The Impatient Optimist
Read time: 10 minutes
Kind, smart and funny, Anna doesn't let anything get in her way. Originally destined for the arts, Anna couldn't resist the pull of activism and left dreams of Broadway aside to protect the sea. Born and raised in the Philippines, her passion for the ocean is fuelled by her love for the archipelago. In her view, environmental conservation needs to be a part of everyone's lifestyle. It should not only be the preoccupation of NGOs, scientists and government alone but should be accessible, empowering and citizen-led. This approach has led her work to be recognised and awarded more than once. She co-founded 'Save Philippine Sea' (SPS), a non-for-profit organisation that works on shark conservation, community empowerment, and environmental education. In 2012, the Future for Nature award enabled her to start working on establishing the first sharks and rays sanctuary in the Philippines. In addition, Anna is a researcher and consultant on circular economy and waste management at the United Nations Development Program Philippines (UNDP) and she also advises the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as the partnerships and engagement specialist for their Healthy Oceans program. As a communicator, storyteller and community leader, Anna has carved her place in the field of conservation.
Family life and education
While she was waiting to graduate from her bachelors in English Studies, Anna co-founded Save Philippines Sea. Following its success, Anna continued on this path and obtained her masters in conservation science in 2016. Before she formally entered the world of conservation and policy making, Anna was already busy earning a law degree from an unusual institution: the dinner table. Current events were openly discussed: 'you couldn't go to the dinner table and not share an opinion' she recalls. If she felt strongly about an issue her father would encourage her to write a letter (he is an environmental lawyer and activist). She wrote many and to this day, she still employs and teaches this method. Encouraged by her family to act upon her principles, she was brought up with the idea that by taking a stand you can make an impact.
Freelance work: routine and self-care
As a freelancer, Anna is able to operate at many levels. An aspect of her work she really enjoys is travelling. Regionally, she does local field work such as workshops, focus groups and consultation with communities. Internationally she attends fellowships and conference panels.
Yet, as much time as she spends in the air she keeps her feet on the ground. This makes her position unique: she has access to both grassroots and high level policy work. For example, she advises the Philippines government on marine illegal wildlife trade while working in local-level shark policies. Therefore, she has a good idea of what is needed for a national policy to be enforceable and fair.
Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, unfortunately travelling is no longer on the agenda. She goes from being away from one to three weeks a month to being home for the longest in over ten years. The silver lining is she can slow down and practice some self-care through reading (check out her Instagram for her suggested reads) and sleeping better. She also has gotten used to more desk work and a more predictable routine: 'It just consists of waking up early, reading, working out, going to work, watching Scandal (laughs) and listening to podcasts'. She also realises how lucky she is to work in sustainability, a sector which has suffered budget cuts and cancellations but nonetheless remained essential and has allowed her to earn money in a time of crisis.
Part of the Problem, part of the solution
In 2012, following her Future for Nature award, Anna was asked in an interview: 'What is the worst environmental issue?'. She laughed when I told her I watched the footage. Amazingly, she gave me the same answer: apathy. Thankfully, she says, she has never met a Filipino who is a climate denier, considering their first hand experience with the strongest typhoons, flooding and islands disappearing as a result of climate breakdown. Unfortunately this does not mean that the population is collectively adamant about saving the ocean; someone once asked her how it affects them if one whale shark died. Apathy grows when people are far from the issue, she explains. If you live in the city, why would you care about the ocean? You do not see it, you do not swim in it, you do not care for it. 'I think that's a failure on our part as community leaders, not being able to link the issue to an ordinary person' reflects Anna. Messaging needs to be tweaked to encapsulate how a tiny piece of plastic will affect every one of us in the long run.
In regards to combating apathy, Anna's modus operandi is not to propagate some vague message of hope: she leads by example. Writing a letter can take just ten minutes, switching to reusables can be fun. Her advocacy comes from a non-judgemental place. If she posts a picture of herself using a lotion on Instagram she does not want a dozen of critical comments popping up. She doesn't like it when people do it to her, so she doesn't do it to other people. Advocates must meet people where they are.
Everyone has their own day one, everyone has their own starting point and by judging others, you end the conversation.
When I asked Anna if she would share with me a challenge she had to overcome, she laughed: 'There are so many, where do I even start'. A year ago, she was working on a proposal to authorise the refilling of personal care products containers. For hygiene reasons this is prohibited in the Philippines but the refilling system would aim to reduce a lot of single-use plastic. The government did not approve the proposal immediately due to barriers in safety, hygiene, and lack of data. Returning home after yet another disappointing meeting, she was very disheartened, wondering what to do next. The answer soon became evident: watch Beyonce's Homecoming. Seeing how amazing and strong Queen B was, Anna got some rest and went on to fight another day. A few months later the proposal was re-examined and the government agency had a more positive response. Discussions are still ongoing. However, in light of the current sanitary crisis a new question arises: how will the refilling policy be relevant and future-proof in a post-COVID-19 world?
