BACOLOD, PHILIPPINES — On Earth Day 2021, as the world put a spotlight on environmental issues amidst a pandemic and the climate crisis, Carmela Ellaga woke up to a rush of notifications from her phone. Despite the slow mobile Internet connection where she lives by the coast of Brgy. Bulata in Cauayan, Negros Occidental, Philippines, she was surprised to see colleagues and friends tagging her on social media because the former First Lady of the US Michelle Obama highlighted her as one of the “5 Young Women and Girls Fighting for Climate Justice You Should Know”. Originally published in Global Citizen, the feature was co-authored by Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, Girl Rising, and Malala Fund.
This began a frenzy of media attention which the otherwise low-profile Carmela Ellaga was not used to. As she began speaking on interviews for TV news, she embraced being a voice for her small rural coastal community struggling with the impacts of climate change. The recent interest in Carmela’s life and work is a milestone for the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation whose work emphasizes empowering people as community leaders for conservation. Why is Carmela representing the hopes for a sustainable future? What is she doing for climate justice? Get to know the humble story of Carmela in this feature written by Julia Javier, in time for the Month of the Ocean.
I feel really honored that Michelle Obama has recognized my efforts, and I am very happy that she shared my story. I hope that I was able to reach and inspire my fellow youth and women to take part and take action to fight for our world. I am also very glad to represent coastal communities and the fisheries sector. – carmela ellaga
Growing up among fishers in Brgy. Bulata, Carmela witnessed the daily life of fishers. She saw how her community is interdependent with marine wildlife. Her family lives close to the shore and her mother is a traditional squid fisher, so she has experienced firsthand the impacts of climate change to their home, and the sea which is their source of food and livelihood. It is the same for many other coastal communities in the Philippines and the world. Climate change has detrimental implications to one of the most marginalized sectors in the country – small-scale, artisanal, sustenance and municipal fishers – despite them being crucial to our food security.
Carmela began learning about climate change at a young age because the village where she resides is across the wildlife sanctuary and the marine protected area of Danjugan Island in Cauayan, Negros Occidental, Philippines. She began her journey as an environmentalist at the age of 15, arising from her love for mangroves, seagrass, and corals. As a scholar, an eco-guide, and a camp facilitator, she learned and taught conservation and sustainability at the Danjugan Island Environmental Education Program (DEEP) of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation (PRRCFI).
The 22-year-old Carmela became a licensed Fisheries Technologist after graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries from the Carlos Hilado Memorial State College. She was a recipient of a scholarship from the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, thanks to the efforts of then DA Undersecretary and now Department of Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat.
With mentoring from DEEP, Carmela and many of her fellow scholars also accessed more opportunities to enrich their knowledge and skills in the fisheries field of study on aquatic resources management and ecology. She is a certified SSI Freediver, trained by freediving athletes Tara Abrina and Vincent Sparreboom in a program to empower Women Freediving for Marine Conservation, called “Kataw” (a local word for mermaid). She also benefitted from trainings with the Large Marine Invertebrates Research Institute (LAMAVE) for Sea Turtle ID methodology in Apo Island Protected Landscape and Seascape, and with Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for Community Organizing and Social Marketing.
Before even graduating from college, she was hired by PRRCFI as Community Facilitator for the USAID-funded Sea Waste Education to Eradicate Plastic (SWEEP) campaign for #MoreFishNotPlastic, and for prototyping eight (8) “Wala Usik” or zero-waste sari-sari stores in Negros to reduce ocean plastic pollution.
Her dedication and contribution has led her to work as the Community Officer of PRRCFI, recreating initiatives of the ProCoast project in South Negros. The ProCoast project is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI) funded by the German Federal Government through GIZ and ZSL, aiming for sustainable coastal protection through biodiversity conservation in coastal ecosystems affected by typhoons in the Philippines. In her current role, she ensures that fisherfolk associations, people’s organizations, women and youth participate in the assessments, management planning and decision-making for the sustainability of the coastal resources they depend on. She has to creatively translate and contextualize the principles and practices of sustainable fisheries and climate mitigation for every activity she is a part of.
In the 2021 International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Youth Summit, she was invited to speak for the Chester Zoo Youth Board on “Models of Youth Engagement in Conservation Governance: Making Young Voices Heard”.
As a beneficiary of free and open source software, Carmela uses Linux on her fieldwork computer, advocating for digital educational facilities for communities like hers. During the pandemic, she helped establish the Bulata Tech4Ed Center with the Department of ICT. This initiative – Technology for Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development – is working towards national digital inclusion that establishes e-Centers in communities that need access to e-government and ICT-enabled services.
When asked about the people she looks up to, Carmela highlights the many women who has provided her support and nurtured her growth, starting with her mother and sisters. The work she is currently doing is guided by her Project Manager Kim Casipe, one of the William Oliver Philippine Champions, named after the renowned conservation biologist, and conferred to young emerging scientists. And with the wonderful environment of women supporting women, PRRCFI’s 4 female trustees (in a board of 9) have been instrumental in paving the way for Carmela. Understanding the diversity of her mentors is key to replicating the hopes we have for girls like her. Kaila Ledesma Trebol, a marine biologist designing art materials for environmental education, has inspired Carmela and more than a thousand young people to take on careers in the interdisciplinary world of conservation. Kaila’s fellow female PRRCFI trustees – gender and development consultant Sef Alba Carandang, change management specialist Rhoda Avanzado Phillips, and environmental lawyer Alexandria Gamboa – have all played crucial roles to celebrate and empower a fisher’s daughter.
Carmela’s story reached Girl Rising, a global campaign for girls’ education and empowerment. Their mission is to change the way the world values girls and to ensure girls everywhere can be full and equal participants in society. They selected Carmela to represent Filipinas who are in the front lines of climate justice, and this led to Michelle Obama taking notice. The continuous and persistent efforts of a young, dedicated Filipina has drawn international attention, but Carmela hopes that this will translate to actions of support for communities experiencing extreme weather events, sea level rise, coral bleaching, degradation of habitats and decline in fisheries.
Carmela represents the women and girls who are rising up to the challenge, raising awareness to the issues their communities face, and are taking action to protect their home. It is people like Carmela who constantly remind us that everyone should be included in the discussion and decision-making, that she is not alone in this battle for change. We must now call for action to protect the small-scale, artisanal, municipal, and sustenance fishers by speaking up against proposed legislations like the House Bill 7853, and by funding more programs empowering girls and women, especially those from rural and coastal communities. Through education and opportunities in STEM, conservation, and sustainability to combat the climate crisis, we can ignite the spirit of more changemakers.