By Sherwin Dane Haro
Editor-in-Chief / HAPI Scholar
With everything going on in the Philippines politically and the pandemic’s persistent onslaught, it might be hard for Filipinos to consider environmentalism as an urgent priority at the moment.
But don’t let environmental engineer Diosa Marie Aguila-Aguirre hear that. Not only does she know that environmental protection will always be the chief concern for humanity’s survival, she walks every word in her talk. The new Ambassador of HAPI-Green Movement is ready to educate youth and lead coastal clean-ups and tree-growing activities this 2021.
Diosa took a few hours away from her day job as a university instructor to fondly share her views with me in an online interview. I came away from it heart-warmed by her unapologetically grassroots (pun intended) approach; sometimes, even the act of planting a tree really can give humanity a lifeline.
A secular humanist at heart, Diosa flitted across a few Christian sects before abandoning religion entirely during college. Some in the self-professed bookworm’s social circle have openly mocked her non-religiosity. “I was once asked by a colleague if I worship Satan,” she recalled. “Also, after they [found out] that I am a humanist, one insisted that I lead a prayer as an invocation.”
Nevertheless, the events don’t seem to have fazed her like it does other humanists I know. “They are not really conflicts; just [a] nuisance.” It’s clear that to Diosa, the work is more important than stressing over snide remarks.
“What secular Filipinos can do is to walk the talk.”
And work away she does. Apart from her activism, the past decade has seen her take on roles such as Director for the Environmental Management Unit and OIC Assistant Director – Pollution Control Officer for the Calabarzon region. As an instructor and laboratory supervisor, she teaches environmental planning to bright-eyed young “green movers”. Asked if the youth of today are more aware of critical environmental issues, her answer is blunt but optimistic: “I think that those with the environment in their hearts are being educated, while those who do not care are being reached enough to spark change.”
Make no mistake, environmental planning is Diosa’s raison d’être. When our conversation arrived at it, the passion emanated from her like smoke off of a phoenix’s wings. “I think the biggest concern with environmental planning is that those in power and those who can buy and utilize lands are not required to have an environmental and climate education,” she said. “If an investor wants to build a concrete mall in an area full of matured trees, they would find ways, loopholes and connections to do it, even if the action has a pile of negative effects.”
She has similar hang-ups about the Philippine education system, where she says the country simply never invested in manpower. On top of that, she feels that it has fell short on career development for teachers. “I know Master of Science-graduate teachers working for more than ten years in a public institution who still [earn] the lowest-salary grade for a teacher,” Diosa said. “It’s degrading and do not inspire exceptional effort at all.”
Without beating around the bush, she criticizes the role played by religion in this collective apathy. “One of my personal concerns is almost all institutions in the Philippines push their religiosity [onto] everyone. You’re about to have a meeting? You must pray first as an invocation. You achieve some form of success? You must thank a god for that. It’s suffocating,” she said. “I know it’s a long shot because we’re not even gender-sensitive as a country but I hope there would [come] a time we will be religion-sensitive too.”
Diosa is not ranting baselessly there: as per figures released by the Philippine Statistics Authority, there were 73,248 Filipinos who identified as having no religion (“None”) in 2010. By the 2015 version of the survey, that number had dwindled to 19,953. Meanwhile, the number of religious practitioners in the Philippines grew by around seven million within the same timeframe, with the Roman Catholics alone constituting 79.53% of the total Filipino population. Simply put, faith is the norm in the country and all other ways of thinking (no matter how considerably more logical) are pushed to the side.
Couple this with news that mining has become so rampant as to encroach on indigenous lands or statistics showing that the Philippines has emitted 3.5 billion tons of CO2 since 1908 and it’s hard not to see where Diosa’s displeasure stems from.
Still, the Batangas native cannot ignore the positive changes that are occurring in her field. The licensure of environmental planning professionals, the improvement of laboratories, and the growing number of researches that are receiving proper funding are some of the government-initiated trends that delight her (not least because she had a hand in instigating them herself).
Much like her students, Diosa remains genuinely excited for the future. “As an environmental educator, I cannot be pessimistic about [it]. Technology is moving at a fast rate so there will always be a way to mitigate these environmental threats.”
At the same time, she urges other secular Filipinos to be more proactive when it comes to environmental issues. “What secular Filipinos can do is to walk the talk,” Diosa advised. “No ‘converting’ will be [accomplished] if we force-feed everyone around us with information. We must show in our actions what we can do for the environment and gently nudge [people] in our direction if they ask what we are doing. Planting seeds of love for our environment is key to solving our crises.”
In contrast to the frantic doomsdaying of some other environmental activists, Diosa’s more nuanced perspective is refreshing. It embodies the kind of empathy that will undoubtedly define her work as Ambassador of HAPI-Green Movement. Even now, in her current capacity as teacher and advocate, she is helping change hearts and minds.
She left me (and all of us) with this: “Grow your own community – it can be in any part of the world where you will be happiest – and do not obey blindly”.
Don’t underestimate the nature lovers, everybody.