My career has ranged from conservation projects for a British NGO in the Fiji Islands, Honduras and the Philippines, to community tourism initiatives in Northern Pakistan with the Aga Khan Foundation in my early twenties. I lived there for 20 months in 1991, after making my first overland journey across Asia as a hungry 18-year-old seeking adventure and truth.
I have also held many diverse roles as a project manager, such as working in fashion for a merchandising consultancy in Paris and as a Look and Feel manager for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I have also led special interest tours through India and France, and diving expeditions around the World, including seaplane diving tours in the Maldives.
Since the pandemic and living in London, I have been lucky enough to work in the NHS. The people I work with are committed and have service at the very heart of their careers. I leave at the end of the day knowing only kindness is given, very much like a trustee gets to put the benefits of others’ wellbeing at the heart of every story.
The call of conservation – and community
I grew up in Borneo, surrounded by the beauty of biodiversity and adventures in nature. This privileged upbringing allowed me to witness first-hand the importance of conserving nature above one’s own immediate gratifications. Conservation work is all about good decision making.
My first conservation work was in Northern Pakistan with the Aga Khan Foundation. The project took me to communities living in balance and reciprocity with the natural world, even in some of the harshest and most hostile environments. One of the best experiences I witnessed there was after the valley opened with new built roads – many communities prioritised educating women now they could get access to school, resulting in a rapid improvement in general health and welfare, and uptake in education.
During my time with Coral Cay Conservation, I had my first experience of citizen science, which taught me the key lesson that good leaders learn most from hands on experience and being able to see issues from multiple perspectives. You can gain essential life experience from diverse interactions with the natural world and participating in scientific research, and it’s clear to me that nature’s classroom nurtures leadership qualities and improves decision making.
For example, in the Philippines, I witnessed the families of Bulata restarting their livelihoods again after a typhoon. Community leaders purposefully chose to preserve the Marine Sanctuary, despite the urgent need to feed themselves, because the importance of long-term preservation is widely understood as essential to the future of the island. Many of these community leaders then encouraged their own children to become the next generation of trustees for the sanctuary.
The power of these types of decisions for the betterment of many truly inspires me. Change may often take time and energy, but the benefits are clear. Conservation isn’t a luxury endeavor, but an art of living to be shared.
Becoming a Communities for Nature trustee
I met Rhoda on Danjugan island, when I was an expedition leader and project manager for another site. This project site had to close overnight for security reasons, and we approached our country partners, the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCFI) for help. Rhoda was the new island manager, so we had to rely on each other’s support and humor as we reallocated resources over to Danjugan Island.
Since then, Rhoda and I have stayed close friends, and when she approached me to be a Communities for Nature trustee, I knew both of our skillsets and instinctive ability to embrace change would lead us to make a successful team.
Being a trustee is a chance to nurture the values I believe in. I am happy to be involved in protecting biodiversity, promoting local community livelihoods, good governance and decision making. I am also aligned with Community for Nature’s transparency at every stage of our work. From where our funding comes from, to the communities and projects initiated, and the impact of our work.
Every day I am learning through our work how interconnected we are and discovering new ways to share skills, insights and resources, for the benefit of many. Drawing upon my own career as a project manager and leading expeditions, the key to building strong relationships is mutual respect and compassion.
I am also continually inspired by the trustees in the Philippines. They give Communities for Nature a sound foundation and selfless guidance to grow and build, especially in our first partnership with LMAX Group. There are so many projects and communities working to keep nature at the heart of life. These are the people we want to partner with.
The mutual model
As a trustee, it’s fantastic to see corporations wanting to make good decisions for the future, and our direct partnership model offers them a chance to really be hands on.
There is no blind donation. Each partnership is a co-designed, mutually respectful and beneficial relationship. Both groups, community and company, have different goals and objectives for the continuation of their work and lives and Communities for Nature can unite the two groups to find a common ground in which all can thrive.
Corporate sponsors benefit from the outlet for positive financial donations, meeting their ESG targets and having the chance to witness direct change because of their actions by interacting with communities directly and visiting their partnership in action, at the source.
Communities benefit from this as it provides an opportunity to grow and protect their people, culture, and resources by educating others, on a global platform, the struggles, and successes of their way of life.
To the horizon
Looking ahead, in the short term, our goal is to secure more partnerships in the Philippines, but the long-term future of Communities for Nature is bringing people together and facilitating more immersive experiences between the communities and corporate benefactors. Currently, this is assisted through technology, which is great for reaching out to a wider audience, but it doesn’t compare to the fulfillment and joy of direct hands-on experience.
