(In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)
Many people might think that joining a coastal cleanup, recycling, or promoting environmental awareness on their social media accounts is already enough to conserve our planet. But this is not the case for Anna Oposa, 34, a marine conservationist who has lived by her title as the “chief mermaid” of Save Philippine Seas (SPS) through educating “seatizens” about marine life and environmental conservation.
At the age of 23, Oposa co-founded SPS, which began as an online platform in response to a massive illegal wildlife trade case in 2011.
“SPS began as a social media campaign created by a handful of people who met online. I had just turned in my thesis then (a.k.a. grad-waiting), so I had a lot of free time to be emotional and occupied by this issue,” Oposa told Manila Bulletin in an online interview.
To her surprise, the campaign, which was intended to be a “hobby,” drew attention from schools, governments, and funders. A year later, Oposa won an award with financial resources used for SPS’ registration as a non-government organization (NGO) in 2013.
Since then, the organization has mobilized “seatizen-led initiatives” in line with its “advocasea” to “narrow the gap between scientists and the general public, the old and young, and the passionate and indifferent.”
Under SPS, Oposa founded Haquathon, a hackathon, and incubator for technology-based solutions to marine conservation issues. Among the issues are coastal law enforcement, environmental education, coral restoration, and marine pollution; Sea and Earth Advocates (SEA) Camp, which enables youth to become leaders; Shark Shelter, a multi-stakeholder, community-based project in Malapascua Island, Cebu, that aims to conserve coastal and marine resources.
How it all started
Oposa did dream of becoming a marine conservationist. However, she was exposed to the environmental issues due to her father’s occupation as an environmental lawyer.
“My family discussed environmental issues and other current events as part of our meals, and environmental practices were always part of our lifestyle, for example segregating waste, conserving water and electricity,” the 34-year-old chief mermaid shared.
Her interest in marine life only developed when she volunteered for an underwater cleanup at 19, which led to co-founding a waste management campaign in her alma mater, the University of the Philippines (UP).
“My friend and I succeeded in banning Styrofoam (polystyrene) in UP and teaching waste management in different colleges and dorms,” Oposa said.
Growing up, Oposa was a diligent student with good grades and a love for music and literary arts. She finished cum laude at the University of the Philippines (UP) with a degree in English Studies-Language, pursued MSc in Conservation Science (Merit) at Imperial College, UK, and studied Global Fellow in Marine Conservation at Duke University, USA.
She has garnered several awards, from being one of the Pitong Pinoy Modern-Day Heroes of Yahoo! Southeast Asia to being one of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Global 30 Under 30 awardee in 2018, among others.
But despite all of these, Oposa said that her most significant achievements are not found in her awards: “When I see alumni of our programs leading their own initiatives or making lifestyle changes, or sharing what they’ve learned in SPS programs with their own spheres of influence, that’s when I’m most proud,” she said.
“A lot of people are discouraged when they don’t do their environmental practices perfectly, but the truth is, we can’t. We live in a world that doesn’t make that easy or intuitive just yet. But we have to keep trying, individually and collectively,” the chief mermaid advised.