Nine Questions With National Geographic Explorer KM Reyes

National Geographic Explorer KM Reyes is a political scientist and conservationist who, through her organization Centre for Sustainability PH (CS), organizes to protect natural environments on the Philippine island of Palawan. Last month, she participated in a special Explorer Classroom session live from National Geographic’s Explorers Festival. Afterward, we caught up with KM to learn more about her background and her work addressing environmental challenges on Palawan. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

National Geographic Society (Society): You mentioned on Explorer Classroom that “you can be any age and working as an Explorer and as a conservationist” and noted that your six-person team includes someone who joined at age 17, before he’d even finished high school. Could you talk a little more about how young people can get involved in exploration and conservation?

KM Reyes (KR): We talk a lot about the Explorer Mindset: it’s to have a sustainability mindset and be able to think in terms of solutions at the earliest possible moment, in ways that not only are about your immediate concerns but also about the impacts on others. So for kids, not only can they apply that in their everyday lives, whether that’s through their lunch boxes or the kinds of foods they bring home or their parents buy from the supermarket; kids are extremely powerful in actually winning the hearts and minds of their parents. I’ve seen this so many times, where kids have an awareness program at school and have these light bulb moments. They are our champions in every household, because for all the decision makers who might not be making the most sustainable decisions, they usually have kids or grandkids they’re listening to.

Society: Your work involves organizing to create new protected areas. How did you get to that point?

KR: Our first site at Cleopatra’s Needle was the backyard of my colleagues. We saw the area was being destroyed and wanted to do something about it. So we naively started trying to get the area designated a critical habitat, not realizing how much work was involved. Then, through lots of hustling and hoop-jumping and lessons learned, we were successful. In 2017, Cleopatra’s Needle was declared a Critical Habitat under the Philippine Wildlife Act. It’s over 41,000 hectares, nearly two and a half times the size of Washington, D.C. We had nothing going for us when we started the project. We’re from Indigenous and local communities of Palawan, we’re women-led, and we’re youth, so on every level we were and are minorities. Once we got a taste of it, we realized it was possible. It doesn’t matter what age you are. If you believe you can do it and that energy is infectious, you can put things into motion. Now I do it because I realize I have the mettle to do it. It’s hard, dangerous work, specifically in the Philippines; we’re the third deadliest country for land defenders like myself. But it’s important work, and if I don’t do it on this island, who will? This island is so important for biodiversity.

Society: Indeed, Palawan has been called the Philippines’ last biodiversity frontier. How would you describe the island and its biodiversity?

KR: Palawan is a magical place. It’s karst mountains that drop down dramatically into rainforests and white-sand beaches and teeming coral reefs. It’s been voted the best island in the world by different travel magazines. It’s a real, veritable paradise. It was untouched for a very long time, but recently, as development spread across the Philippines, Palawan was no longer immune like it used to be. We have natural wealth and resources that are valuable to the international market. We’re rich in nickel, which is important for the electric car industry. So, it’s an island in the balance. On one level it’s extremely rich in biodiversity, and in other ways it’s extremely threatened. We have incredible biodiversity, including over 232 identified endemic fauna and flora species. Lots of animals are named after Palawan, like the Palawan hornbill and Palawan horned frog, and many of them are threatened.

Society: Your work involves trying to save the last remaining pristine rainforest in the Philippines. How are you approaching that work?

KR: To protect an area, there’s the part leading up to the legal designation, then there is the work of trying to protect it in real life and not just on a piece of paper. The first part is three simple steps: community organizing or community mobilizing; scientific research; and lobbying local politicians to protect the area, showing them that we have not only social acceptance but also scientific justification that this area is really important. Then you get, if you’re lucky, the piece of paper. The second part, which is what we’re in at the moment, is turning it into a functioning protected area. What we say at CS is that it all starts with listening. So we listen to what the Indigenous peoples and local communities who live in and around the area think and see through their knowledge is the best way to protect the area. We use that as a jumping-off point for engaging with government, donors, and academic institutions to figure out how to move forward. Adjacent to that is the basic day-to-day patrolling, which we also do together with the Indigenous peoples and local communities by supporting them in defending their lands.

