Up close, an environmental heroine


After participating in the 1st Katala Festival last March 9 at the PSU gymnasium along with 750 other students, I had the opportunity to interview Indira Lacerna-Widmann, the Chief Operations Officer of the Katala Foundation, Inc. She was one of the six recipients, and the only Filipino, to receive the 2017 Whitley Award, a prestigious British award for conservation, presented by HRH Princess Anne herself, which commended her for the work she has done for the Katala Foundation, Inc. in “Partnering with Prisoners to Safeguard the Critically Endangered Philippine Cockatoo.”

She has become a well-known and much loved member of the community after settling down here in Palawan 20 years ago to take part in the efforts of the Katala Foundation to conserve the Philippine Cockatoo and ultimately have it stricken off the list of critically endangered species.  I always feel inspired after hearing her talk about the importance of being aware and caring for our environment, and even more so after our phone interview last Sunday.

I found out that her love for nature began when she was just a kid. Her dad would take her to their farm where she would spend time exploring and roughing it out with the boys in her family. After taking up Mass Communication in college, she ended up working for a German-Filipino bilateral cooperation on an Applied Tropical Ecology Program as a Science Research Specialist in Leyte, where she spent time teaching Environmental Education.

“Science and how you communicate it to people are very important for me,” she said, explaining how she has both a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies and a cognate in Development Communication. Her interest in connecting with people especially came in handy when the opportunity to join a conservation program in Palawan came around 1998, thanks to her husband Peter Widmann, the co-founder and vice president of the Katala Foundation. “It’s basically Peter’s fault that I’m here…” she said, laughing.

“[Peter] was still courting me and I was still finishing my Master’s in U.P. Los Baños.”  A French zoologist who started the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program in Palawan asked Peter, who himself was taking a Master’s program, to oversee the program in Palawan. “He was trying to convince me to [go to] a stakeholders’ meeting in Narra… because he really wanted to start a conservation program.”

Story telling session with the students who attended the 1st Katala Festival.

“So in 1998, while I was still studying, I had some break time, and I came here for stakeholders, and I… fell in love with the [Katala] immediately when I saw it, and then I love the people, and I thought there really was potential.” The status of the Philippine Cockatoo as critically endangered greatly contributed to her attachment to the project. “So that drove me to Palawan and all the rest is history.”

But it wasn’t all that easy. On Rasa Island, their pilot site for a Katala sanctuary, there were only 23 individual birds left. The still very young Katala Foundation had to engage members of the tribal community there, who were mostly poachers at the time, to appreciate and take part in their conservation efforts, and eventually become conservationists themselves. By offering them incentives, stable alternative incomes, and giving them an education, they were able to stop poaching on Rasa Island and gain generations worth of traditional knowledge about the Katalas.

“They know when the nest trees are occupied, they know when the bird is sick, they know how to feed the birds…that’s the very good thing about it, that you are able to attain all these just by engaging them. That makes them also own the project because it’s because of them that you are able to change the pattern of the diminishing population.”

Ms. Indira herself stepped up in offering an education to the ex-poachers and the tribal community in the conservation area.  “They were not even able to write their ABCs, so I really started [teaching them] the ABCs because I need reports; I cannot pay incentives without any reports.”

“It’s very fulfilling, di ba, because you don’t only share your knowledge, and they also share their knowledge…They are able to write and read, and they are able to talk to other people…they are not scared anymore, and they are proud of what they are doing. If they are doing an illegal thing, they are so scared, but now they open up and work for conservation, they are very proud of what they are doing. It makes you really, really very happy also and satisfied.”

Ms. Indira also wanted to get the youth involved in the program. In Narra, she organized the Narra Youth Organization for Environmental Conservation (NYOFEC) where they aim to expose them to conservation and influence their young members to love and appreciate nature. “Now some of them are science teachers, doctors, and their parents just approached us just recently in our Katala Festival in Narra [saying], ‘Uy, ma’am, thank you for the exposure you’ve given to my kid.”

“We believe that when you start from kids, there is still a chance to develop that passion for conservation… I believe that passion cannot be taught in school, it has really to be learned.”

“At an early stage, I had that passion already for being in the farm, to be engaged, and to talk to people, then I want to use that for a good cause, and conservation is a very good cause as it benefits all our existence…it’s really speaking for the wildlife because they are the ones who sustains life for ourselves.”

So, to spread more awareness to the youth about the importance of conservation, they held Katala Festivals in Dumaran Island for the past 15 years, in Narra for 12 years, and finally in Puerto Princesa this year for the first time. “Philippine Cockatoos are already visiting the city itself, we have so many reports already, and we have also established the flight path of the cockatoos already within the city, and it’s high time that the people be engaged. And of course when we say people, students are the best ones, and festivals are really part of Filipino culture, so we want it while we learn, we’ll be having fun.“

“The more the people engage in talking about conservation and eventually engaging themselves to be part of conservation, then the better it is for the future…If there are many other kids who know about the [value of] conservation, then there will be [more] chances that we can spread the good news to other kids also. So what we want is that kids will get away from tirador and rather enjoy the sight of a wild cockatoo in the City.”

To learn more about the Katala Foundation and the work they do to conserve the Philippine Cockatoo and other wildlife endemic to the Philippines, visit www.philippinecockatoo.org

 

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