I believe we are nature, and we are all constantly changing. This value enhances my sense of wonder and curiosity, growing my understanding and helping me to make trustee decisions with ease.
ACE Science Officer Franz Anthony Alejano tells us about how the partnership is working to put citizen science into practice around Danjugan Island.
Community engagement is a core principle running through all the initiatives developed by the Actions for Communities and Environment (ACE) partnership we have established between PRRCFI and LMAX Group.
When it comes to environmental education and community capacity building, this runs to a familiar format. But what does this mean when it comes to the science of conservation?
Recently, we were fortunate enough to sit down with ACE’s Danjugan Island-based Science Officer, Franz Anthony Alejano to learn more about ‘Citizen Science’.
He recently took part in training on MPA-FishMApp, an exciting program which makes it straightforward to gather data on the size of local fish populations, and compare what is going on inside and outside the local Marine Protected Area.
With this training under their belts, Franz and his colleagues can now begin to harness the power of citizen science, by passing on their knowledge of MPA-FishMApp to local people, building a team of citizen scientists to operate in Danjugan’s waters.
What is citizen science, and what are the benefits of using citizen scientists?
For me, citizen science is a valuable tool that can help us build communities that collaborate to find out more about their home. Any program or project that engages the public in scientific research uses the citizen science approach.
There are so many benefits. Because it encourages mass participation there is increased potential for data collection and analysis capacity. Then there is the chance of improving scientific literacy amongst the public and greater community engagement. All of this, and of course the fact that we are able to enhance the impact of our research.
Can you tell us about the training you received to put citizen science into practice around Danjugan?
PRRCFI is a member of the Southern Negros Coastal Development and Management Council (SNCDMC) alongside a number of different local government units working under the Municipal Agriculture Office and Environmental and Natural Resources Office. The MPA-FishMApp training was organized for the Council and three other PRRCFI staff members and I joined the council at the workshop in Sipalay City.
At the training, we were taken through how to use MPA-FishMApp which is basically a tool that allows citizen scientists to quickly and efficiently record data on fish species. It has a simple interface allowing users to enter and store information on 21 reef fish and two invertebrate species groups. Using built in algorithms MPA-FishMApp can then generate data visualizations to show trends in fish density and biomass, and changes over time.
Now we have had this training we will be able to upskill a wider group of citizen scientists to get involved with the next Fish Visual Census.
You are doing this work as part of the local reef monitoring team. Why is it important to monitor the reef and marine environment around Danjugan Island? How will the data you gather be used?
Monitoring the reef and marine environment around Danjugan Island is important to assess the health of the reef, identify threats, and take steps to protect it.
Monitoring can also help to track the progress of our conservation efforts. The first data we gathered can be used as a baseline for ongoing annual fish monitoring and inform the development of conservation efforts in the future.
What are the timings for the Fish Visual Census?
We conducted the first Fish Visual Census in April 2023 in identified sites around the island and the fished sites across the mainland in Bulata, Cauayan. These will be the permanent monitoring sites that need to be surveyed every year by the team of citizen scientists we train up.
We understand the data is yet to be finalized but can you give us an impression of what you found doing the census?
It was pretty obvious that there were fewer fish in the fished sites than in the protected ones. The fish we saw the most were triggerfishes, surgeonfishes, parrotfishes, butterflyfishes and damselfishes. It was actually quite surprising for us to observe a good number of damselfish, especially in the fished sites, so it will be interesting to track the data that relates to this observation.
The survey work has happened as part of the ACE Project, the partnership between LMAX and PRRCFI brought together by Communities for Nature – how important is it to bring in funding and support for this type of project? What does it mean for the MPA, and wider efforts to protect the environment and improve biodiversity?
Reef monitoring is essential for the conservation of coral reefs, but it can be expensive at times. That’s why it’s important to bring in funding and support for this important work. This funding can help cover the costs of reef monitoring, such as equipment, training, and travel and it can make sure that reef monitoring programs are ongoing and sustainable.
Meet Kaila Trebol, biologist, artist and Communities for Nature trustee.
Kaila Trebol is one of the group of committed, passionate trustees who have come together with Communities for Nature founder Rhoda Phillips to make the charity’s vision ‘to build a sustainable future for all’ a reality. Kaila is biologist with more than two decades of experience working for renowned conservation organisations, as well as a talented artist. We asked her to tell us a little about the path her career has taken, and what drives to her when it comes to her work in conservation and sustainable development.
Can you tell us a bit about your career background and current roles outside of your work as a Communities for Nature trustee?
