My Road to Environmentalism

Lucille Sering (ELP 2019) President, Vert Bleu Acquisition Inc, Philippines

I grew up in a coastal area in one of the provinces of Mindanao Island, Philippines, home to some of the most beautiful seas and landscapes in the country.  My father, who once served as governor of our province once said to me, you do not measure the success of a place by how many skyscrapers it contains.  He went on to say that nature is the true treasure and quoted the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, claiming that “nature is his manifestation of God.”  When you protect nature, you glorify God, my father said.  

It was only while writing this blog that I realized how I was unwittingly nudged by my father through movies, books and music, to pursue a career he wanted for me. He made me watch the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I did not want to read the book.  It was his way of making me understand social injustice at an early age, and to root for Atticus Finch, the hero who is a model of integrity for lawyers.  A lawyer by profession, my father, never asked me to follow in his footsteps. However, when I was 15  he said he would take me on a trip to Hong Kong if I read the Perry Mason novels, a series about a criminal defense lawyer, and Nancy Drew books, a series about a girl detective.  Nancy Drew was a fictional character cited as a formative influence by Hillary Clinton, Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and other notable women. He made me watch the movie “Fountainhead” and even in black and white, it got me hooked, so I decided to read the novel.  The novel, one of my father’s favorites, soon became one of mine as well.

Our province is rural and my father loved it that way. In the late seventies, access to books and movies were limited to only a few.  Although I live in the city capital, electricity was intermittent and once power was on, we would watch movies as a way of bonding. 

During summers, he would bring me along to visit his hometown in Siargao.  My father loved his hometown but I did not appreciate it as much as he did.  First, the boat ride was 5 hours long on an outrigger and there was no electricity on the island.  To keep me amused, he would tell funny stories about how he grew up and how happy he was despite the lack of basic amenities like electricity, and how  this never deterred him from his ambitions. Most of all, he loved how his beach property was so pristine and peaceful, and he willed that it should stay in the family and never be sold.  

I am now smiling as I write this blog. 17 years after the death of my father, I now realize that I would never be what I am today if not for all the subtle education that my father provided me at an early age.  He never asked for high grades nor asked how well I did in school, the opposite of my mother who always kept tabs on my grades. All he ever asked is to join him in watching black and white movies, and to tell him the stories of the Perry mason and Nancy Drew books that I read. He never encouraged me to watch movies about princesses, he only wanted me to watch movies and read books about lawyers and problem solving.    

Looking back, my road to environment work was initially motivated by a selfish reason.

I simply do not want anyone messing with our beach front.  My father always told me stories about his hometown and how his townmates were able to eat the best seafood.  As governor, he did not consider tourism as a major source of income for the province. He, in fact, indirectly discouraged it.  He said the food on the island is for its people first.

I then hated anything disrupting our landscape and seascape, and at times hated the sight of people playing just across our property.  I thought, when people come, trash follows.  I was condescending to say the least, but it was that resentment that motivated me to pursue a career focused on the environment.

But then I realized that it takes a village to keep our beachfront clean.  Everything is connected and the ebb of the water can change depending on the season.  So, if trash is an issue, then it comes from all sides.  From a small and supposedly manageable portion of the beach becomes an enormous concern. Everyone must contribute, and each one must have a role to play.  No matter how much you clean what is just in front of you, it will not be enough, if others do not do their part.

Finally, in 1996, Siargao was declared as a protected seascape and landscape by national law.  My father was no longer the governor, but his earlier efforts set the foundation for preserving the island.  It was primarily the reason that Siargao was chosen by Conde Nast as the top island in Southeast Asia in 2018 beating Bali, Indonesia and Phuket, Thailand. Tourists started to come and locals now have to compete with them for the food supply.  Local food prices have gone up and beyond the reach of most locals, while trash is currently unmanageable. The island is just not ready for tourism. The concerns that my father raised decades ago is now becoming a reality.  But this is not the time to be indifferent, in fact this is the perfect time to make a difference. 

I did not have the opportunity to lead our province as my father once did, so I took a slightly different role.  I became a lawyer like my father.  I purposely asked to teach environmental law, again, unwittingly molded by visits in the hometown of my father. While at the academy, I took a masters on social entrepreneurship, and was awarded the best thesis on microfinance for enterprises with environmental impact.  I then introduced the first public electric tricycles in our province. The first in the Philippines funded by the private sector.  

At age 37, I was appointed as undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and 3 years later, I became cabinet secretary handling the Climate Change Commission, the first female to hold the position.  I became a leader not on a local level but on a national stage. In 2010, I pushed for the climate proofing of the national budget. With the help of the Department of Budget and Management, all departments had to set aside a budget for climate change programs, a feat never done before despite the vulnerability of the Philippines.  In 2012, I contributed to the crafting of the People’s Survival Fund bill. The PSF supports the creation of science-based adaptation plans for local governments.  In 2015, I led the consultation and the drafting of the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC of the Philippines that was submitted prior to the Paris Climate Agreement. Our push for the cap of 1.5 degrees was eventually adopted by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of vulnerable countries that represent at least 1 Billion people. The 1.5 goal was then adopted in the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Except for the Paris Conference, for 5 straight years prior, I led the Philippine delegation of negotiators to the annual Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Climate Change. 

As I write this blog, my concern of a clean beachfront becomes trivial. I now have a bigger playground to worry.  It is definitely challenging but fulfilling. And of course, the initiatives would not have been possible without collaboration and support from many players and actors.  

I left the government at the end of 2015 after 10 years, and I am now with the private sector.  It is now time to take on a role from the other side. The challenges are different but the goals are the same. I spend half of my time in Manila and Siargao, closely working with the local community on climate change opportunities, focusing on food and waste management.  I am turning half a century old next year, but I know there is still much work to be done, because life is not fiction; it is real, and reality is better than dreams.