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Talking about hope: lessons from the Philippines

November 19, 2020

Anna Teh speaking at a workshop
Photo courtesy of Anna Teh

Anna Teh is the Philippines’ Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources and her country’s GEF Operational Focal Point. In an interview, she reflected on why the COVID-19 crisis has given her optimism about the world’s ability to confront climate change, and shared how her experience as a teen parent – and now as a grandparent – underlies her commitment to work in conservation.

What are the main environmental issues of importance to the Philippines?

The Philippines is one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change. We are already seeing extreme weather events. Typhoons are much stronger and more frequent now than when I was a child. They’re affecting our economy, agriculture, and even our infrastructure. We have also been experiencing droughts associate with El Niño cycles, which disrupt normal tropical rain patterns and impact our water security. Finally, rising sea levels, water temperatures, and ocean acidification are affecting our marine biodiversity. 

How has the GEF helped the Philippines advance its environmental agenda?

The GEF provides access to financing so we can comply with our obligations under international conventions such as those related to biodiversity and climate change. It enables us to fund catalytic new programs that help develop policies, tools, and best practices. We’re able to learn and apply those lessons to our national programs and priorities. Without the GEF, I think our opportunities would be limited in terms of developing tools, testing pilot programs, and identifying solutions to environmental problems.

Is there a GEF-supported project that’s especially close to your heart?

Yes, there’s a project to eliminate the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale mining that is important to me. I visited two sites in Mindanao, in southern Philippines, and saw the plight of the miners who rely on toxic, mercury-based extraction methods. They expose themselves to mercury – risking themselves, their health, and the environment because it’s the only way they can feed their families. Our GEF-supported program aims to improve conditions for artisanal miners while reducing harmful mercury emissions. It is focused on the policy framework needed to formalize this sector so the artisanal miners can work in a way that’s both sustainable and responsible. This project has just started. We are completing the requirements that will provide the miners with technical assistance to adopt mercury-free mining technologies and financial incentives so they can sell their products through the formal market.

Another recent GEF-funded project that I think is important supports the safe recycling of electronic devices and appliances in two low-income districts in the Manila metropolitan area. As we buy and discard items like television sets, refrigerators, computers, and cell phones, we face the problem of mounting electronic waste. Collecting, sorting, and disassembling this waste can be dangerous if it’s not done with protective equipment or the means to safely dispose of toxic materials. Often, the work is done in homes and women are especially at risk, as they are the ones who generally separate the parts.

Under this project, implemented by the UN Industrial Development Organization and the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources, we have created a facility for informal workers to safely dismantle electronic items and salvage precious metals, which they sell to recycling companies. Despite the pandemic, we’ve been able to fast track this facility so the families that rely on waste collection can observe the proper health protocols while continuing to earn money.

How has the global pandemic impacted your work, and your outlook?

The COVID-19 crisis has given us the opportunity to not only reimagine our relationship with nature, but also rethink our lifestyles -- the way we consume, how we recycle, what we eat. It has shown us that we can adopt new behaviors like wearing masks or washing our hands frequently if we have to. Just as we have changed for COVID, we must also alter our lifestyles if we want to have an impact on climate change.

In the Philippines, the pandemic caused us to assess our current programs and policies. We’ve come up with a green recovery program that looks at the links between climate change and health. It has three areas. The first focuses on building adaptive capacities, including nature-based solutions, and to protect biodiversity, coastal resources, and watersheds. The second area promotes a low-carbon path by increasing the use of renewable energy and supporting sustainable transport. And the third promotes a circular economy to keep plastic waste out of the oceans, foster effective solid waste management, and support sustainable consumption and production models. These three areas will help us recover and accelerate our climate action.

Anna Teh walking with people on a project site visit to a coastal community in Siargao Island
Project site visit to a coastal community in Siargao Island. Photo courtesy of Anna Teh

What first sparked your interest in environmental work?

I became a mother at the young age of 18. I told myself then that if I wanted to provide a future for my daughter, I had to be involved in conservation and the protection of the environment. As a student, I had taken part in social action and strikes. I became involved in the issue of ozone layer depletion. Then I went to law school, working in the day and studying at night, because I thought it would help me handle environmental policies. Now, as a grandmother of a two-year-old boy, I see the relevance of continuing my advocacy and my commitment to protecting the environment for future generations.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

One lesson is the importance of telling our stories. They teach future generations about the mistakes and challenges we’ve had. It’s this sharing that helps us improve and be good stewards to the environment.

At the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, we are trying to change the narrative and the way we talk about climate change and other environmental challenges. Before, we would focus on worst-case environmental scenarios. Now we are trying to talk about hope: we’re sharing best practices and initiatives that are empowering.

What environmental changes do you hope to see by the time you retire?

I hope we can restore our forest cover, protect our endemic species, and ensure water security. This all relies on our ability to sustainably manage our natural resources. I hope for better environmental governance, from the national to the local governments, and also leadership from the private sector. My dream is to empower our communities to come together and cooperate.