Eight hundred kilometers southeast of Manila is Siargao Island. Much has been written in travel blogs about this surfer’s paradise, this next big thing of a tourist destination.
Like many travelers, Marja Abad has been backpacking most of her life in and out of the Philippines and has gone to Siargao. However, unlike many of them who have to the island come and gone, she chose to stay.
Immersions and encounters
Abad revealed that she was first admitted to the Theater Arts program of UP Diliman’s College of Arts and Letters. However, she decided to leave the campus and go back to Miriam College where she had finished high school, to take up general education courses. “That one time we were sent to an Aeta community in Pinatubo, it was my first immersion that got me on my foot and wanting to see more communities around the country,” she says excitedly.
She headed up north of Luzon as far as Sagada where she had more encounters with Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities. She then realized her love for community work, and finally decided to go back to UP to enroll in a Social Work degree program in the UP College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD).
“It was my exposure during my travels up north that encouraged me to learn more about our local and IP communities. I value them so much because they’re the ones whom I turn to whenever I go backpacking into unfamiliar places. Instagram was non-existent at the time, so these locals were really the best guide,” says Marja, a UP Mountaineer.
After graduation, Abad, a founding member of UP Sports Climbing, decided to move to Davao. As a Manileña, she also wanted a break away from the metropolis where she grew up. She became a river-rafting guide, and continued to explore the country’s south for surf spots until she set foot on Siargao Island for the first time in 2006.
“I also went back and forth to Davao and Singapore for work. And the many times I went away from Siargao, I kept coming back here,” she says. “Everything I learned from Social Work—like the urge to help communities and learn so much about our culture through the locals—reignited my desire to work with communities especially on this island. The more I stay here, the more I see the issues. Since I already have a deep connection with this place, I always want to give back and to contribute to the community.”
An island Iska
Landing a corporate job that allowed her to make the island her home, Marja finally settled in Siargao in 2015. The drive to stay on the island, while others were making it big internationally or in major industries, was strongly influenced by her UP education. She claims, “I was never like that. I wanted to stay close to nature. I wanted to be active. I wanted to hear stories. It was never my dream to climb the corporate ladder. I just wanted to travel.”
“I value so much my UP GE courses because it’s what makes you holistic. The Humanities and Social Sciences are the reasons Iskos and Iskas have a good grasp on why the world is the way it is today. I think it really helped mold me into who I am right now. UP taught me to be proud of being a Filipina because it taught me about our heroes, our history and our culture. I really take it to heart and seriously as an Iska. It is about time that I give back to the community,” she continues.
“Here, I can still do what I want—surf, have a job that allows me to still travel outside the country, and most of all turn this movement towards community and environmental sustainability work on this island,” says the overjoyed Iska.
The SEA Movement
Finally settling on the island, Abad realized that the waste issue was her ultimate concern. It has dramatically increased since the first time she came to Siargao in 2010.
“I started the Siargao Environmental Awareness or SEA Movement in 2015 with once-a-month beach clean-ups. It is a collaborative effort to help preserve the natural resources and beauty of the island, which the local community and visitors rely on for a simple yet beautiful life. Suddenly, we had so many volunteers coming out to join us, until the clean-up became a Saturday thing for us. Little by little, we had a structure which was ripe enough for us to establish an organization,” she recalls.
Today, there are four groups under the SEA Movement which are into environmental advocacy in Surigao and Cebu. “The struggle is where do we put the trash after? When will we stop cleaning the beach? When will people stop littering? And when will the local government be strict on littering, and with policies? When will we see more trash bins? When will we see garbage collection? For the past three years, it was the same,” she complains.
But the hopeful Iska is making a bold move this year, aiming to have SEA Movement officials elected to local government posts. She looks forward to the time when, through them, local government units will be more tuned in to environmental issues.
While the SEA Movement is establishing sustainable waste management on the island, it also focuses on other site-and-sector-specific projects. One is the setting up of organic farms on the island which recently tied up with farmers in the municipality of Pilar.
Acting as a hub to connect networks of people with unique skills in order to contribute to solving the island’s problems, the SEA Movement has also partnered up with people from the US for an environmental book drive, with a teacher-training series for literacy and critical thinking for about a hundred teachers from General Luna, Dapa, and Santa Monica.
The SEA Movement co-founder revealed that the organization’s biggest project so far is being part of Gina Lopez’s Quest for Love. “We are the 16th semifinalist. If we get chosen as one of the eight finalists, then we will get a grant. Towards the end of the year and on to next year, we hope to get the funding to start to set up the SEA Movement office, hire people, and provide them with good wages.” It will also be launching its new fashion line called SEAM, with an all-women sewing crew using recyclable materials to make surf and casual apparel.
“I just want to pursue the projects. The SEA movement is my brainchild, but I wouldn’t have done it without the other people, especially the kids. So I always tag myself as the co-founder, because I got help from a lot of people in Siargao,” Abad concludes.