My most recent adventures took me to the lush island province of Palawan, a last frontier for conservation in the Philippines, to work with local partners the Center for Sustainability and the last members of the Batak tribe on the creation of Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve, to protect over 40,000 hectares of primary forest and dozens of unique species.
The island province of Palawan still boasts half of its original primary forests, some of the oldest and most diverse in Southeast Asia, and was identified in a November 2013 study published in Science, as the world’s fourth most “irreplaceable” area for unique and threatened wildlife.
The unique blend of endemic species can be explained by the fact that the island was once connected to Borneo, resulting in a mix of influences from Sundaland and the Philippine Archipelago. Threatened species include the Philippine Cockatoo (Critically Endangered), Palawan Forest Turtle (Critically Endangered), Palawan Horned Frog (Endangered), Palawan Toadlet (Endangered) and Philippine Flatheaded Frog (Vulnerable).
Despite receiving international recognition as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve containing two World Heritage Sites, the island remains relatively understudied, and its forests are diminishing as a result of a variety of pressures. Puerto Princesa municipality, in the center of the island, contains 65% forest cover and one National Park: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. The eastern boundary of the 22,000 hectare National Park follows the most west flank of Cleopatra’s needle, the highest and most pristine peak in northern Palawan. Key habitats, population strongholds of endangered species and the presence of tribal people were not fully included when designating the park boundaries and this has left about 80,000 hectares of forest, including the peak of Cleopatra’s Needle (the source of many rivers that wind through the forests), unprotected.
The area is home to the last 200 members of the Batak tribe. This tribe of hunter gatherers, the first inhabitants of the Philippines originating in Papua New Guinea, still live in balance with the forest. They live in simple makeshift huts and travel around gathering resin, and honey while catching the occasional Palawan Bearded Pig.
In order to protect these unique forests in perpetuity, local group the Center for Sustainability are, with the support of ASA, Rainforest Trust and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, working with the local government of Puerto Princesa and the Batak peoples to create and delineate, by the end of 2014, Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve. The Reserve will encompass between 40,000 and 50,000 hectares of primary forest and a management plan for the area will be informed by upcoming comprehensive biodiversity surveys to ensure the survival of myriad endemic species.
Few places reflect the mirrored fortunes of the environment and people as poignantly as Haiti, where thin topsoil washes into the ocean in dirty red plumes from hillsides once cloaked in verdant forest. But protecting the last forest remnants in a country teetering on the brink of ecological collapse is beyond challenging when people go to bed hungry every night.
I first visited Haiti in 2007 after it was identified as a global priority for amphibian conservation; 92% of Haiti’s 50 frog species are threatened with extinction. After several visits to the country it started to dawn on me that, while each and every Haitian suffers the repercussions of environmental degradation in some form, very few people — from government officials to farmers — have seen trees dripping with orchids, breathed in the cool, humid air of the cloud forest or enjoyed being lulled to sleep by a soothing symphony of frogs.
I wondered how we could expect anyone to fight for the protection of something with which they have no meaningful connection. What would happen if Haitians were empowered to connect with nature and see their forests and its unique inhabitants through new eyes?
To find out, I teamed up with local partners Panos Caribbean and Société Audubon Haiti and, armed with 20 digital cameras and as many promising Haitian youths, we embarked on a crash course on biodiversity, conservation and hands-on training in photography and visual storytelling. The students were then sent out to capture and compile photo essays on themes of their choosing; namely charcoal, water, plants and life in Haiti.
I was excited by the concept but truly blown away by the results. The images and stories turned out to be a surprisingly powerful conduit for an important message. A photo exhibit and book launch at the municipal library attracted a diverse audience as the kids turned out in their Sunday best to lead proud parents around their creations. When Lovely, a bright and energetic 11-year-old, challenged the region’s minister of environment on his reforestation policy for Parc La Visite, it forced answers to some of the most difficult — but important — questions about the future of Haiti’s forests. The next generation was given a rare voice in the future of its country.
And so, the initiative Frame of Mind was born, to empower youth to connect with their natural and cultural worlds through photography and visual storytelling. With another workshop planned for the end of March, the initiative is set to continue and to grow. We will try to get as many people into the forest as we can; as for everyone else, we will bring the forest to them through images, video and stories told through the eyes of their children and peers.