With Earth Day coming up next week, you may already have your mind fixed on eco-friendly behavior. Perhaps you’re ready to teach yourself, your friends, or your family more sustainable ways of living. Maybe you’re ready to be inspired by someone who has been a stalwart champion of the environment for a career that spans decades.

womanity_primavera_kfujisawa.jpgEnter Dr. Jurgenne Honculada-Primavera (her first name is pronounced “Georgine”; she and her twin, Georgette, share a birthday with George Washington). Dr. Primavera holds BS and MA degrees in zoology and a PhD in marine science. In 2008, Time Magazine awarded her the title of Hero of the Environment for her work in promoting sustainable fish-farming, or aquaculture. She also received a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation from 2005 to 2010, for which she worked toward conserving mangroves through formal education and local governance.

Aquaculture, or aquafarming, involves farming freshwater and / or saltwater organisms such as fish, shrimp, oysters, and seaweed. Mangroves, on the other hand, are trees and shrubs that have adapted to being exposed to salt water, growing in areas along our coasts or in estuaries. They protect coastal habitats from erosion, storm surges, and even tidal waves and serve as “nurseries” for marine life such as some species of shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and fish, offering a safe place where young organisms can thrive. By focusing her attention on these ecosystems, Dr. Primavera is helping further marine biodiversity, an important part of the overall conservation effort.

Dr. Primavera has successfully balanced a robust family life with her scientific career: while working to inspire younger generations of scientists and thinkers and teaching students and local government units about the importance of sustainable living, she and her husband, Nick, raised four children, all of whom are now pursuing their own passions and advocacies. Despite what she calls a very laissez-faire or hands-off attitude when it comes to picking her children’s careers, two are following in their mother’s footsteps: Yasmin, the eldest, has BS and MS degrees in marine fisheries and is working on a PhD, and second son Karlo, a certified chemist with a Master’s degree in marine chemistry is teaching at the UP Visayas, while eldest son Nikos, a Sociology-Management graduate, takes charge of rehabilitating a mini-forest and Jorge, the youngest, with MS degrees in international development and economic history, will soon pursue a PhD in Kyoto University.

Female Network was given the opportunity to interview Dr. Primavera, who had a lot of advice and insights to share about life, work, passions, and environmental awareness.


Female Network (FN): How did your childhood in Agusan del Norte, Mindanao, factor into your interest in the environment?

Dr. Jurgenne Primavera (JP): My environmental bias goes back to a childhood imprinted on macopa, tambis, arabana, sirali, mangga, and other species of tropical fruit trees in our Buenavista, Agusan backyard. I used to climb our balingbing with a fistful of salt in one hand, the better to have merienda when I got to the top—even at 63, I still climb trees.

FN: What influenced your choice to take up zoology and marine science?

JP: What I really wanted to take was chemical engineering when I first arrived at UP  Diliman. My next choice was pre-medicine, but it [wasn’t on the list of allowed courses for NSDB (National Science Development Board)], so I had to settle for zoology, which was close enough to pre-med. My reasoning was that, in case I lost my scholarship, a degree in zoology could still provide entry to the College of Medicine.

No such thing happened because I maintained the scholarship…, finished my zoology degree, and was offered an instructor’s position at the Mindanao State University, where I taught college zoology and biology courses. Later, I earned a master’s in zoology along the way and finally a PhD in marine science.

FN: Have you ever regretted not being able to pursue your first and second choices?

JP: No!  I was drawn to both chemical engineering and medicine because they were the “glamorous” professions of my time. Being of an impressionable age, my reasons for choosing a college program were quite mababaw (shallow). However shallow the choice, I have spent the rest of my life making it the right one.

FN: How did you balance your work and family life? What challenges did you face to do so, and how did you overcome them?

JP: As a [woman] who has tried to balance a lifetime of household duties and career needs, this is my advice to the females based on my experience: If you plan to concentrate on your profession and remain single—no conflicts and no problem! But if you want to have a family, look for a man who is secure in his own identity and liberated enough to share in household duties.

I have been lucky to find such a man who has accepted more than his fair share of babysitting, laundry, dishwashing, marketing, and other chores, except for cooking—because he can only cook one item, and that is water. Another factor in my favor is the continuing availability of nannies and household helpers from my first baby to the present.

FN: And if others are not as lucky as you in finding a supportive partner?

JP: If the demands of family and work compete for your time, give priority to your home, especially your children. They did not ask to be born; you brought them into this world and are therefore responsible for their wellbeing. Go on leave whenever they get sick or there is a PTA meeting.

Once [they’re older], you can return to your career. Remember that to these young children, you, their mother, are everything—the sun, moon, and stars. So give them your time and yourself because soon enough, before you know it, they will leave you. A temporary break in your professional development is a small price to pay for producing physically and psychologically healthy human beings. As they say, there is no substitute for success in the home.

womanity_primavera_efernando.jpgFN: What do you do when you’re not pursuing your advocacy, seeing to your family’s needs, or inspiring young scientific minds?

JP: My pastime is planting seeds or wildings of native species in a home nursery, growing them…, then out-planting them to a miniforest or to public places like churchyards and school campuses.

My family has revived a mini-forest over the past 15 years in Miag-ao, and started to reforest another three-hectare area in Oton, both in Iloilo provinces. Everyone [was] fully engaged in these projects—from clearing weeds to transplanting seedlings and saplings, building tree guards, adding fertilizers, and regular watering…. Now it is a veritable forest of dao, dangcal, dita, and other unidentified species of native trees.

Planting is an act of hope and faith, faith that the seeds we sow will grow to maturity, yielding an infinite array of goods and services in their own time. Planting is also an act of unselfishness, for we do not plant for ourselves but for our children, our children’s children, and the generations after them who will reap what we sow.

womanity_primavera_dost.jpgWORK AND PROJECTS

FN: What first got you interested in fish-farming and mangroves? Did your interest in mangroves stem from your interest in aquaculture?

[While conducting research] at SEAFDEC/AQD (the Aquaculture Department of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, where Dr. Primavera worked after her nearly 10-year-long career as a professor at the Mindanao State University), … I would notice ubiquitous, strange-looking trees lining [the] margins [of the culture ponds], which turned out to be mangroves! Eventually, I realized that these marginalized trees were all that remained of mangrove forests that had been clear-cut for pond development. Given my early imprinting on trees, I soon became a champion and defender of mangroves.

FN: Why worry about mangrove loss?

JP: Healthy mangroves regulate floods, control erosion, recycle nutrients, trap sediments, and provide fishery and forest products. Mangroves also have cultural-historical significance. The premier Philippine city of Manila or Maynila owes its name to the species Scyphiphora hydrophyllacea, locally called nilad, which grew abundantly along Manila Bay and the river Pasig in pre-Hispanic times.

Studies… show that the presence of mangrove-beach forest greenbelts mitigated the loss of lives and property during the horrific 2004 tsunami. [They also lessen the impact of typhoons], which visit the Philippines at the rate of 20 to 30 each year, causing hundreds of deaths and millions of pesos in damage.

FN: Time Magazine awarded you the title of Hero of the Environment back in 2008, citing you as an eco-pioneer for your campaign to institute sustainable fish-farming through the protection of mangroves. Can you tell us a little about how your work affects people, from your local fisher folk to even those of us in urban centers?

JP: My efforts at mangrove conservation entered a... [phase] of on-the-ground advocacy with support from the Pew Fellowship and the Zoological Society of London.... Awareness of mangrove importance and mangrove issues has increased with my media exposure (print, television, radio, and the Internet). Also, I give dozens of lectures and talks each year to schools, universities, civic clubs (e.g., Rotary), NGOs, and community organizations, etc., mainly on mangrove topics (conservation, management, and rehabilitation), but also on beach forests, native trees, and climate change.

Mangroves provide a wide array of goods and services, including coastal protection, shoreline protection, flood regulation, fish/invertebrate nurseries, [and] wildlife habitat. Therefore, conserving and restoring mangroves will mean making these goods and services, particularly protection from typhoons and storm surges, available to coastal towns and villages, improving fisheries’ catches and incomes of fishers and providing food security for all—including urban dwellers.

FN: What are your recent or current projects or endeavors in your promotion of mangrove protection?

