Growing up in the many islands of the Philippines, my father used to take me to mountains, swamps, lakes, rivers and the countless wetlands found in our country. Thanks to my father, I became obsessed early in my childhood in exploring more of our country’s natural wonders. As much as I fell in love with our mountains, I’ve grown to understand more deeply and connect with our misunderstood swamps and marshes. These critical wetlands that our cities have been built on, are often portrayed as grimy and filthy places looming with menacing ogres, magical spirits, and incurable diseases. Yet, as I became more exposed and immersed in these realms of wetlands, I’ve come to realize that they are not filled with ogres and spirits, but with equally magical majestic birds, crocodiles, and mystical trees— a place of enchantment waiting to be discovered.

Despite the fact that wetlands are one of the most ecologically significant landscapes in the Philippines, stories are not being told about them, especially in the place that I’ve come to love — the Agusan Marshlands. This largest wetland region in the Philippines found in the heart of the southern region of Mindanao is a place where hundreds of species of migratory birds come flying in from the far corners of Japan and Russia. These birds share their home with our local communities and the indigenous Manobo tribe. A neglected and forgotten wetland jewel of Asia, rapidly shrinking due to climate change and intense socioeconomic development.

Being a conservation photographer and environmental storyteller, I realized how many more stories we needed to share about our wetlands and our country to protect them, so I started with the Agusan Marshlands. I journeyed with my camera to this beautiful yet fragile world, closely working with heritage experts and our dear, good friend Ate Marites Babanto, the indigenous woman leader of the Manobo tribe.

We documented the man-made fires from palm oil plantations and droughts exacerbated by the changing climate. The fires and droughts slowly dried the sacred lakes, where plumes of ash and smoke rose from the ground. Instead of streams, there was dust. Instead of water, there was blood. But it was never the community’s fault.

Our work was dangerous. Palm oil plantation companies started threatening us as our stories reached the general public and government officials. Our work was often hidden, never making it to the major headlines. But we continued telling these stories to empower the local communities living in the Agusan Marshlands. We want to make sure the local communities are safe and protected, for them to always call this special wetland their home. If we want to protect the places that we love, we need to protect the people protecting them.

The Agusan Marshlands is just one of the many wetlands found in our country and on the planet – a place not to be feared but to be celebrated, for there is magic for both what it is and what can become of it.

 

Gab Mejia