Role models and carving your own place in the field
When she talks about the ways she wants to empower young people, Anna no doubt draws from her own experience. 'When they are scared, all the more I push them' she says 'I always tell them: I'm not here to baby you, I'm not here to be your parent, I'm here to make you into the best version of yourself'. She recalls being grateful for people who saw potential in her and pushed her beyond her comfort zone. She would not be here without the support and push that her mentors provided despite her young age. At the time, when someone said they were not expecting someone so young, she used to break the ice and add '- and beautiful!'. This sense of timing and light heartedness helped her navigate a field where she couldn't see herself represented: 'They were not a lot of young women in this field - in marine conservation who weren't scientists or lawyers. I didn't see a lot of communicators or storytellers. When you're young, you're looking for a role model'. She could not quite see someone like her: the loudest in the room, friends with everyone, joking around.
Youth advocacy programs: Sea and Earth Camp
In designing the SPS youth advocacy programs, Anna kept in mind what she wishes she had known when she was starting up her career. Everything from steady practical skills like creating a powerpoint or budgeting, to more advanced leadership skills like public speaking and project management. To that end, the SPS website provides online resources like toolkits and infographics.
When you are an advocate it is so easy to feel that you're right and everyone else is wrong
The program also accentuates critical thinking: verify your information, understand the other perspective. As well as honing-in practical skills, attendants learn to talk with leaders and business owners in their own language. They are taught how to face diverging opinions and link their objectives to other's values and goals. When it comes to indicators of success, Anna puts forward the program's alumni: they are leading their own advocacy, projects and campaigns. To her, that ripple of impact really is the return on investment of their work.
It is important to have an element of seasterhood in mentorship
In the Sea and Earth Camps, the organisation makes a point of reviewing the gender balance. Anna also makes sure to check-in with her female mentees so they feel supported. 'Seasterhood' as she calls it: women have questions but not necessarily someone to answer them. How a menstrual cup works for instance, how to manage work/life balance or how to adjust being a people pleaser with standing for what you believe in. 'I like to give away the nice clothes I don't wear or makeup I haven't used and they call it the Anna Oposa Collection. It's part of it too, celebrating that side of it and the support and sisterhood that you form. It's hard to be a woman!'
Anna does not overlook the intersection of environmental conservation and gender equality in her capacity as a consultant either. In an article she co-published on the ADB blog in June 2019 you can read that 70% of the aquaculture workforce is female yet statistically erased. The lack of sex dis-aggregated data leads to a major under-estimation of women's contribution to the sector. This is particularly relevant when put in the perspective that conservation efforts have a higher chance of success when women are involved.
What does it mean to be a woman working in conservation in the Philippines?
When she is speaking at events, she is always asked about her personal life: 'are you single', 'don't you have kids?' or even 'will your husband/boyfriend allow you to travel so much?'. If these were relevant, she points out, why not ask her male counterparts as well what their wife thinks of their travelling? As well as being irrelevant to her work, these questions can be unsettling. She also comes under scrutiny for her appearance and often gets asked about what makeup she is wearing or who did her hair. Anna loves makeup, skincare and clothes, but there is a time and a place.
We are really held to a different standard and different criteria for what a female leader should be: she needs to be smart and she needs to be pretty
By diminishing her accomplishments and reminding her of other traditional milestones that are expected of women, these questions are frustrating reminders of the narrow and objectifying frame in which women are supposed to achieve success and fulfilment.
Words of advice
Failure is feedback
With a little help from Queen B, Anna has shown an amazing capacity for resilience, strength and perseverance. How does she do it? 'I don't think I was born smart or talented or brave. It is like a muscle: the more you use it the stronger you become at it'. Her background in theatre gave her a strong bandwidth for rejection. She was told not to take auditions personally and to this day this applies to her work: 'You will get rejected and you will fail'. It does not mean you are a bad advocate; it means you need to ask yourself what you can do better. Many factors can influence the result: time, place, person. Admittedly, this can be something hard to learn when you are young. Anna used to cry a lot and get very emotional about conservation work but eventually, as much as it is good to feel your emotions, she realised that it was not going to move her cause any further. Instead, she uses it as fuel for her competitive personality: 'If I am rejected I will work ten times harder to prove you wrong. I always say if plan A doesn't work there are so many other letters in the alphabet'. She believes this is a trait every conservationist should have:
If you want to be here for the long run you have to be able to take rejection with grace and with humility
Thank you again Anna for taking the time to share some of your thoughts and stories, make sure to follow SPS on Instagram for a ton of helpful resources and check out their website.
Click here to read more profiles of women4oceans.
Shout out to... Anna gives a shout-out to Seastanable, a female-led social enterprise that supports marine conservation in Southeast Asia. As well as providing sustainable alternatives to everyday disposable items the organisation is raising awareness through workshops and events. A portion of the profits is donated to different marine conservation projects under the Seastainable Grant.
Zoe Winck is the communications volunteer for Women4oceans. With a degree in Politics, they are passionate about sustainability transitions and always on the look out for the best thrift spot.