Mitzi Jonelle Tan on the treatment of young female environmental defenders in the Philippines

Mitzi Jonelle Tan is a full-time climate justice activist based in Metro Manila, Philippines. She is the convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), the Fridays For Future (FFF) of the Philippines. She is also an organizer with FFF International and FFF MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas) making sure that voices from the Global South especially are heard, amplified, and given space.

My country, the Philippines, is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the climate crisis. I grew up afraid of drowning in my own bedroom, doing my homework by the candle light as the electricity cut out because of the raging typhoons outside. The Philippines has been hit by typhoon after typhoon, crisis after crisis, and how do our national leaders respond? Instead of pushing for adaptation and standing up against the destruction of our environment by the multinational companies extracting our natural resources, they patronize us, belittle us, silence us, and push us down.

This rotten, backwards, macho-feudal way of thinking is not only present in the Army but even in our very own president. After a briefing during the aftermath of the massive typhoons that hit the Philippines last year, President Duterte had the gall to make sexist jokes with one of the officials and say that the official spent too much time with women and that made him age faster. In the same briefing, when talking about someone who died because of COVID-19, Duterte said that that man died because he did not have enough women . How can a man preside over a country when he so blatantly disregards half of the population?

In the same season of the typhoons last year, as activists and citizens looked for answers, we were met with the President’s attack dogs – his online troll army mimicking his sexist and oppressive remarks. The sexist, macho-feudal, patriarchal way of thinking in our government bleeds into its supporters.

That’s the thing in the Philippines, especially for young girls in the environmental movement. We’re not just afraid of the banging of wind on our doors and the ringing sounds of thunder, but also the banging of uniformed men on our doors and the ringing sounds of police sirens. Environmental activists and defenders have been jailed, tortured, killed, making the Philippines the second most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders.

That’s the thing in the Philippines, especially for young girls in the environmental movement. We’re not just afraid of the banging of wind on our doors and the ringing sounds of thunder, but also the banging of uniformed men on our doors and the ringing sounds of police sirens.

Women shouldn’t be treated as objects to entice young men. Our calls for climate justice and for the protection of the environment are real and legitimate and should be listened to and valued and not reduced to mere tools.  The climate crisis is real and it is here. It disproportionately impacts women. We see this in how 80% of people displaced by climate calamities are women, and in how women face greater health problems in terms of hygiene and are more vulnerable to abuse in evacuation centers.

We saw this in 2013 when typhoon Yolanda, one of the world’s strongest typhoons, devastated our country and young girls were forced into sex work and prostitution because of the economic burdens everyone suffered in the aftermath of the typhoon. Again in the Philippines, we see how the majority of our women are from the peasant sector: our farmers and fisherfolk. Our peasant women are not only more vulnerable to the climate crisis but are also those who fight back the hardest.

It’s not just the Philippines. Across the world we’re seeing how women are at the forefront of the climate justice movement but also how environmental activism is becoming more and more criminalized. The youth of every nation have seen the injustices and the oppression. We are fed up with the broken promises and the empty words. We are sick of agreements that are celebrated but go nowhere. We need to finally treat the climate crisis as a crisis. World leaders, especially from the Global North that are most responsible for the climate crisis need to realize the urgency of this. The climate crisis is here - there is no doubt about it.

There's talk in the Global North about Building Back Better for the climate, and the picture in some people's heads is probably something like this: solar panels as far as the eye can see, wind turbines in the distance, electric cars at every street corner, no more plastic waste fluttering around, no more big factories belching out dark smoke and greenhouse gases. As they say, picture-perfect. For some, it's mainly a discussion of how fast, how ambitious, when can we get there, and people can - and have - spent years arguing about the most specific details of these questions.

The question that a lot of us have when it comes to any plans by industrialized economies to turn their economies green and address the climate crisis is, for whom? Who will benefit from these quote-unquote sustainable projects? When you build your turbines and electric cars, where will you get the minerals for it? When you finance so-called green initiatives in countries like mine, who actually benefits?

Enough with far off targets and with waving around net zero like a magical wand but not having any concrete plans how to get there. To celebrate this is a slap to the face.  I do not want a net zero target or future if that means monoculture plantations where indigenous and ancestral land is stolen. I do not want a net zero target or future if that means small farmers are displaced for solar farms. I do not want  a net zero target if fisherfolk lose their livelihood because of it. We need annual binding carbon targets. We need to phase out the fossil fuel industry and have a just transition.

The future that we are fighting for leaves no one behind, we need development for all. We cannot forget our workers, the backbone of our society. If you are true to your promise about building back better, it should be building back better for everyone; not just a few people, not just a few countries, but everyone. Let’s make this clear: the Global North has a climate debt to our countries in the Global South.  Urgent climate action and assisting with adaptation is not an “honorable duty” or “solidarity” it’s reparations for the injustices high income nations and sectors have caused through their exploitation.

You will tell me that this is unrealistic, that this is too much. But why are we compromising on our future? Why are we compromising on our survival? The youth have united as a global movement and we will not stop. So carbon major leaders, listen to us: phase out fossil fuels, leave this rotten industry behind, and with the workers leading the way begin the just transition and to the fossil fuel industry brace yourselves, because your time is over. We demand justice.