JP: Recently, I was named project manager of the four-year Community-Based Mangrove Rehabilitation and Management Project (CMRP) of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The CMRP supports coastal communities to re-establish the legally mandated mangrove greenbelts along the coast and rehabilitate abandoned government-leased fishponds and degraded nipa palm stands to healthy mangrove forests.... [This increases] coastal protection, food resources, and livelihood income through sustainable mangrove management; and decreases their vulnerability to coastal erosion and storm surges.

My earlier …fellowship aims to conserve mangroves in Panay through formal education (mangrove thesis grants to high school and college students, development of modules and other educational materials, and also posters, leaflets, and mangrove identification sheets) and local governance (protection of mangroves and increased enforcement of greenbelt and pond reversion regulations). My website (http://www.seafdec.org.ph/pew) features written and pictorial reports of these initiatives, and also my other professional and personal activities, e.g., home nursery.


FN: You are a mother of four, and you’ve also been a mentor and inspiration to younger scientists. What advice can you give younger generations of scientists and environmentalists, as well as those in non-scientific fields?

JP: During the many talks that I give, I try to share the following lessons in life with young (and not-so-young) people in the audience: Making the right choice may not be as important as making the choice right, when you are young and time is on your side. This applies to marriage as well [as your career], as they are not made in heaven, never mind what others tell you. My husband and I will soon celebrate our 43rd wedding anniversary, but it has been a day-by-day effort to nurture the relationship and keep it strong.

Many of [your] readers will probably go abroad… To you, I say go, but come back once you have finished your PhD or made enough money to build a house, buy a car, and send your children to college. To those who remain but become call center employees, after you earn lots of money, go back to what you trained for and make a contribution, whether in fisheries or economics or biology or mass communications. Then you will put a lie to last year’s Hong Kong column of Chip Tsao calling the Philippines a “nation of servants” and vindicate the faith of… Jose Rizal, in you as the hope of the Mother and Fatherland.

womanity_primavera_wcequina.jpgFN: What advice can you give to parents who are trying to teach their kids—and possibly themselves—to develop more environmentally conscious attitudes, especially if they weren’t raised with an eco-friendly mindset?

JP: Explore your backyard, if you have one, [show them] insects (grasshoppers, ants, termites), spiders, larvae, and cocoons (to illustrate life cycles). This I do with my two apos every chance we get. If you have no backyard, the closest zoo or park will do.

Plant a seed in your backyard or even just a recycled container (empty cans, plastic bags, aluminum), care for it, water [it] regularly, and watch how the seed pops out of the soil.

Take your children on picnics (field trips) to the beach—the sea strand has shells, seaweeds, stranded starfishes/jellyfish/ crabs, molted shells of crabs and shrimps, and also garbage—[or a] forest or eco-park—aside from animals, look at trees and other plants.

Get a pet dog or cat (kids should be non-allergic to hairs), to develop affinity with other creatures.

If TV is unavoidable, then proactively develop good viewing habits by encouraging such programs as [those on] Discovery, National Geographic, etc., but regulate viewing hours. View [them] together... so you can fill in when terms are too technical for the younger kids.

At home, segregate garbage, maintain a compost pit for biodegradable items, and sell old paper, bottles, [and] metals to the junk man.

FN: What’s next for you, both in terms of your life and career?

JP: Travel in my own country—the best places for travel are in these beloved islands where the air is warm and the waters warmer, the skies are bluest, and the white sand beaches finest. I used to be like some Filipino children who said in a survey that they wanted to be foreigners when they grow up. Like them, I was trapped in a mental colony (what others call a colonial mentality)—dreaming of a white Christmas, dashing through the snow amidst redwood forests, when all the while Paradise was at my doorstep, and not half a world away.

Local talks—I used to travel eight to ten times abroad in a year, until I asked myself, “Wait a minute, why am I preaching about mangrove conservation to Europeans and North Americans who have not even seen a single mangrove tree (except Florida)?” So I have decided to prioritize local invitations... and share with my kababayans a lifetime of science and environmentalism.

(Beach photo on page 1 by K. Fujisawa. Mangrove photo on page 2 by Dr. Edwino Fernando. Award photo on page 3 by Alan Loreto. Mangrove photo on page 4 by W. (Japoi) Cequina. All photos used with permission from Dr. Jurgenne H. Primavera.)

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