In celebration of Earth Day last April 22, former US First Lady Michelle Obama put the spotlight on five inspiring young women who have been doing their share to protect the planet.
At the forefront of this list—which includes ladies from Kenya, India, the US, and the Bahamas—is a 22-year-old Filipina environmentalist from a coastal community in Negros Occidental called Barangay Bulata. Her name is Carmela Ellaga, a BS Fisheries graduate from the Carlos Hilado Memorial State College in Negros.
Carmela has been actively taking part in the efforts of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation (PRRCFI), a non-stock, non-profit organization that focuses on biodiversity conservation, nature tourism, science and research, environmental education, solid waste management, and zero-waste initiatives.
Since age 15, Carmela has been volunteering as an eco-guide and camp facilitator at PRRCFI’s Danjugan Island Environmental Education Program (DEEP), where she learned about and taught environmental conservation and sustainability. She currently works as a community facilitator in the foundation and is taking charge of a ProCoast project, which works towards achieving sustainable coastal protection through biodiversity conservation in areas affected by typhoons in the Philippines.
In her Instagram post, Obama says Carmela “is one of millions of girls whose education has been disrupted by the climate crisis, but she is also part of the rising generation of leaders who are already taking charge as we confront it.”
Climate change awareness
Joining environmental organizations from grade school to high school, and later on joining the camps organized by PRRCFI ignited her passion for marine preservation and opened her eyes to the realities of climate change.
She notes that on many occasions, floods and strong typhoons would lead to cancellation of classes. “Sobrang lapit ng school namin sa shore so pag magsabay ang high tide and typhoon delikado,” she tells ANCX. “Pag may bagyo, kadalasan walang pasok.”
Since fishing is the main livelihood in their barangay (her mom is an octopus fisher), Carmela is aware of the challenges faced by the fisheries sector. Fishers are major food producers yet they continue to be marginalized, poor, and most affected by climate change (sea level rise, coral bleaching, depletion of fish stocks, typhoons and other extreme weather events).
“Mas kaunti na talaga ang fish catch ngayon as compared to ten years ago,” Carmela says.
This became a major motivation for the young Negrense to do volunteer work for the foundation and later on take up BS Fisheries, through a scholarship grant from the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. Carmela is now a licensed fisheries technologist, a profession that deals with aquaculture, fish processing, coastal management and marine fisheries, and fisheries law.
In an article published by Global Citizen, an international education and advocacy organization, Carmela says that as a fisheries technologist working in PRRCFI, she’s able to participate and become more involved in decision-making for their community, as well as in drafting and implementing environmental policies.
Carmela is a Scuba Schools International-certified freediver. She trained with freediving instructors Tara Abrina and Vincent Sparreboom in a program to empower Women Freediving for Marine Conservation called “Kataw”, a local word for mermaid.
According to PRRCFI executive director Dave Albao, Carmela is the best freediver in their team. “She even goes deeper than many fishermen, and she can hold her breath longer. That’s a skill and a strength. It’s not that easy to do,” says Dave. “Kasi the longer you stay in the water, the more you can observe [the marine life].”
The barangay where Carmela lives is located across the wildlife sanctuary and marine protected area of Danjugan Island, in the municipality of Cauayan, province of Negros Occidental. Asked about the condition of their water ecosystems there, Carmela says seeing the beautiful reefs inspire her to continue protecting their marine life by strengthening alliances with the fisherfolk, the organizations, and local government units.
Carmela comes across as a little shy when it comes to interviews but Dave says she’s really good at what she does, which is organizing community work. He also shares how Carmela has become an inspiration to other young girls in their community. “I always tell her our hopes for a sustainable future and also sometimes our fears,” he admits. “Dinadala niya kasi ang generation nya, especially the girls and women. Marami kasing problema na ang root cause ay lack of access to education ng mga kababaihan. They also get pregnant early, and syempre kung sa coastal community ka, makikita mo talaga how this affects their quality of life.”
Carmela is happy to note that now many younger people are realizing the importance of education and starting to get interested and to participate in what she does for their community. In fact, her younger sister also decided to take up BS Fisheries.
“What I want to tell the young people, especially in our province is let’s support each other and empower our fellow young people,” she says. “Take up careers in science, conservation, and sustainability, and also be engaged in environmental activities.”
Photos courtesy of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation