When the fisherman leveled his spear gun and fired at her across the dark water, Evelyn Malicay held her ground in her kayak, gripping a stone to defend herself. This was her backyard, the marine sanctuary she had helped create and felt a duty to protect.
The spear missed. Ms. Malicay’s efforts to catch yet another late-night poacher did not. “What they do not know,” she said, recalling that night several years ago when she called the police on the man, “is that I am always on watch.”
Ms. Malicay, 53, a compact, vibrant Filipina mother who years ago lost her village council seat over her support for the Maite Marine Sanctuary, has since apprehended neighbors and relatives fishing inside it, recruited dozens of community members to back her and won numerous awards for her championship of marine conservation.
The sanctuary, just steps away from her home, is one of the most successful of the 22 marine protected areas on the island of Siquijor in the south-central Philippines, at the heart of the species-rich Coral Triangle. This no-fishing zone shares one uncommon asset with a variety of other unusually successful conservation projects around the globe: It’s run by women.
Globally, commitments to conservation have been marked by failure. Last year, just as the World Economic Forum identified the accelerating loss of biodiversity as one of the most critical threats to the global economy — threatening “the collapse of food and health systems” and “the disruption of entire supply chains,” according to their annual Global Risk Report — the United Nations issued a damning summary of progress toward the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2020 targets, which were agreed upon a decade ago by nearly every nation.
“Humanity stands at a crossroads,” the U.N. report read. More than 190 nations had collectively missed every target.
As those reports were being published, Robyn James, a Nature Conservancy gender and equity adviser based in Australia, was concluding a review of her own, looking at hundreds of studies from around the world to consider whether engaging women in conservation and natural resource management increases the impact of those projects.
The environmental sector has been slower to address gender inequity than other sectors, like development and business, Ms. James co-wrote in Oryx — The International Journal of Conservation. The six-author study showed that in countries from Nepal to Cameroon, Australia to Canada, women are excluded from roles in conservation and natural resource management. But in landscapes and organizations where they are meaningfully included, environmental outcomes improve.
Case studies they considered show that when women lead in conservation, indicators of success like solidarity, rule compliance and forest and fishery regeneration often go up, even as these women face doubt, discrimination and even threats of violence.
In the early days of the Maite Marine Sanctuary, which was created in 2009 to prevent harvest in the coral reef and sea grass habitats within its boundaries, Ms. Malicay used her position as an elected village council member to maintain strict enforcement of the sanctuary, knowing that by doing so, she was helping to preserve food and financial security for future generations.
But, said Reaan Catitig, who coordinates the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation’s technical support for Siquijor’s marine sanctuaries, the sanctuary then did not yet have broad support. Men were afraid to give up their fishing grounds, he said, and angry to be forced beyond its edges.
Many members of the village community “became her enemy,” Mr. Catitig said, and she was never elected to the council again. Whenever she goes out to patrol, Ms. Malicay said, “I always carry a stone.”
In Australia, Ms. James said that she, too, has experienced discrimination throughout her career, which she began as a wildlife ranger in a remote region of Australia. Tagging kangaroos and surveying crocodiles, she was often the only woman, she said. Globally, in 2019, according to the World Wildlife Fund, only an estimated 7.5 percent of rangers were women.
“I experienced all sorts of sexual harassment, exclusion and people thinking I couldn’t do it,” Ms. James said. Later in her career, she was discouraged from applying for leadership positions because of the risks of working at remote field sites, or the logistical complications posed by being a mother.
Both women’s experiences fit a growing body of research demonstrating all the ways women in conservation are restricted by cultural norms and gendered stereotypes that vary by location — but exist everywhere in some form.
In 2019, for example, conservation researchers in Colorado documented evidence showing that in the United States, women in conservation are often excluded from decision-making, overlooked in hiring, relegated to administrative tasks or assumed to be inadequate or wrong.
