In an exclusive interview with HARIBON Head Forester and EMPOWER Project Manager Thaddeus Martinez, we look into the successes, challenges, and lessons learned during the first year of a transformative initiative.
The Engaging Multi-stakeholder Participation Towards Ecosystem Restoration for Community Resiliency (EMPOWER) forest restoration project, in partnership with the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), has successfully wrapped up its first year. This achievement significantly influenced conservation of protected areas (PAs) and communities involved. Mr. Martinez shared his thoughts and experiences on these impacts from an inspiring journey that is EMPOWER Year 1.
Successes and Accomplishments
Thaddy Martinez, known to HARIBON as Sir Thaddy, started with the first year’s highlights. He beamed with pride as he cited a number of the project’s major accomplishments. "The creation of strong partnerships with project stakeholders at each site has been essential in driving the project's achievements," he shared. "We recognized the importance of supporting local communities and equipping them with the resources and knowledge to help in forest conservation."
The development of skills and capacity-building of stakeholders, which included training in Rainforestation Technology and Citizens' Action for Monitoring Ecosystems (CAME), were integral components of HARIBON’s strategy for forest restoration. "We were happy to provide our partner organizations the knowledge and skills they needed to make a real impact," Sir Thaddy explained. "We were able to plant and maintain five hectares of restoration sites in each of the three project sites of Aurora Memorial National Park (AMNP), Bicol Natural Park (BNP), and Pantabangan–Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve (PCWFR). It was a considerable step towards restoring these critical rainforest areas."
But the project's impact is more than just forest restoration. "We were able to provide livelihood opportunities to our partners involved in the restoration activities," he shared with a sense of satisfaction. This project component can help communities economically, as well as strengthen their commitment to the project.
One of the highlights of EMPOWER is the establishment of Community Ecological Sanctuaries (CES). "These sanctuaries are where native tree species are planted and grown. They will also serve as areas for local communities to work together to support the local government and national agencies in their goal to preserve the environment,” said Sir Thaddy.
He also mentioned the distribution of Bantay Gubat equipment to the project’s partner organizations (POs), an essential activity since the ‘Bantay Gubat’ is the Department of Natural Resources’ (DENR) forest protection program used by HARIBON to monitor and safeguard the forests. This ensures that the organization is able to effectively protect the restored areas and continue the momentum of conservation efforts.
Effective Tools and Methodologies
Mr. Martinez also brought up the specific tools and methodologies that contributed to the project’s positive outcome. One such tool is the Participatory Situational Analysis (PSA), a valuable asset in engaging the stakeholders. "It provided the local communities with insights into their environment's status and history, allowing them to better understand and appreciate the significance of their surroundings," he stressed.
As he reflected on what the project had achieved so far, he made special mention and due credit to the Rainforestation Technology method. He found it a truly worthwhile practice to see through the whole process of restoring forests. He also expressed gratitude to the EMPOWER team for their hard work and making the project happen - from the initial community organizing activities and coordination among partners, to the final steps of tree planting. Mr. Martinez also pointed out the importance of the CAME approach, which facilitated the effective implementation of the project and engagement with the communities on a personal level.
Challenges Faced and Lessons Learned
Undoubtedly, no project is without hurdles. Sir Thaddy candidly discussed some of the challenges that the team faced during the implementation of the rainforestation training. He reflected on the difficulties saying, "One of the biggest challenges we faced was the need to implement the training despite delays in the formalization of our partnerships." He goes on to explain that timing was also a significant factor. "Given that we were working in three different sites located far from each other, we needed to implement the Rainforestation Training almost simultaneously," he said. "It posed challenges in coordination, as well as in scheduling the training."
Despite these challenges, the EMPOWER team persevered and worked through each obstacle. They knew the value of the training and how it would help develop the capacity of the project’s partners. They made it a priority to find solutions and ensure that they could deliver the training regardless of the difficulties they faced. The team has manifested dedication and passion for the project and have remained resilient in the face of adversity. Completing these training sessions may have been arduous, but the team proved that with perseverance and determination, they can overcome anything.
