Environmental passion forged from human compassion

Environmental passion forged from human compassion

Environmental passion forged from human compassion


PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Grizelda “Gerthie” Mayo-Anda started her career as a lawyer in the late 1980s as a champion of social justice and human rights.

Her advocacy widened to include the protection of the Philippines’ rich biodiversity, particularly that of Palawan province, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (Elac).


“I always see this when I was at St. Theresa’s College in Cebu, where my molding with the nuns was for social justice and human rights. Because when I became a lawyer, I saw that there is so much concern about [the] right to life, right to [breathe] clean air,” Mayo-Anda recalls.


READ: Conservationists warn on environment impact of splitting Palawan

Thus, when she started her career, it became natural that she was drawn to finding meaningful advocacy through nonprofit work.

“So that was a combination of personality molding and perspective that someday I will establish a nongovernment organization that will focus on environmental rights, environmental justice, which was, I think, a product of the human rights advocacy activism pre-Edsa (People Power Revolution), which was also contributory to the thinking of helping and making sure that the greater good or the general welfare benefits from your knowledge and skills,” she says.

‘Good for the soul’

In 1990, she collaborated with other lawyers to form Elac. It was initially part of a human rights program because there was still no clear relationship between environmental protection and human rights at the time. She initially found it difficult to link these advocacies until the United Nations declared that the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right.

Mayo-Anda says her advocacy is also influenced by faith, as she was exposed to the theology of liberation as part of the progressive teachings of the Catholic church.

Public interest service, particularly environmental and human rights work, is not lucrative, but legal empowerment of the people is what makes it work for her, she says.


“I think it’s good for the soul, the spirit. So that’s my perspective,” she explains.

Upon embarking on the environmental advocacy campaign, Mayo-Anda and Elac faced challenges, some of which seemed insurmountable owing to peculiarities in the legal practice.

Mining was already a big environmental concern then. Mayo-Anda recalls how shocked she was to learn that, when she moved to Palawan, the government allowed mining in a natural forest despite environmental laws in place.

Witnessing this only strengthened her advocacy work: “And when you say advocacy, that includes education. Basically, what legal empowerment means, you have to generate awareness, make people realize what the issues are, make them aware of their rights and the remedies.”

To her, the greatest challenge is having to be maligned by government officials who spread false information about her and try to ruin her reputation in the communities where she is working.

“And with social media now, it’s really spreading bad news about [you, which] makes it more challenging because there are people who believe it,” she laments.

Another critical challenge is governance, with loopholes in laws that lead to improper implementation.

She notes that while laws, such as the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, and the Strategic Environmental Protection for Palawan law, mandate that natural and old-growth forests be declared core zones, extractive activities are still allowed.

“So the challenge there also is really, how do you make people understand that they have the capacity and they have the right to actually intervene, especially when they get discouraged that cases take a long time, which makes the advocacy [seem] senseless?” she says. She has also experienced being Red-tagged but remains unfazed.

“I was accused of being a communist rebel and that Elac is supporting the NPA (New People’s Army). This happened around 20 years ago. I think part of that was our human rights work pre-Edsa. So the solution was, we had a dialogue with the military,” she says.

Small victories

Despite loopholes in the implementation of certain environmental laws, Mayo-Anda found a counterbalance in her work—alongside the late former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez—creating the “No to Mining in Palawan Movement,” which resulted in the passage of Executive Order No. 79 in 2012.

The law imposed a moratorium on the processing of mining applications in Palawan and identified Palawan as a no-go zone.

She adds that another small victory was the birth of the One Palawan Movement, which opposed Palawan’s division into three separate provinces last year.

“I never thought that we will get involved in a traditional electoral process,” she says.

Her advocacies are a never-ending work because “in the face of victory, you cannot be complacent and have to remain vigilant as things can easily change. You should not get tired. Although it is also important to take a rest for our mental health and well-being, you should not get caught off-guard,” she adds.

The fight continues

Mayo-Anda says the fight for environmental justice will continue to be big, with the enemy being a combination of poverty, ignorance, and corruption. “One indicator of that is the way we vote for our local officials. Many voters are still willing to be bought. So if you elect officials who do not appreciate environmental justice, protection or conservation or IP (indigenous peoples’) rights or social justice, the problem will persist.”

“So people should be aware that these challenges will continue unless we are able to capacitate ourselves further and shape governance. Meaning, we have to elect officials who are not corrupt, who understand what justice means, understand the common good, and genuinely fight for the rights and welfare of the people,” she adds.

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Elac is banking on three aspects of legal empowerment—awareness building, education, and capacity building; policy reform advocacy; and public interest and strategic litigation, where environmental law will be the center stage of policy and governance. INQ

TAGS: environment, environmentalists, Palawan

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