mom, and I went to Malcanañang when my dad received his TOYM for environmental law. Tonight, he's here to see me receive mine. Besides our passion for the environment, our common denominator is his wife and my mom, who makes sure our fins stay on the ground while our heads are under the sea. To quote my hero, the Disney Princess Moana, "I wish I could be the perfect daughter / but I come back to the water / no matter how hard I try."

This honor belongs to everyone who has been part of SPS: funders, volunteers, partner communities, and my teammates. It felt like a one-woman NGO for many years, and now we're a team of seven, all under the age of 40. We're all young and definitely not tireless, but we persist everyday to create a nation of proud, Filipino seatizens.

Thank you to JCI Naga for the nomination and JCI Philippines and TOYM Foundation for this recognition. Maraming salamat at magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat.


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