I am a biologist and artist with over 22 years of conservation work experience with organizations like World Wide Fund for Nature, Ocean Adventure, Flora and Fauna International, Talarak Foundation and GIZ. I started my career as a coral reef researcher then moved towards education and project management. Presently, I am an active working trustee for the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI). We manage Danjugan Island, a marine reserve and sanctuary in the Philippines. Our work focuses on ecotourism, sustainability, environmental education, and science & research programs.
One of my main tasks is to create educational materials for the camp programs on the island as well as teach about the marine ecosystem. This is where I am also able to use my art to be able to help interpret our conservation messages in a creative way that makes learning more interesting and fun.
As a trustee, it is my job to ensure that we are sustainable and that all that we do is in line with our vision, which is, “people and wildlife in harmony for a sustainable future.”
What drew you to working in the field of conservation?
I grew up with a conservationist father who taught me diving at a very young age. Since then, I knew my life’s work would focus on the environment and its conservation. A big part of my advocacy is about bringing people closer to nature, just like my father has done with me. Through the programs we support in Danjugan Island, we are able to bring students and adults alike to learn and experience nature’s best on the island. It is through this connection we hope to foster the new conservationists that our world so greatly needs.
How did you first become involved with the work of Communities for Nature?
Rhoda and I have worked together for many years for PRRCFI and share the same vision for conservation. Working with her to ensure sustainability of conservation projects around the world, especially in the Philippines, is a chance to make a difference. Especially for the many local communities that need support.
What attracted you to the role of trustee?
Just like our work with PRRCFI, being a trustee is a calling. It really is my chance to give back. The environment needs so much more support. In the Philippines, the environment usually takes a back seat, and this makes it a struggle for many local organizations to continue the good work they’ve started. If we can help by making funding available, we can empower communities to take action and work towards becoming strong communities in a rich and stable environment.
What is your main focus and aim as a trustee?
Reaching out to local communities that are already on the front lines of conservation work is one of my aims. Finding ways to be able to assist and support them to ensure that they have sustainability for the conservation projects that they’ve started.
Do you have a view on the long term future of the charity and what it can achieve further down the line – both in terms of projects linked to Danjugan Island, and beyond?
Local communities in the Philippines don’t usually have much access to funding. Many times, if they do get funding, their projects end when funding ends. This is a common problem with many project-funded conservation initiatives. How do we get these projects to continue? CFN can hopefully be an answer to this and make funding easily accessible to local communities.
What do you feel are the strengths of a model that puts partnership working and the co-creation of solutions between corporate supporters and communities at the heart of its approach?
I believe that this collaborative partnership gives a lot of room to dream even bigger. Many times we are constrained to do only what limited funding can provide. Partnering with corporate supporters that want to grow together and learn together with the community is essential. It is to be able to dream together and work together toward a sustainable future.
What do you feel the benefits are for corporate supporters in engaging with communities via Communities for Nature?
There is more room for learning on both sides, a chance to let those who are part of the corporate be immersed in something outside of what they see day to day and to be a part of something meaningful – knowing that their work contributes to a good cause.
What are the benefits for communities?
The benefit for communities is that through CFN, they may have a chance of being heard and supported. Sustainability is key and this is something that we would like to see in community projects and efforts.
Rhoda’s environmental journey began in 2001, after a term banking in the Philippines when, looking for a new challenge and the chance to make a difference for local communities and the planet, she secured the role of Island Manager and Education Officer for the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc (PRRCFI) on Danjugan Island, a marine sanctuary that had been saved just years before in 1994.
The island had an immeasurable impact on Rhoda – its coral reefs, mangrove forests, white-bellied sea eagles, and community. For example, it was on Danjugan Rhoda first met Gerry Ledesma, Kaila Trebol and Sef Carandang, each with complementary skills, passion and vision, and now founding members of the Communities for Nature board.
At this stage, Rhoda was already inspired to help transform the culture of PRRCFI, define its vision and reset the organisation as a sustainable and strategic NGO. As the island evolved from a scientific hub into an award-winning marine protected area, eco-tourism destination and centre of community engagement, some of Rhoda’s personal highlights of PRRCFI’s achievements include helping to put over 4,000 students through marine camps. An alumnus and one of PRRCFI’s local fisheries, forestry and agriculture scholars was even recognised by Michelle Obama for her efforts in conservation. This core value of intergenerational engagement is something Rhoda carries with her today, alongside her belief in the power of diverse leadership, whether gender, class or otherwise.
Hungry for new horizons, Rhoda relocated to London to take on an MBA with a focus on culture change, where for over 15 years she led on a number of transformation programmes for Westminster City Council, and founded a management consultancy focusing on identifying and nurturing talent, called LDN.