Lessons Learned and Improving the Succeeding Years
As EMPOWER looks forward to the years ahead, the lessons learned from year one laid a solid foundation for improvements. "Looking back, though the team has really given their best efforts, it would be better if all preparatory activities were done way ahead," Mr. Martinez admits candidly. "We realized that we needed to think ahead and anticipate any difficulties that may arise. By doing so, we can make sure that we're able to deliver our goals and that all parties involved are able to participate fully."
When asked about the improvements and adjustments planned for the potential next phase of the rainforestation project, he elaborates on the lessons that both he and the team gleaned along the way. "We're looking to implement more structured planning and monitoring for the upcoming years. We'll be focusing on improving our coordination efforts and ensuring that we have everything we need to deliver our goals without any delays."
He also mentioned his appreciation for the partner organizations they have worked with so far and the project’s funder, NGCP. "We know that there's still a long way to go, but we're grateful for everyone who's been with us on this journey," he said. The team hopes to continue their work towards a greener, more sustainable future for the country.
Good Practices and Collaboration
Working closely with partner organizations and NGCP, Mr. Martinez looks at the importance of good communication to keep all stakeholders updated on project developments. "One of the primary practices that we have found to be essential is good communication. It's important to keep all partners updated on the project's developments and that everyone is on the same page." He goes on to explain that it's also a good initiative to implement the project on the ground while simultaneously promoting it through various media platforms. "By doing this, we can raise awareness and engage more people in our efforts to improve the forest cover in each project site," he added.
More than that, he shares how they frequently revisited the mutual objectives of the project with their partners. "We remind ourselves that by achieving our objectives, we are contributing to the sustainability of the region's water supply, clean air, reliable electric power supply, and protection from the catastrophic impacts of typhoons," he emphasized.
Another practice that helped the project is the importance of considering all other stakeholders at the site, not just the direct community partners. "We've learned that it's essential to establish Community Ecological Sanctuaries in each site," he said with pride. "These sanctuaries promote environmental awareness, community empowerment, and volunteerism to the common residents in the area, providing equal opportunities to the partners and those who are not involved in the project."
The EMPOWER team’s passion for the project is evident, and one can't help but feel inspired by the work that they are doing. Their focus on constant communication, promoting environmental awareness, and engaging all stakeholders displays their dedication to making a positive impact in HARIBON’s commitment to nature conservation.
Simultaneous implementation on the ground and promotion across various media platforms are identified as successful practices. Moreover, engaging not just the direct community partners but all other stakeholders, including municipal and barangay local government units (LGUs), DENR, and common residents, and other organizations through the establishment of CES fostered a harmonious collaboration.
Effective Communication and Coordination
With the challenges they faced in implementing the project with different stakeholders, how did the team establish effective communication and coordination? “Effective communication and coordination are crucial in ensuring the success of any project, especially one as complex as the EMPOWER rainforestation project." Sir Thaddy goes on to explain that they made sure to have regular visits with different stakeholders, both in-person and virtually. "We made it a point to visit our partners in the communities and other organizations involved in the project regularly. These visits allowed us to establish relationships and build trust with our partners."
Aside from in-person meetings, they also utilized formal communication letters prior to any activity, and regular phone calls to keep all the involved parties up-to-date. By doing so, they were able to avoid misunderstandings and issues due to miscommunication.
Environmental Impact and Community Empowerment
Through the rainforestation trainings, the EMPOWER team made real progress and positive effects in transforming ecosystems and in uplifting communities. On specific outcomes that can be attributed to the trainings, Sir Thaddy expounded on the results in terms of environmental impact and community empowerment. The partners trained under the program have been able to plant a total of 7,500 native tree species in each 5-hectare project site located within AMNP, BNP and PCWFR, enhancing the area's biodiversity. By using appropriate species of trees, HARIBON’s community partners have contributed to the gradual process of forest restoration.
