“Resilience Is A Muscle That Gets Stronger As It Is Exercised”: Conservationist Ann Dumaliang On Overcoming Eco-Anxiety
The co-founder and managing trustee of Masungi Georeserve, a privately owned conservation area in the Philippines, discusses her first time experiencing solastalgia, a type of eco-anxiety, and the challenges of environmental advocacy that people don't see
The Philippines is one of 17 countries that collectively hosts over two-thirds of the earth's biodiversity, and between 70 to 80 percent of all plant and animal species known to the world. But protecting all of this is a huge undertaking made more challenging due to the wide conservation funding gap. Not enough money is going into protecting and conserving the country’s biodiversity, which has made it a particularly lucrative hub for illegal wildlife trafficking and land-grabbing activities.
Enter Ann Dumaliang and her sister Billie, both of who run a private, 450-hectare georeserve called Masungi, located about an hour and a half away from Metro Manila. The sisters work to protect the area’s natural limestone formation and forestland, which have massively degraded due to deforestation in the 1990s and 2000s.
With their team at the georeserve, they tackle conservation in three ways: protection, education and sustainable development, mostly through geotourism, which sustains or enhances the geographical character of a location, from its environment, to its heritage, culture and the well-being of its community.
But before the Masungi Georeserve was established in 2015, Ann recalls the first time she felt anxious about the future of the area, where she and her sister grew up.
She shares here the harrowing experience that led her to take matters into her own hands and how she deals with solastalgia, the distress associated with environmental change happening close or directly to your home.
Do you recall the first time you experienced eco-anxiety?
Ann Dumaliang (AD): My first recollection was from 2010. I was around 18 years old and I overheard my dad talking on the phone to the site team in Masungi. Our park rangers had been attacked and framed for carrying guns, even though there wasn’t any evidence. They were sent to jail and had to be bailed out.
I wondered then how people could prioritise their own interests to the extent of using violence and lies, knowing how many others could get unfairly hurt in the process. It dawned on me that destructive interests are real and post not only genuine harm just to the place that I love, but to the people at the frontlines who I see as family.
Eventually, it was solastalgia—a form of eco-anxiety felt by individuals when they see their environment changing negatively through time—that drove me to act. If I didn’t try to use my skills or capabilities to help conserve Masungi, I knew I would regret it for life.
The younger generation is reportedly feeling eco-anxiety more than their predecessors. Why do you think this is so?
AD: We have more access to information and technology that allows us to connect with each other more. We also have a better understanding of the impact of our choices. It is good that we are disturbed; to me, it is an acceptable reaction when you fully understand the issue.
The good news is, that there is a lot of knowledge on what needs to be done. The solutions are there. The important part is to get institutions to change and radically create solutions.
What challenges lie ahead of us, if we don’t act fast to protect our environment?
AD: Our ecosystems are our life source, and are composed of highly interconnected and fragile relationships. Their stability and survival are key to the flourishing of different kinds of life, including human life. We need to remember that we exist within one planet and are a part of these ecosystems.
Somehow because of the bubbles we have made for ourselves, we tend to believe we can exist out of them, which is ridiculous if you think of it. We are on Earth and are therefore, a part of it.
It is true that adapting to changes and the idea of extinction are part of the cycle of life on earth, but the rate of destruction that is happening today is too fast and too broadly reaching for our ecosystems to adapt. They have too large a potential consequence to be ignored by humans.
At this pace, we stand to lose much of our reefs and a huge variety of our insects by the year 2030. This will have a tremendous impact on food production, disaster risk resilience and human health, with some consequences we probably don’t even know about yet.
The problem we have stems from apathy towards other forms of life, including that of other people. The climate crisis isn’t only an environmental issue, it’s also a social justice and equality issue.
What challenges have you faced in garnering the necessary support for your cause? Does the Netflix film Don’t Look Up’s depiction of the challenges of environmental advocacy resonate with you at all?
AD: Yes, it does. In fact, even when we have the laws to support the conservation work that we do in the Philippines, brilliant champions within the government and the capability to detect anomalies in conservation in previously unmonitored areas, we still face challenges in implementation and urgency in taking action from some officials and institutions meant to be taking the helm.
Alongside illegal and vested interests, these lead to more problems that people don’t often get to see, which includes having to deal with violence in the field, disinformation tactics employed by certain parties to decrease public support and urgency, and SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits in court.
The emotional toll of environmental advocacy isn’t often talked about. How do you deal with that?
AD: Laughter, optimism, focusing on solutions and being open to exploring new things have been fundamental to helping me persevere despite the odds.
I remind myself to take things in strides and that resilience is a muscle that gets stronger as it is exercised. If you break things down into steps, find a community of like-minded people and collaborate smartly, it becomes easier to see a way out and the work becomes more manageable.
Contributing to the future in radical and effective ways does not mean having to sacrifice happiness in the present. I've learned that it is a long battle and it is in the best interest of the movement that we do not burn out and tire out.