Tell us about yourself — what’s your story and what did you study?
My name is Jessa and I'm from Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. I would describe myself as someone who enjoys the outdoors and loves hiking and swimming! I am fond of reading and cooking, which played out well for the academic path that I am currently taking.
I hold a Master of Philosophy in Conservation Leadership from the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. I am also pursuing a Master of Philosophy degree in Biological Science at the Department of Zoology in the same university. In particular, I am looking into Seafood for Societal Health. My passion lies in exploring the intersection between conservation and our food systems and their impact on humans and the environment.
I have an extensive experience working with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) in the Philippines, which stimulated my interest in finding innovative ways to promote food sovereignty and encourage sustainable consumption practices. Ultimately, I aim to be instrumental in conserving the spaces where these resources are.
Why did you choose the UK as a study destination?
Throughout my professional journey, I had the opportunity to attend seminars and conferences focusing on conservation. These events have provided me with invaluable insights into the various conservation programmes as well as the chance to interact and learn from some of the most respected leaders in the field.
A similarity among many of these leaders is their affiliation with the Conservation Leadership programme at the University of Cambridge. Some of them have taught there or were former students. They highly commend the programme as it has equipped them with the skills necessary to work alongside other experts who are similarly dedicated to effecting positive change in the sector. This programme is designed to promote critical thinking and innovative problem-solving strategies to tackle the pressing global climate issues plaguing our world. Having conducted thorough research, I took my chances in applying to the University of Cambridge for that programme. It did not disappoint in the amount of learning I had and the network of people it provided whom I could call on for advice and collaboration.
What has been the most exciting part of your experience studying and living in Cambridge?
While studying and residing in Cambridge, I have had the privilege of meeting individuals from various walks of life. Cambridge draws in a diverse and international cohort of students and scholars. This affords a one-of-a-kind opportunity to exchange ideas, gain insight from different perspectives, and establish lifelong bonds with people from all corners of the globe. Furthermore, I have found immense pleasure in rowing, a distinctive and essential aspect of the student culture at Cambridge and Oxford.
What was the main takeaway from your degree programme, and how will you integrate it into your work as co-founder of the Centre for Sustainability PH?
I guess it is easy to feel isolated when working in conservation because of how big the environmental issues can be. Every day, we face daunting news of what’s going on around the world; it can sometimes be hard to see the impact you make. With that, one of the main takeaways from my first degree and still learning in my current one is that there are many efforts out there that are enough to keep being optimistic about our planet and our future. Also, addressing complex sustainability issues may not exactly look like your approach but it doesn’t mean you are not working as allies. Conservation issues require interdisciplinary approaches, and social, economic, and political factors should always be in check when we do conservation work. It is great to be open-minded and always incorporate diverse viewpoints and fields of knowledge.
More than ever, it also reminded me, and solidified in me, that no matter how big projects and fundings are, they will always come back to working with and listening to IPLCs who have so much knowledge of what is on the ground and the tested and tried methods of how humanity has had a good relationship with nature.
For the Centre for Sustainability PH and beyond other endeavours that I will do, I will always keep in mind to be collaborative, interdisciplinary and participatory in my approach.
What got you into environmental conservation as an advocate?
I was born and raised in Palawan, the Philippines' last frontier, which instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature and its benefits. It was during my pursuit of a biology degree at Palawan State University that I developed a stronger connection to my surroundings as I interacted with the wildlife and natural ecosystems. Through this experience, I gained a deeper understanding of how everything coexists and depends on each other.
Growing up, I may have taken nature for granted because it seemed like it was always there. However, as I became a young adult, I saw how this majestic landscape has changed over time. This experience made me passionate about environmental conservation and I aspired to organise efforts with fellow young Palaweños. Thus, I co-founded the Centre for Sustainability, a women-led, youth environmental non-profit organisation based in my hometown.
Our mission is to protect the last remaining pristine forests of the country, starting with our backyard. Together with our partners and supporters, and especially with the immense support of our indigenous and lowland community partners, we are proud to have spearheaded the establishment of the Cleopatra's Needle Critical Habitat, which is now the largest critical habitat in the Philippines, having been passed into law by the government in 2017. Furthermore, as part of our efforts, we have successfully reforested over 15,000 almaciga tree seedlings, a key source of livelihood and a sacred species to the indigenous Batak tribe. We have trained and deputised 39 indigenous and local community members as Forest Rangers, now officially known as Wildlife Enforcement Officers and Volunteers.
Our small but highly dynamic organisation was recognised as one of the Ten Accomplished Youth Organisations in the Philippines in 2019.
How will you encourage more young people, especially women, to share your passion for protecting our habitat?
I believe it's essential to take a moment to appreciate the beauty and wonders of the natural world, regardless of where you live - be it a bustling city or a serene town. Personally, my exposure to the great outdoors during my childhood is what attracted me to this field. In my hometown, we commemorate Pista Y Ang Kagueban (Feast of the Forest) by coming together to plant trees in our local watershed. The experience of getting my hands dirty and being part of a meaningful cause has left a lasting impression on me.
Unfortunately, women haven't always been encouraged to indulge in outdoor activities, particularly in certain parts of the world. They often need to be better represented in leadership roles in conservation and other fields. However, we can work towards changing this by advocating for safer outdoor spaces for women and encouraging their participation in outdoor activities. We also need to take the lead in creating a more equitable future by making women and girls the cornerstone of our policies, projects, and endeavours. As a woman and a member of the younger generation in this field, it's time for us to claim our space and work towards a more inclusive future.
What advice would you give Filipinos aspiring to pursue a postgraduate degree in the UK?
If you're a Filipino considering pursuing a postgraduate degree in the UK, I encourage you to go for it. Even if you're unsure, it's worth taking the leap and seeing what opportunities may arise. Filipinos are known for their dedication and passion, so don't let self-doubt hold you back from pursuing your dreams. It's important to choose a programme that aligns with your interests and that you feel comfortable exploring every day. As with any academic institution, postgraduate degrees challenge you to think deeply and critically. While this can be difficult at times, it is also incredibly rewarding. You'll find a supportive community in the UK and be surprised at how quickly you'll connect with other Filipino students. This experience offers immense knowledge and personal growth, so seize the chance to make the most of it.