If you’ve ever despaired at the trajectory the planet is on, observed the apathy of our politicians and wondered helplessly what difference one person could make, take heart from the achievements of a young woman named KM Reyes. Reyes is a National Geographic community organiser and conservationist. In 2014 she moved from Sydney to live and work in her homeland, the Philippines, where she fell in with what she describes as an “awesome group of local community youth”.
The group was determined to save the poetically named Cleopatra’s Needle, one of the last remaining tracts of pristine rainforest in the country, on Reyes’s home island of Palawan. “The place has incredible biodiversity, and two Unesco World Heritage sites. There were several indigenous community groups living in and around the forest,” says Reyes. “We were just a bunch of young people who wanted to protect it.”
The odds seemed slim, but the group had formidable fortitude, largely forged from Reyes’s extensive experience in grassroots projects in Latin America and Africa. They strategised and developed a plan.
“We became an organisation,” Reyes says. “That helped local decision-makers to take us seriously, and it helped us get donors. It took us four years, but we got the area protected.”
For Reyes, the project helped crystalise her motivation, which has always been about empowering communities. She realised that goal had to be viewed through an environmental prism.
“I tried to work out the link between communities and the environment around us,” she says. “That’s what moved me into environmental work.”
April 22 is Earth Day, a day for people all around the world to pause for a moment and take stock of what’s important at a community level, but also the increasingly precarious state of the planet. But for all your good intentions, it’s understandable you might feel powerless on Earth Day, wondering how you can make a meaningful difference and do something beyond mere tokenism.
“For me, Earth Day is every day,” says Reyes. “We often feel like we can’t change anything. Actually, we can. You need to realise that your voice is important, and that you need to be heard.”
Reyes wants people to understand that you don’t have to commit to saving the world. But on the flip side, it’s important to understand that what might seem like small actions can and do make a difference.
“Don’t consume if you don’t need to,” says Reyes. “We have so much excess. There’s so much stuff we’re told we need to buy. And if you can’t stop, then reduce.”
Reyes urges you to think about your purchasing habits and choose companies that demonstrate responsible manufacturing practices. Be aware of the companies you’re supporting with the dollars you spend.
“Go with companies that focus on local production, or that use recycled products, or ideally both,” says Reyes. “Patagonia is a classic example. They use recycled threads and utilise all the raw materials they buy. I believe in the power of letter writing, so show those companies that you care about the choices they make in their supply chain.”
With a general election coming up, Reyes says now is the time to exercise your democratic power for the good of the planet. “The most powerful thing we can do is vote. Politicians are making decisions based on what electorates are supporting them to do. Show them what you believe in.”
And if it all feels overwhelming, Reyes’s tip is to bring it back to the local level, or even further, to the personal level, to take control of any anxiety you might feel and focus on what’s in front of you. Volunteering for a conservation group in your local community is a great way to make a difference and meet like-minded people. Don’t use electricity for a day, give something up, make conscious decisions. It all makes a difference.
“If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to plant a tree. Plant a tree and keep it alive. Understand how beautiful the natural world is.”
Above all, understand your motivation. We all have different responses when we think about Earth Day and what it means. The news globally perhaps isn’t good, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help turn the tide around. Remember, it took just six people to save a rainforest.
“Our crazy pipe dream happened,” says Reyes. “We protected this huge area. You only fail when you give up.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with National Geographic.