Community-based conservation is an easy concept to champion, but a hard one to implement. The sheen of small-scale, equitable, multicultural collaboration fades when communities reveal themselves to be messy, ill-defined, and disjointed. The work of community-based conservation is to break down the preconceptions that guide our efforts, recognize the many voices and shifting dynamics that shape a group of people, and shift along with that group when differences arise. To that end, this post highlights the experiences, opinions, circumstances and expressions of one community member—not to present her as reflective of the whole, but to give just one example of the many perspectives that have reshaped my own this summer.
Rose Abejero is a poet. She is also a farmer, a coastal gleaner, a leader of community organizations, a mother, a grandmother, an avid karaoke singer and an environmentalist. Abejero’s poems document destruction, wandering through the flows of interlinked ecosystems and blending the diverse inhabitants of these landscapes into each other. Mudslides become witnesses, human-octopus hybrids embody cruel greed and fish project the emotions of bereft refugees. The principles that guide her environmentalism, and the emotions conveyed in her poetry, offer insights into the drivers and tensions that pervade community-based conservation.
“We want to rehabilitate our ecology because it’s broken,” Abejero told me one morning as she cued up Elton John on her karaoke machine. Born here in Palimpinon, Abejero grew up helping her blind father make ends meet by gleaning for crabs with him in the mangroves of Tambobo Bay. Through gleaning, Abejero first encountered nature; and as she saw shells and crabs declining, it was through loss that she first learned to love what she calls “atong ecology”– our ecology. When Tambobo Bay suffered an oil spill in the 1970’s, the ensuing damage left Abejero resolute: our ecology must be protected. She has been restoring the bay’s mangrove forests since the 1980’s.
Nagbakho nga Kinaiyahan (Nature Sobs)
By Rose Abejero
Translated by Cesar Ruiz and Ben Siegelman
Upaw na ang kabukiran sa manga paglaom
Wala nay kahoy sa kaugmaran sarang pang makasalimbong
Mu ulan mu dahili ang iuta paingon sa kadagatan
Manga isda naghilak kay wala na silay kapoyan
Modalios-os kita aron paganinaw sa atong kabaybayonan
Diin atong makita ang halapad nga lawod sa atong kadagatan
Nga maoy nagsalimbong sa tanang kinabuhi nga anaa sa kahiladman
Aron dili makamkam sa kolamoy Sa tumang kapintas ug kamapa nga hasun
The mountain ranges are bald of hope
There are no trees to shield them from development;
Rains wash the land down into the seas
The fish cry because they’ve lost their home.
We slide down, watching our shorelines.
We see them wider than our ocean is deep;
Those depths that protect all life, there in the deepest
Lest we snatch it up with our tentacles, painful and so aggressive
A former chairwoman of organizations and school boards, Abejero is still a recognized leader; but her intense commitment to environmentalism often separates her from her neighbors. Her poetry calls out the destructive behavior of peers and beseeches them to change their ways. She decries chemical fertilizers, overfishing, plastic trash and forest cutting, putting her at odds with the practices of her own neighbors. She feels these tensions deeply, as both sadness and anger. In an interview, Abejero was brought to tears describing her frustration at her peers’ disengagement from environmental action and her shame when hearing foreigners blame Filipinos for degradation. And, she admits, she also gets angry—particularly when people cut down native trees, which “only the birds can plant” and which for Abejero represent an essential marker of her own identity. This place-based streak runs deep in Abejero’s views of nature. She imbues environmentalism with a sense of Bisayan identity, writing her poems in “deep Bisaya” that evokes a sense of heritage and pride. “Wow,” one listener exclaimed when hearing Abejero’s work for the first time, “I haven’t heard these words since I was a young child!”
But we should not read in Abejero’s poetry a Western environmental ethic. Abejero was one of the first here to show me that dichotomies of man and nature, economic and intrinsic value, don’t fit here. When I asked her why she loved mangroves, Abejero did not describe beauty, spiritual fulfillment or the harmony of nature. “Shells, crabs, fish,” she said. “Then, flood protection when typhoons come.” Only then did she add “and they’re nice to look at.” For Abejero, livelihoods are not only the cause of destruction but the reason for protection. Nature is not sublime or devoid of humans, but essential for our daily survival. She acknowledges improvements: the mangrove cutting has declined, the trees are growing large and crabs seem to be on the rise. This, and not protected areas or banned practices, is what conservation looks like to Abejero. These forests, she reminds me, are “not only the birds and the fish…kinabuhi sa tawo pod.” They’re the lifeline for people, too.
I am grateful to Rose Abejero for sharing her insights with me and allowing me to share them here, and to Cesar Ruiz for assistance translating her poetry and explaining its Deep Bisaya references.