In A Country Where Environmental Activism Can Cost You Your Life, One Campaigner Is Using The Power Of Storytelling To Effect Change
Photographer and environmental activist Gabriel Mejia on his mission to protect the Philippines’ largest wetland and amplify the voices of its Indigenous people
The quiet static of the Zoom call is replaced by the sound of crashing waves as Gabriel Mejia greets me. Turning on his camera, his fresh face dappled in sunlight and leafy background hint that he’s calling me from a coastal area of his home country.
“Yeah, I just moved to a surfing area in the northern Philippines,” Mejia smiles. His new home has opened up a whole new underwater world of coral reefs and daily dives—much to the benefit of his thousands of Instagram followers, who know his page best for its vivid imagery of wild animals and natural wonders.
“I started taking photos when I was 18, but I was a mountaineer first before I was a photographer,” he tells me. “At 13 I was already hiking. I hiked one of the tallest mountains in Malaysia with my Dad... That experience really inspired me to focus my career on the environment. Photography became my tool and passport to be able to immerse myself in the stories that revolve around the environment.”
Now 24, Mejia’s environmental photography career has since exploded, leading him to become a National Geographic explorer, earn a seat on the World Wildlife Fund’s Youth Council and co-found a global youth engagement network, Youth Engaged in Wetlands (YEW).
Wetlands are too often overlooked, Mejia says, explaining why he decided to start YEW. “We’ve already lost about 70 percent of our natural wetlands globally… People know about the ocean, the forests, the mountains but not wetlands—even though they’re one of the most important ecosystems in the world.”
YEW advocates for wetlands around the world, but one is particularly close to Mejia’s heart: the Agusan marshlands, the largest wetland in the Philippines. His first time visiting the area, Mejia was overwhelmed at how “Jurassic” it was. “You have these trees growing out from a lake that look dead—but they’re not. You have this amazing culture from the Manobo tribe who are living there, and they’re so welcoming and hospitable. They are the ones who are really guarding and protecting the place… ever since they were young they’ve been fighting against the atrocities that happen in the Agusan marshlands,” he says.
Photo 1 of 5 The Agusan Marsh at night under a blanket of stars. Image credit: Gabriel Mejia
Photo 2 of 5 Tess Babanto, the indigenous woman tribal leader of the Manobos uses her canoe after a hard day of work amid the setting sun. She paddles the whole day across their community and floating neighbors to get food and water. Image credit: Gabriel Mejia
Photo 3 of 5 An abandoned canoe in the once saturated lands of the Agusan. The prolonged droughts exacerbated by climate change have left the Manobo Tribe with no choice but to give away their way of life in the canoes or locally named "barotos" their world revolved around in. Image credit: Gabriel Mejia
Photo 4 of 5 Tess Babanto, the indigenous woman tribal leader of the Manobo heading back home to her floating house. Their houses are tied to these dead bangkal trees to prevent their houses from getting swept away by the currents of lake. Image credit: Gabriel Mejia
Photo 5 of 5 One of the tributaries connected along the wetland complex of the Agusan Marsh. Image credit: Gabriel Mejia
Found in northeastern Mindanao, the Agusan marshlands are an ecological treasure. The complex mix of marshes, rivers, lakes and ponds are home to extensive flora and fauna unique to the Philippines—including 67 bird species and 34 reptiles. The unique location of the marshlands means it has also become an essential avian refuge for hundreds of migratory birds.
The area, while beautiful, hasn’t escaped the wrath of extreme conflict, says Mejia. “Insurgents go [to the Agusan marshlands] and environmental defenders are being killed.” The deaths of those who have spoken up for the Agusan marshlands and other environmental issues in the country are unfortunately far from a rarity—the Philippines was named the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders in 2018 and 2019 by eco-watchdog Global Witness.
Indigenous leaders, like those within the Manobo tribe, are often most at risk. In 2019, one of the 43 environmental defenders killed was Kaylo Bontolan, a leader of the Manobo tribe. Bontolan was killed in a military airstrike while attempting to document violence against fellow tribe members, Rappler reported.
“I remember the Indigenous tribal chief Marites Babanto told me how one of her Indigenous tribal sisters was killed for fighting for land rights and Indigenous people’s rights,” Mejia recounts. “It was knowing how hard their battle is—their stories are being silenced, they are being harassed and the government isn’t doing anything about the virus or the injustices that are happening in the community—that’s when I realised how important it is to tell this story.”
Since the first time he stepped foot in the Agusan marshlands four years ago, Mejia has used his photography and social media presence to drive local and global attention towards the importance of its protection and amplify the voices of the Manobo tribe.
In September 2019, Mejia had his first major breakthrough. From April to September that year, a man-made fire ravaged 63 hectares of peatlands in and around the Agusan marshlands—unbeknownst to the government officials tasked with protecting the area, Mejia says. But his image of the billowing clouds of smoke from above the wetlands went viral, sparking social media backlash and anger over the treatment of the area. The post resulted in the rapid strengthening of the enforcement of the peatlands and wetlands in order to lower the risk of future fires.
“That viral photo, it made a difference,” he says. “[It makes] you realise how even a single image could force the government or highest body to act and do something to protect the Agusan marshlands.”
Mejia strongly believes in the power of social media to create change, and urges others to speak up about issues they are passionate about. “We all have voices and stories,” he says. “We are all connected to these digital spaces and we all have platforms that we can use to really empower and amplify the voices of those who are being silenced.”
“Anyone can take beautiful photos, but not everyone can change the world with it. That’s the true power of storytelling.”
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