Community-Minded Conservationist

Lora Shinn

The co-founder and program director of a nonprofit dedicated to conserving coastal ecosystems, Camille is particularly compelled to empower sustainable, alternative livelihoods in her region in the southern Philippines.

Image © Camille Rivera

Lora Shinn

Image © Camille Rivera

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. 

“My two older sisters and I collected starfish at the seashore, as many as we could,” she remembers.

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.

Camille teaching kids about mangroves using underwater drones in her work with her nonprofit Oceanus · Oceanus
Turtles hatching during a day of Oceanus fieldwork. One of Oceanus’s aims is to sustain biodiversity so that Filipinos have increased food security · Oceanus
Camille diving down to monitor a coral reef, one of the ecosystems Oceanus hopes to conserve · Laura Schram

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.

“I realized that the Philippines has so much potential. The West comes to us to discover a lot of marine biodiversity,” she explains. “It hit me that I can speak to different people of different backgrounds: government, foreigners, and communities.”
The ocean has always been part of Camille. She grew up in a mountainous area on Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, about an hour’s drive from the sea · Aoibheann Gillespie

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.

Marine Conservation Philippines is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting coastal resources in the Philippines, including mangroves · Pol Carino
Camille estimates that she has planted more than 1,000 seedlings, alongside communities and volunteers, during her time working with Marine Conservation Philippines · Marine Conservation Philippines
Camille sharing her knowledge of ecotourism with community members · Jon Andrew Cabiles

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.

“It’s only recently that mangroves are being considered important in our country because of carbon sequestration potential,” she says.
Mangrove forests are only recently being considered important in the Philippines thanks to their ability to take carbon out of the air. The country has a history of cutting them down to install aquaculture ponds for fish and shrimp farming · Camille Rivera

Often, mangrove forest restoration efforts come from outside a community, without consideration of local needs.

“When Western knowledge is being implemented, often local knowledge isn’t considered,” she notes. “We have to make sure that knowledge is respected.” 
Camille wants local knowledge to be heeded every step of the way in mangrove restoration efforts · Marine Conservation Philippines

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.

“It’s a nice feeling, being able to make a real impact,” she says. 
A new 500-meter boardwalk in Camille’s region provided a platform for educational tours of the forests, and a sustainable form of income for the community · Marine Conservation Philippines

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.

“To solve ocean issues, we have to include communities on the ground.” 

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? 

A “Sonneratia alba” mangrove flower. Camille is just as enthusiastic about learning traditional names for mangrove types and subspecies as she is scientific ones · Camille Rivera

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.

Camille recalls one woman community leader who fought off government officials who had come to offer incorrect advice about her local forests. The leader said steadfastly, “No, this is our home.” 
Camille feels the necessity for more women, especially in the Philippines, to go into the marine sciences and communications · Emil Lars

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.

“It’s amazing, but I’m kept on my toes,” she says. “I wake up every morning and feel like I’ve missed something, and I’m so scared of not doing what I need to do. That’s always my motivation to start working early!”
There is never a dull moment for Camille, who is hopeful that her conservation work is just the beginning of change in the Philippines · Ernst Noyons
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Lora Shinn
Journalist

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