Society: What moments from your educational career, as a student or otherwise, have had the greatest impact on you and your career path?

KR: I started as a community organizer. I was working in Latin America in communities affected by narcotrafficking, specifically in very steep mountains where you find slums like favelas or barrios. It was in these areas that one day I was lucky enough to not be in the path of a landslide that happened on this really precarious mountain where I was living and working. Around the same time, I was taking an environmental security course, and it made me realize that human security and environmental security are so tied together. I realized it wasn’t enough that I was doing social work. If I wanted to really empower communities, the most important way of actually doing that was to connect communities with our immediate environments as a way of overcoming social challenges or financial challenges but also bigger existential problems that we now face. That was really my biggest light bulb moment in education.

Society: Last fall you worked with educator Kim Young on a citizen science pilot called the Deforestation Challenge, in which students analyzed satellite imagery of Cleopatra’s Needle and contributed to your work. What were your takeaways from working with the students?

KR: It was so cool to have students on the other side of the world actually interested in our work. We work on this far-flung, remote island, and often it feels like we’re very alone in our local campaigns. We’re very cut off from the world. To have this group of students who actually were interested in learning more about this area that’s so dear to us was just incredible. The challenge itself was incredibly powerful. It enabled us to have more data about what’s actually going on in real time through remote sensing imagery about the forest that we’re trying to patrol. As I mentioned, it’s a huge area. We’re six staff at CS, then we have our Indigenous rangers, but you could be trekking for days to get up to the top of the peak. Having these satellite eyes from the top to help us identify which areas are possibly under threat and where we should be focusing our patrols is really important. It also generated really important data for our management board to better understand what’s going on in the forest and where management actions need to be taken. On top of that, the students’ enthusiasm was really incredible. Some started Instagram pages. It was exciting to have students engaged in something that’s far away from them yet really impacts all of us, with the biodiversity crisis that we face now.

Society: What have you learned from working with your six-person team about how to collaborate and the value of teamwork?

KR: Six people is not a lot of people, so you need six people who are really in sync to be able to make these huge projects work. So teamwork is integral. You’ll hear that from any conservationist. It’s never just one Explorer who’s doing work; it’s the whole team of us who are actually achieving these milestones together. Communication is key and it’s also about finding the fun in it and continuing to have curiosity and passion for the work you do. We’re a young team and really energetic, but the work is still really hard. So we spend a lot of time trying to support each other and learn from each other and complement each other.

Society: What are you working on currently and what’s next for you and your team?

KR: We continue supporting the Indigenous peoples and local communities at Cleopatra’s Needle, specifically with patrolling and surveying. The second big project is creating another national park or protected area in southern Palawan. It is ancestral domain to the Tagbanua tribe. We’ve already started community mobilizing and a reforestation project there. From there we go into scientific research. We’re already starting arboreal camera trapping, and it is really fun to see what arboreal mammals we have up in the site. Then, after the scientific research, we go to political lobbying. The other big work we’re doing is the 30×30 Southeast Asia campaign, which is part of the dialogue with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030. We are advocating that we protect 30×30 but with Indigenous peoples and local communities at the forefront of this target and financially supported.

Society: How would you suggest people follow along with your work or learn more about it?

KR: You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We encourage youth to join our 1 Million Letters campaign, which is a letter-writing campaign to encourage world leaders to pledge to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030. We also ask kids to consider planting a tree in their own neighborhood and keep it alive, which is very important. It’s not just planting the tree but also growing it and creating a forest in their own backyard. As I said on Explorer Classroom, it’s important that kids figure out what they’re passionate about then make it about sustainability, because we need all disciplines on board. You don’t have to be an Explorer or conservationist. You can be a fashion designer or an author or a journalist. There are lots of ways to contribute to the dialogue about sustainability and conservation.

Educators and students can connect with National Geographic Explorers like KM through Explorer Classroom, a free, live program that takes place throughout the school year. Check back soon for the 2022-23 thematic schedule, and access dozens of archival recordings here.

All images by Kyle Venturillo

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