Keynote Message: ASEAN Biodiversity Heroes Forum 2023

August 11, 2023

ASEAN Biodiversity Heroes Forum
ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)
11 August 2023

Young men and women, esteemed leaders, and fellow biodiversity advocates, I am making an earnest call to action. On this day, here, at the ASEAN Biodiversity Heroes Forum, we must recognize that the ability of the race and the species to survive and avoid extirpation lies in the hands of our youth – you, the inspiring individuals who can snatch life on the planet from the brink of extinction.

What this entails first is for us to get acquainted with that biodiversity. Let us now leave the myriad life forms on our planet only to the biologists and the taxonomists. Instead of the animals in Africa and South America, learn the names of our unique, endemic plants and animals with which we co-evolved, with which our very cells have a history. The rich tapestry of life on this planet in our archipelago is no mere accident of nature, our tissues, characteristics, and even cultures, were formed within this community of life.

Does this wondrous collection of life need heroes? We need to first reflect upon the notion of heroes. Quite apart from acting extraordinarily, their first trait is that they exert effort. They show up when something needs to be done. That, in itself, in a world of apathy, is a choice to act extraordinarily. The key distinguishing factor between heroes and non-heroes is their effort.

With this, all of you are heroes. I applaud each and every one of you for the effort you have already put forward today. I am making an earnest call to action. You are here because of your concern, your desire to see change. As part of your efforts, we also launch a nationwide search for Youth Biodiversity Heroes. We are ironing out the mechanics and I thank the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity for working so hard on this brainchild of mine, but you should be doing what you set out to do from the inspiration of this event whether we will be giving these awards or not. Remember that when you plan, and execute persistently, with determination and excellence, you will deliver.

When Dr. Jose Rizal, our National Hero, was exiled to Dapitan by the Spanish Colonial government in the Philippines, he was thirty-one years old. He did not waste his time wallowing in despair at his situation. He made the most of his time, establishing a school, building a water system, exploring the forests, and doing citizen science and species identification. As a voracious naturalist and in a very real sense, he inhabited his place of exile. Despite the slow communications in those days, he managed to send out specimens and learn from experts in Germany that what he found in the forests in Dapitan was unknown to science at the time.

The World Wide Web and social media are phenomena that engendered communities surrounding local biodiversity in all its glory. In the Philippines, hobbyists, naturalists, and citizen scientists engage with experts and taxonomists in aggrupation around their interests, many around nature or specific families of flora or fauna.

Take Kyle Lugtu, Jonathan Salazar, and Etienne Cancio. Kyle was 17 when he began impressing the Ph.D. holders in the Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts group with his broad knowledge of biodiversity. Jonathan, unfortunately, dropped out of school, but is something of an expert in the ficus species, 100 species of native pioneers that are bird and pollinator magnets on which ecosystem restoration rely. Etienne was recently awarded second best thesis as well as Summa Cum Laude at the University of the Philippines for using sensors in investigating the big tree and the fruit eating animals that feed off it. When young people go for something with a passion, there is a bit of something of Rizal in them.

Heroes do not set out to undertake acts of heroism. They merely apply themselves to the world, to the problems their communities face, to the areas outside their comfort zones, and the unknown. They know success is not a certainty but they know that even in failure, invaluable lessons emerge. These then make up an education that leaves marks in the path meant to indicate the best strategies, things to avoid, and profound benefits to those who will tread those paths after them.

I borrow from the immortal words of Edna Mode in the inimitable movie The Incredibles, “No Cape”. “No Cape” can be an adage that we cannot be a hero by merely seeking to be one, without collaboration, leadership, and encouraging and acknowledging the contributions of others. Applying ourselves to the world will not yield desired results unless we employ the hive mind, get others’ shoulders to the wheel, join up with others, and create a community around our aspirations. As cliché as it may sound, together we will overcome. That is why we thank ACB not just for recognizing us for the work that we have done but also for extending that honor also to deserving youth.

At this juncture, I invite you to stand, express your dedication and passion, your refusal to accept that we are helpless, and your pledge to collaborate and move mountains. With pride and conviction, we must say to ourselves, we will not shirk the duty to protect our home and community.

Thank you! Isang luntiang Pilipinas sa ating lahat!