Growing up in a mountainous area on Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, Camille Rivera lived with her family about an hour’s drive from the sea.
At home, the starfish began to dry up and smell awful, so she pleaded to return them to the ocean. Her sisters were doubtful the starfish could live again. But upon bringing the starfish back to the sea, Camille was amazed to see their tiny feet wriggling again. Today, she is a Manila-based marine conservationist dedicated to saving even more starfish—by protecting the oceans they rely on.
She is the co-founder and program director of Oceanus, a nonprofit she launched in 2020 to help conserve coastal ecosystems, including mangroves, coral reefs, and wildlife. Her work is devoted to including her community and considering essential needs: Oceanus aims to sustain biodiversity so that Filipinos have increased food security.
Small scale, big projects
After earning a master’s degree in marine biodiversity and conservation at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, Camille decided to return home.
Camille is particularly compelled to empower sustainable, alternative livelihoods in her region. She began working with Marine Conservation Philippines, where she specialized in mangrove habitat restoration; she estimates that she has planted more than 1,000 seedlings, alongside communities and volunteers.
Mangrove forests throughout the Asia-Pacific region store more carbon than any forested ecosystem in the world. They also offer communities numerous benefits, including buffering against typhoons and sheltering wildlife. Yet across the globe, mangroves are struggling to survive rising sea levels and deforestation. In the Philippines, the situation is complicated by a history of cutting down mangrove forests to install aquaculture ponds for fish and shrimp farming, Camille says. Although there are laws on mangrove protection, enforcement has been inconsistent.
Often, mangrove forest restoration efforts come from outside a community, without consideration of local needs.
Camille speaks three languages—Tagalog, English, and Visayan—and she’s just as enthusiastic about learning regional terms as she is scientific ones. In one town, for example, community leaders taught her their traditional names for mangrove types and subspecies: one was named for a pencil, another for a banana. When Camille made a manual on restoration and ecotourism, she included those names. A new 500-meter boardwalk provided a platform for educational tours of the forests, and a sustainable form of income for the community.
She admits to getting a thrill when community members are proud of their work; mangrove forests planted two years ago are now two meters high.
A focus on inclusion
“We’re still working to survive in our country and meet basic needs for food and shelter,” Camille says. So she believes solutions must focus on doing double duty: feeding people while also protecting the environment.
There’s also what she calls the “card-playing” of strategizing around political stakeholders in the Philippines while still prioritizing conservation. “You have to be prepared to explain what the politician could get out of a project,” she says—how can the environmental proposal boost votes, food security, or business?
Sexism comes with the job too, unfortunately; one politician called her “iha” (young girl, in Tagalog) while she made a presentation on plastic solutions in their community. She struggles with balancing kindness and empathy with projecting strength. Many associations are male-dominated, she explains. “We need more women, especially in the Philippines, to go into the marine sciences and communications,” and then those women need to be empowered as leaders.
More than anything, Camille is hopeful that her work is just the beginning of change in the Philippines. She launched Oceanus during the pandemic, when many Filipinos have become increasingly interested in nature, she says. “When there’s an emotional connection to the ocean, it’s easier to gain support,” she explains.
So Camille is restoring landscapes, and converting abandoned and underutilized fish ponds as a restoration steward of the Global Landscapes Forum, a community-focused sustainable landscape organization. She is also mapping areas for conservation, writing children’s books about corals and mangroves, and bringing her message to podcasts and webinars.