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To speak as we are one: building relationships in marine conservation

Written by Clint Bryan Gallaron, Coastal Science and Policy Master’s student, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Emma Segarino, President, Ocam-Ocam Women Managed Area Management Council

Part One: Clint's Call.

This section is written by Clint Bryan Gallaron, Coastal Science and Policy Master’s student, University of California, Santa Cruz

"Look at our corals; they all got black and already destroyed by illegal fishing. Are we all happy about the current state of our sea?"

This was the first thing I saw when I checked my Facebook page on a sunny morning after I returned to the Philippines. I was about to start my capstone project on Busuanga Island, a requisite for my Master's in Coastal Science and Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The post was shared by Emma Segarino, a mother, a wife, a fisher, an indigenous Tagbanwa, a community leader, and a friend of mine from a small fishing community called Ocam-Ocam in Busuanga Island, Palawan, Philippines. I have known Ate Emma (the term "Ate" is used by Filipinos to address any woman of seniority) since 2018 when I started working with her and other women in the community to establish a Women-Managed Area (WMA). This initiative aimed to conserve the fish population, protect the coral reefs and seagrass habitats, and sustain the local fishing livelihood, all while empowering women in the small-scale fishery.

I first met Ate Emma during our initial consultation for the Women-Managed Area (WMA) project while working with C3 Philippines, a local non-profit organisation. Initially, she just observed my team's activities in the community showing neutral interest. However, everything in her changed when we invited her to participate in a community-based assessment for reef fish and coral reefs. From that moment on, she began actively engaging and organising our activities.

Ocam-Ocam at dusk
Ocam-Ocam at dusk © Clint Bryan Gallaron

Honestly, it remains a mystery to me what prompted her sudden commitment to this challenging task. It could be that she recognised the need for change, or perhaps she had a preexisting desire to advocate for marine conservation and just needed a platform. Or rather, our team formed such a close bond that she saw no harm in befriending us. I wouldn’t know. But despite the challenges posed by the global pandemic, Ate Emma and other dedicated women in the community tirelessly mobilised efforts to establish the WMA. Their determination led to Ate Emma being elected as the president of the WMA Management Council, a significant step forward in advancing the cause for legal recognition by the Local Government of Busuanga.

As part of the process, the newly formed women-led management council embarked on a community-wide consultation, co-facilitated by the Barangay Council (the smallest political unit in the Philippines) and the Municipal Council members. The objective was to reach a consensus, however, to our disappointment, a consensus was never reached. Some community members raised concerns, alleging that they had been prohibited entry into the proposed WMA area even though no Municipal Ordinance was in place yet.

What began as a miscommunication quickly escalated into a personal dispute, and old familial tensions resurfaced, complicating matters further. Despite attempts at arbitration by the Municipal Council, no resolution was reached. Families clashed, doubts arose, and the WMA project was temporarily halted. Regrettably, all the hard work and dedication put forth by women involved in the project and our team seemed to vanish into the abyss, at least for now.


Part Two: Listening to Emma’s voice

The following is written by Emma Segarino, President, Ocam-Ocam Women Managed Area Management Council

In March 2018, I had the opportunity to meet Sir Clint, Mam Muammar, and Mam Roverose in Ocam-Ocam, as part of C3 Philippines and the USAID Fish Right Program. They invited me to their meeting regarding the Marine Protected Area (MPA) and how to care for and safeguard our marine resources within our community. I was reluctant to attend at first because I was one of those who opposed and disagreed with protecting it. I had no reservations about damaging it; I was selfishly indifferent, caught up in my concerns, and unaware of the significance of preserving it for the future.

As days and months went by, I actively participated in meetings, seminars, and advocacy campaigns. Through these experiences, I deeply understood the importance of preserving and protecting our marine resources and natural environment. During this time, I acquired knowledge and found inspiration to safeguard these precious resources.

Our shared understanding led us to unite and establish a group led by women: the Women-Managed Area.

With a membership of approximately 50 women, our goal was to protect the marine environment adjacent to our community. In March 2019, I was entrusted with leading the women as the president of our association.

Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a lockdown in Busuanga. Despite the challenges, we still pursued our objectives in our community. The pandemic did not hinder us from conducting seminars and training sessions. The hardships we faced were not barriers that could deter us from pursuing our goals for the betterment of our youth and community.

Emma after her successful community-based microfinance meeting
Emma (centre) after her successful community-based microfinance meeting © Clint Bryan Gallaron

As more days, months, and years passed, I continued to venture forth. I persistently attended seminars to gain knowledge and, most importantly, to reach my dream for my community: a sustainable livelihood. We crafted a proposal for our floating restaurant, a venture led by my group of women, and we journeyed to Siete Pecados, an established MPA in the nearby town, for a study tour. There, I truly understood the significance of nurturing and safeguarding Mother Nature. That's when I realised the importance of having an MPA—a place of conservation that can lead to a thriving ocean. This was the point where I fell in love with and developed a deep attachment to nature and the seas. In a heartbeat, I wholeheartedly decided to support and protect it for generations to come.

I admit that during those times I became pretty aggressive. As the president of the WMA Management Council, I mandated strict management measures because I wanted our community to resemble Siete Pecados—a place teeming with abundant fish and vibrant corals. I envisioned a future where tourists and locals would flock to our area. I was driven by the aspiration that our youth wouldn't have to go elsewhere seeking employment, similar to what Siete Pecados offered.

Because of my efforts, many people within the community became angry with me, accusing me of being the sole beneficiary who would prosper from my actions. During a public consultation organised by the Municipal Council, I was caught unprepared when some in my community created a petition against our association, negatively implicating our Barangay Captain and the individuals who were supporting us. Similarly to how I had once felt, they refused to protect our area because they claimed they had no livelihood to gain from it. Far worse, they saw the WMA as a bane to their fishing and gleaning livelihoods. In some of the darkest moments, I told myself they couldn't tarnish my reputation or destroy my character. I displayed strength and courage during this time, outwardly showing that I was resolute. However, deep inside, I wished to escape and hide from their sight. But I realised that I couldn’t do so. So, I continued onward.

In those times, no one gave me strength except those who wholeheartedly trusted and believed in my capabilities. I'm grateful for those who cared for me despite having no prior connection to me. During that time, I saw and felt their genuine concern for me, and I truly appreciated their unwavering support in my battles. So, until now, I have persisted in facing life's challenges, in confronting uncertainties head-on. They are the reason and inspiration behind my ongoing fight to stand up for what's right.

And as time passes by, I'm thankful for the many days and months that went by. I'm pleased to see the changes happening in a place they once didn't want to protect, to a place where I see fewer presence of illegal fishers. I know they're beginning to see the beauty I've been striving to create here in Ocam-Ocam. I'm happy that someday we'll all come together, united and cooperative, for the betterment of our community. I won't give up on this, for as long as there's life, there's hope. With patience and hard work there will be a bountiful harvest in due time, and everyone will rejoice in the collective triumph.

Despite all the hardship, I extend my gratitude to those who caused me pain and those who held ill feelings toward me.

But don't worry; I harbour no anger towards them. They are, in fact, the reason I've grown stronger and continue to confront life's challenges, and the inspiration that drives me to persevere and champion the welfare of all. I thank them, as they’ve inadvertently made me resilient in my fight.

I'm also deeply thankful for my beloved spouse, who unwaveringly supports me in all my endeavours. Without him, I wouldn't be able to achieve all I have.

To Sir Clint, Mam Roverose, and Mam Muammar, thank you for your trust and love. It's because of you that I keep pushing forward. You're the reason I find the strength and conviction to continue.

To my trusted Captain Cliff Richard Astor, thank you for your continued support and advice. In times when I wanted to let go and give up, you were always there to lend a helping hand and provide guidance. Thank you for relentlessly backing me up.

Thank you to all of you who supported the WMA. I won't forget any of you, and I won't stop working toward my dreams for our community. I know you're all there to support our goals.