Rhoda maintained her connection with Danjugan Island throughout, acting as a Board Trustee for the PRRCFI. But this wasn’t enough. She recognised the golden thread of supporting talent and driving change in hearts and minds that ran throughout her career, and set her sights on using her experiences for something bigger. Her belief that, given the right platform and support, people can achieve incredible things and actualise long-held ambitions drove her to create Communities for Nature: a facilitator to channel the talents and energies of disparate groups across continents into action helping to build a sustainable future for all.
Rhoda recognised the potential in her position and experience to help businesses think beyond their borders for trusted, effective environmental restoration and community engagement projects. She could take PRRCFI’s tried and tested community-led model and connect enthusiastic corporate supporters with those on the front line of conservation and sustainable development, to co-create solutions to challenges created by the climate and biodiversity crises.
It was out of witnessing PRRCFI grow and evolve and welcome new collaborators that Communities for Nature’s model was born: each partnership is co-designed by community and partner. It’s not just a blind donation, or best boast for corporate comms. With equity at heart, each voice is valued in a Communities for Nature partnership, supporter and community alike. Communities receive funding channeled where they need it the most and corporates have the chance to build relationships and share their skills with their partnered community, whilst being assured that their financial contribution is effecting real environmental change.
Rhoda describes her relationship with Danjugan as a love story, and it led to Communities for Nature. What began on a small marine sanctuary off the coast of Bulata in the Philippines is already creating change and building lasting relationships across the thousands of miles between London and Danjugan Island, through Actions for Communities and the Environment, Communities for Nature’s first partnership between LMAX Group and PRRCFI.
In time, Communities for Nature hopes to extend its model to support communities around the world, but if you are interested in exploring a Communities for Nature partnership there is no need to wait. Your love story with Danjugan can begin today. Be a part of building a sustainable future for all.
Photo credit: Sef Carandang
Dialing in from a London morning to late afternoon in Manila, we sat down with Communities for Nature trustee Sef Carandang for the first in a series of blogs introducing the board and its impressive array of expertise.
Currently working as a gender specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines, Sef has almost two decades of experience in development work, including a position on the board of Communities for Nature’s Actions for Community and Environment partner The Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc (PRRCFI).
Can you tell us a bit about your career background and current roles outside of your work as a Communities for Nature trustee?
The UN is my day job, but before I started working for the UN I worked for other development agencies. It has always been my field – I have worked with Canadians, Americans, Germans. They all have different development programmes here in the Philippines.
In the beginning I was just taking on projects in health, agriculture, livelihood – a mix, because I was figuring out what I wanted to do. I then decided that I wanted to focus on things that I truly cared about, and at the same time felt were important for my country, so over the last 6 or 7 years I have been pickier choosing projects.
One area I’m particularly passionate about is the environment, and with it marine conservation. We are a country of 7,000 islands, so it makes a lot of sense. And on a more personal note, I’m a scuba diver and a free diver – in a past life I think I was a fish! And that is why I got so involved with Danjugan Island and joined the board of PRRCFI. My projects with the UN are also now very environment related.
What does the role of gender specialist mean in practice?
Any project we design and implement will inevitably impact both men and women. We can’t assume that impact is the same, so we make sure that both men and women are participating and feeling no adverse effects. It’s really the social side of any development project. Some call it gender and development, but for me, it’s really just ensuring that people are taken care of.
It seems like there is a growing understanding in the environmental movement that you can’t just look at issues like carbon or biodiversity in isolation, and that you also need to ensure that people have sustainable jobs – which is something well captured in Communities for Nature’s approach.
I always say that conservation takes communities. Scientists have a role to play, but you also need people that are working in communities and looking at the social aspect. The communities need to be part of the solution, be aware of the problems and play their part in conservation.
That’s how you make it an intergenerational thing rather than just a movement for a pocket of people.
Going back to your career in development, is that something you studied at university?
No, I studied economics! The development work I fell into accidentally – I had no idea there was such a large sector of developed countries conducting these programmes in the Philippines. I discovered it via an ad for an assistant at the Canadian International Development Agency (as it was called at the time). That’s how I got my foot in the door. I worked with one of the Canadian secretaries that was based here in Manila. From there it was really word of mouth. Once your project is over and you’ve done a good job, people will recommend you for the next one.
How did you first become involved with Communities for Nature’s work?
Rhoda and I are both trustees of PRRCFI, and I know she’s wanted to do something like this for a long time. Sometime last year she told me she was finally going to have time to do it and asked if I would like to join the board, because she told me she thought I could really bring a lot to it.
What attracted you to the role?
It’s another opportunity for me to apply all that I have learnt and make more of a difference.
At this point I have been in development work for almost 20 years, and so I feel that I have something to bring to the table.