This forest restoration initiative is impressive for its joint approach of restoring ecosystems and empowering communities at the same time. Beyond financial incentives, the comprehensive training program equips partners with valuable knowledge and skills, instilling a can-do spirit within them. This newfound expertise empowers local communities and indigenous people to take charge of transforming their immediate surroundings, reinforcing the belief that positive change starts at home.
The Rainforestation training showed that even small-scale efforts can make a significant impact. People from diverse backgrounds can collaborate and recognize the importance of working hand in hand to protect the environment.
A Passionate Journey in Forest Conservation
As the interview delved deeper, it became evident that the team’s unwavering commitment to rainforest conservation emanated from a place of passion and genuine concern for our forests. Mr. Martinez confirmed that the project had undeniably succeeded in its mission to educate and inform, as evidenced by the positive response from its partner communities. During the Rainforestation Trainings, a total of 39 participants were present in AMNP, 32 in BNP, and 13 in PCWFR. Community partners also actively participated in the other training sessions held at the 3 project sites. Other attendees included representatives from partner municipal and barangay LGUs, as well as key officials such as the Assistant Protected Area Superintendent (APASu) from DENR-Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (DENR-PENRO) Aurora and DENR-Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (DENR-CENRO).
While acknowledging this achievement, he humbly admitted that there was still room for improvement in engaging the wider community, saying that continuous education and connection were essential in sustaining the momentum started by the project. He added that the CES would be beneficial in further nurturing community involvement.
Looking forward into the future plans for EMPOWER, Mr. Martinez discussed how the rainforestation training could be sustained beyond the project duration. He eagerly shared his passionate plans, most notably through HARIBON’s Forests for Life (FFL) Program, which regularly provides Rainforestation Technology Training to new PO partners. This collaboration ensures that knowledge is alive and shared, empowering individuals and communities to become active participants in conserving their surrounding forests.
Furthermore, Mr. Martinez also shared about the role of HARIBON’s Natural Resource Management Division (NRMD) team in the sanctuaries. Aside from establishing the CES, they could eventually offer short-module based training on Rainforestation, promoting not just knowledge dissemination but also active engagement and participation from community members. It was evident that his vision extended beyond EMPOWER’s lifespan and the project’s Phase 1 results are a testament to his heartfelt mission and calling to preserve the invaluable wonders of our rainforests. This advocacy is important in the continuity and longevity of environmental conservation efforts. Just like Sir Thaddy, each individual has the potential to become an agent of change creating a ripple that spreads far beyond boundaries and project timelines.
A Journey of Growth
In a thoughtful moment, Sir Thaddy opened up about the impact of EMPOWER on his personal growth as a project manager. He gave thanks for the abundance of learning opportunities he was given whilst also sharing the pressures that came with managing a project of this magnitude. With the endeavor’s strict work plan and deliverables, he discovered the strength within himself to face challenges head-on and to make effective decisions even in the most demanding circumstances. It was important to oversee every aspect of the project and he recognized how this responsibility transformed him into a meticulous observer who had to ensure that every detail of the project was aligned with its goals and objectives. With unwavering dedication, he mentored the team, encouraged them to embrace challenges and consistently approached them with a positive mindset.
Through this experience, he and the EMPOWER team understood that initiating and implementing the project extended far beyond simply completing tasks. It required nurturing a supportive environment, where members were always motivated and inspired to give their best towards driving the project's success.
The EMPOWER project has undeniably raised awareness about the importance of forest conservation among its target partner organizations. Moving forward, plans are in place to expand efforts in forest restoration to ensure sustainability beyond the project’s duration. With its first year’s inspiring journey, it is evident that the commitment of passionate individuals like Mr. Thaddeus Martinez and the EMPOWER team can yield remarkable results. The project successfully brought together stakeholders, empowered local communities, and initiated the major task of rainforest restoration education.
As we look toward the future, we are hopeful that EMPOWER will continue to make a lasting impact on both the environment and the lives of local communities with continued support from the NGCP.