May God bless every one of you!


Part Three: The flow we both follow

This section is written by Clint Bryan Gallaron

Contrary to my expectations, this setback did not discourage Ate Emma from pursuing her dedication to the WMA, if anything, her passion only intensified. Despite the numerous unsuccessful attempts, she remained unwavering in her advocacy for the WMA, tirelessly engaging with the community. She went above and beyond, seeking alliances with other organisations to further the cause.

It came to a point where I was worrying about Ate Emma and her family’s safety, though thankfully, nothing bad happened. The story of Ocam-Ocam spread and set an example to other areas in Busuanga and beyond on what to do and what not to do in setting-up community area-based conservation initiatives. Almost two years since the WMA project was parked, Ate Emma and the women of Ocam-Ocam are still standing, working on advocating that someday their families, friends, and neighbours will realise the importance of this kind of initiative for the next generations.

To be honest, I typically avoid getting caught up in politics, especially when it directly involves me or my work. Usually, I would prefer to step away rather than continue investing my energy in a seemingly "lost" cause. However, I find myself unable to resist rooting for Ate Emma. I once asked her what kept her going, what motivated her to stand up for her community? On the surface, I may try to attribute her resilience to the capacity-building training and field trips, exposing her to other nearby Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), recalling our conversations where she expressed gratitude for our unwavering support of her and the Ocam-Ocam community.

With deeper introspection, I can’t help but think that this resilience in character by Ate Emma is, in reality, rooted in her being, and nurtured by the mutual respect and deep connection that we have cultivated together with her, and the connections that she has cultivated with the women in the community. Initially, I felt foolish for forming deep personal connections with the people I work with. However, as time passed, I was drawn to Ate Emma and the other community members. Working with them no longer felt like work at all. I have gained a sense of responsibility for these connections. But these take time to develop- I mean a lot of time. In fact, it took me at least three years working with the community to forge a “good enough” relationship with them. But without this relationship, I would not have found Ate Emma, after many years, still voicing out on Facebook the necessity for the Ocam-Ocam community to work together to protect their fisheries and marine habitat. I would not find her sending me a text message as I write this article that she will continue to fight for the future of Ocam-Ocam because we believe in her and the rest of the women.

Clint looks at the planned WMA
Clint looks at the planned WMA © Muammar Princess Soniega

Our shared experience connects me to Ate Emma in a way that I gained knowledge of a part of her worldview that others might not have access to. That relationship is not perfect: sometimes I disagree with her and sometimes she disagrees with me. However, we always find ways to resolve disagreements because we simply respect each other.

My relationship with the Ate Emma and the community has helped me become a more holistic marine conservation practitioner. For the first time, I realised that I had left a significant footprint on the community where I work. I believe this is the most impactful thing I have done as a marine conservation practitioner. Unfortunately, learning relationship-building did not come from my formal academic training. Working with C3 Philippines, emphasising genuine community-based conservation, and learning by doing have steered me on a path where I can practice conservation in a unique way.

I want to end this article by leaving a message to young people out there in the marine, environment, and climate arena. Surely we don’t have much in common other than the dream and love for our work. We are unique individuals with unique experiences and perspectives, so I am not here to generalise my experience for you and prescribe the correct things to do. I am here to tell my story and hope that this will relate to you in a way. However, I recognise that we share something in common - the desire to contribute to achieving a just and sustainable world.

So, in your journey towards that goal, I would encourage you to consider building reciprocal and enduring relationships with the people, the belief, and the very place where you want that change to happen at the foundation of your work, if you haven’t done it yet.

I know it takes time, effort, resources, and failures. You will often find yourself in a place and time you think doesn’t serve you any purpose, and maybe, at worst, you will later see this path isn’t really for you and choose another. Whatever the result, I feel that this is something worth venturing into. But for me, I will continue building relationships with Ate Emma, the Ocam-Ocam community, and the people of Busuanga Island at the forefront of my work as a marine conservation practitioner, because in conservation, it is really people that are at the centre of all we do.


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