I am Marites Gatan-Balbas, but most people call me Tess. I am the Chief Operating Officer of the Mabuwaya Foundation.
I manage the day-to-day activities of the foundation, but I love giving school lectures, organising workshops, facilitating community consultations and coordinating with our partners and collaborators.
Why did you choose to become a conservationist?
I am a graduate of Forestry. My parents are farmers, but they were able to send me to the local university in Isabela Province. I specialised in social forestry, and I was trained to be a community organiser. I love a green environment and imagined myself living near the forest, but I was not really thinking about wildlife conservation at that time. When I started studying forestry, the focus was still very much on sustainably harvesting trees and producing timber. After graduation, I worked as a community organiser for an integrated conservation and development project.
My love for wildlife conservation really started when a baby crocodile was turned over to my team. The baby crocodile was kept in our office until we could release it, and I was tasked with feeding the animal. It is during this time that I started loving the Philippine crocodile. I learned how special and rare it was and that this species also badly needed attention if it was to survive in the wild.
Then I realised, I was enjoying myself working with a team full of people enthusiastic about wildlife! And then I made a decision, that this is how I will grow old: working with people to save nature and wildlife.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me in the field is waking up early, as I sleep as a guest in farmers’ houses in the communities where we work. They sometimes start as early as 4 am! Here, the day starts with chatting and having coffee while cooking breakfast. Depending on the activity, we might then visit schools for school presentations, or visit village leaders for discussions, or interview people about wildlife.
I am good at talking, so I talk all the time with farmers, fishermen, hunters, village leaders, politicians, partner organisations. That way I know what everyone thinks and what is going on. That knowledge helps us in making decisions about whether there is a need for more communication campaigns, or whether we have to convince a farmer not to kill the crocodile that ate its pig or hunt wildlife for food, or whether we need to pay more attention to a certain politician to convince him of the need for conservation etc. I speak all the local languages of our focus area (Ilocano, Ibanag, Tagalog), but most importantly I try to build good relations with all our communities and partners.
Have you had to overcome prejudices as a woman working in conservation?
As a woman working in conservation (especially when I was young), this was inevitable. I have had experiences of being in meetings with powerful politicians and department leaders, just sitting there, and if I wanted to say something, I was not being recognised. Once you prove your worth and show that you can talk at their level, then you are in; but that is harder for women than for men.
Another prejudice I needed to overcome is that men thought that as a woman, I could not do the things they can, like hiking through forests and climbing mountains, walking under the sun with your bag full of food for a week and crossing rivers. They thought that because I am a woman, I would become a burden to them, so they did not like me to be with them. I am glad I proved them all wrong. Now they would say, she is one of us. We also have more female field workers in our team now, sometimes the men are outnumbered, and we say they are one of us!
In your opinion, what changes are needed in the world of conservation for more women to engage in conservation and have an impact?
I think it is very important for the world to make it normal for women to do field work without special treatment, like men carrying the bags of women, so that we will not be regarded as burdens. Believe that women can do what men can.
Let the women be heard. Give us time to talk if we are in a meeting, and consider our opinions.
And lastly and I think most importantly, we have to feel safe when we are in the field, or in remote communities, or in meetings with powerful men. That way, we can be more confident and productive in doing our job, and show we are not less than men.