In a Solomon Islands community Ms. James has worked with, women in the field also risk physical violence. She said one strong female conservation leader there was accused of sorcery — an allegation that has led to the assault and murder of scores of accused women and men across the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, according to regional news reports.
“Whenever you challenge power, that can come with risk,” Ms. James said. “It is risky for these women, but we have to keep supporting them.”
Partly, she said, that is justified by a simple human rights argument for gender equality. But there’s a conservation argument, too: In the most biodiverse places on Earth, men and women experience and interact with nature very differently. For example, in many coastal communities, men go to the sea to fish, while women collect shellfish along the shore. As a result, women have different needs from conservation — and see different opportunities for solutions.
In Siquijor, islanders are, as in most of the Philippines, heavily dependent on the ocean for both income and food. But these days, fishermen here are catching less and less. Oceana, an ocean conservation nonprofit, reports that across the Philippines 75 percent of fishing grounds are overfished, and reef fish have declined by up to 90 percent.
As fish stocks have continued to decline as a result of both overfishing and climate change, research at nearby Silliman University shows that fishermen have only tried harder, resorting to ever more illegal and destructive methods: three-layered trammel nets, chlorine poison, dynamite.
The resulting ecosystem death spiral is straight out of “Fisheries 101,” said Aileen Maypa, a biologist who spent years working to restore reefs in Siquijor and neighboring islands. “If you don’t do anything,” she said, “everything is famine.”
Dr. Maypa said women’s involvement has repeatedly transformed outcomes in the region.
Men “are looking at the now,” she said. “Women are looking at the future.”
When women are involved, she said, arguments are less bloody and poaching is less common, and when new conservation projects are proposed, women almost always say yes — and are more willing to accept near-term compromises, and then work to expand projects.
“The approach of women is softer,” she said, adding: “That doesn’t mean it’s less strong.”
The Philippines is home to more than 1,200 marine protected areas, but most marine scientists believe few achieve meaningful conservation goals.
In Siquijor, the most recent local assessments, completed in 2019, show at least half the island’s 22 sanctuaries meet criteria for “excellent” management. Of those, two are run almost entirely by women.
On the far northern end of the island, at the mangrove-banked Binoongan Marine Sanctuary, local conservation leaders say that 16 women did what men could not — or would not — do: They volunteered to manage the sanctuary in collaboration with the village council after the village’s male-dominated fishing organization refused.
Without their efforts, many say, the sanctuary would have remained in perpetual decline. Instead, reports show it now features the highest fish biomass of any sanctuary in Siquijor, and in 2019 was named by the island’s alliance of coastal resource managers as both the best marine protected area on the island and the one with the most community support.
On the other side of the island, the Maite Marine Sanctuary was named most enterprising and livelihood generating. Under Ms. Malicay’s leadership, about 35 women — some well into their 80s — and 15 men maintain boundary buoys, remove trash and invasive starfish and collect user fees from snorkeling and diving tourists. They also rotate to staff a catering kitchen and bakery, which offer a small but meaningful income to active members and helps sustain families with an alternative — or supplement — to fishing.
Every night, at least one of them stands watch for poachers.
Since the sanctuary’s inception, they have seen parrotfish, goatfish and grouper return to these waters. Officially, the sanctuary is just over six hectares but every time a fisherman cuts their buoy line, Ms. Malicay said, they inch it little bit farther out to sea.
From her kayak on a quiet evening in 2019, she pulled a fine mesh of seaweed from that same boundary line, freeing a white Styrofoam buoy. Nearby, a dark, living thing nudged the surface. A sea turtle, she said. Or maybe a fish.
Then, singing softly to herself, she kept paddling.
This story was produced as part of the Earth Journalism Scholars program, an ongoing collaboration between Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was originally published in The New York Times on 15 November 2021.
Banner image: Fishing is a way of life on the island of Siquijor at the heart of the species-rich Coral Triangle in the south-central Philippines / Credit: Sarah Trent.