I was also really attracted to the idea of bringing the work that we’re doing on Danjugan and with our partnered communities in Negros to other places in the Philippines. I see Communities for Nature as a vehicle to help them and hopefully other communities across the globe as well.
And Rhoda and Kaila (another Communities for Nature trustee)– these two women are amazing, and I love working with them. So that’s also why, because of these two!
What do you feel are the strengths of Communities for Nature?
In many cases, usually when a project is funded externally, there is this notion that there is nothing that the communities are bringing to the table – which is totally wrong. With Communities for Nature, it’s a real partnership where both the funders and the communities are coming together to do something that will benefit both. It’s so exciting to see, and a model that I think should be practiced elsewhere.
So would you say that is your main focus and aim as a trustee?
It’s acting as the bridge, and ensuring that things are aligned with what the funder is looking to support and what the communities need.
Do you have a view on the long-term future of the charity and what it can achieve further down the line – both in terms of projects linked to Danjugan Island, and beyond?
It’s Rhoda’s dream that we are one day supporting communities all over the world and getting funding from all kinds of companies, and I support her on that, but I guess we have to start one community at a time.
Even PRRCFI – we are a small foundation, not like those big NGOs out there. Our strength lies in our network and partners, the social capital we have built over the years with our guests as an eco-tourism destination.
Because ultimately conservation is everybody’s business. Everybody can practice sustainability or conservation no matter the field they are in or where they are. It’s only when we are able to involve other people as they understand this that we become successful.
For example, for the longest time Danjugan was quite exclusive, only for scientists going to do research. It was to protect it, because if you tell the whole world there is the fear they will come and “destroy” the island. But I think we have to open up to protect. If we make everybody feel they have a responsibility, they become a part of something.
But you do also want to reach out to those who maybe don’t understand it as much. At the end of the day, if we are only talking to each other, it’s like preaching to the choir.
What do you feel the benefits are for corporate supporters and communities in engaging with Communities for Nature?
It’s about mutual benefit, and I hope that both groups see it that way. We are connecting people from two sides of the globe. Even if they are from different communities and have different experiences, there is something common there.
We would also love to have our partners come and visit the sites and engage with the communities in person. It’s empowering for them to receive guests and have the opportunity to tell their story.
There are different companies who will have a preference on how to give back, but for those like LMAX Group, leaning towards environmental and community support, I think Communities for Nature is perfect.
Are there any final thoughts you would be keen to share?
My message from earlier – both groups are benefitting from these partnerships, and both have something to bring to the table. It’s not just one giving to the other. So I really see that as what Communities for Nature is brokering: true partnerships.
Photo by Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation
The landscape – in both senses of the word – has changed since 1968 and the consequences of our depletion of the planet’s resources are coming upon us in ever more frequent and extreme ways, but the sentiment of Dioum’s statement holds fast. Protecting our planet and its natural resources is a collective responsibility, but one we can meet with the dual personal approach of education and experience.
I can attest to this myself. In the early noughties I spent nearly four years as the Island Manager and Education officer for Danjugan Island, a 43-hectare conservation area at the heart of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCFI). The experience was formative and, in the time since, has catalysed into the existence of Communities for Nature. I was thrilled when the PRRCFI agreed to partner with corporate supporter LMAX – the first relationship established by the fledgling Communities for Nature. It’s a partnership that’s already illustrating the power of our model and having local communities shape the kind of support they need.
The climate and biodiversity crises are the defining issues of our time and the wide-reaching and intricate web of causation and effect warrants a global response. We know this, and at Communities for Nature we are seeking to facilitate the response by fostering not only funding channels but close collaboration and knowledge sharing between local communities on the front line of conservation and their partners located around the world.
Becoming a Communities for Nature partner means having the chance to work closely with those on the front line of conservation toward shared goals. Being a community supported by a Communities for Nature project is to benefit from purposeful funding, ringfenced to tackle your specific priorities.
There’s much to do, from traditional conservation work, to teaching skills for a sustainable economy, to solving the proliferation of single use plastics (the Philippines, for example, use a staggering 60 million single-use plastic sachets a year, according to a 2019 study). Fortunately, the wheels are in motion, and many more pieces of the puzzle can be secured by channeling global resources to working hand in glove with local communities. Meaningful and directional action bridges the gap between on the ground expertise and passionate organisations elsewhere in the world, using increased understanding and emotional connections to achieve the commitment to conservation Dioum spoke about over half a century ago.
It fills me with great joy to consider the future that lies before Communities for Nature, our local communities and our partners. Together we can make a difference with environmental education and providing investment into sustainable futures, so I hope you remain with us on our journey.
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