VON HERNANDEZ – Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia

“Every one has to work together to find solutions to problems that degrade the commons,” says Von Hernandez.

This is one of the missions that he and Greenpeace, where he has worked for more than 14 years, have undertaken—inculcating environmental consciousness to the community through social value awareness and preaching individual responsibility in protecting Mother Nature.

Von, who is now executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, tirelessly promotes and advocates environmental protection. His eye opener, or what he claims as “his baptism of fire”, was the 1991 Ormoc tragedy in Leyte province, where more than 8000 lives have perished due to flooding from the abnormal rainfall and landslides brought about by deforestation.

Then a Green Coalition volunteer, he traveled to the province to participate in relief efforts. After seeing the harrows and despair of the victims, Von vowed to take a step further and become a stauncher ally of the environment.

In this Greater Good Philippines interview, Von Hernandez talks about how he has become a volunteer for the environment and how his family, children especially, play their roles in pushing him further particularly in turbulent and challenging times. Von also mentions having hope despite all the bleak signs.

“This is the important message, our forecast is bleak but after the heavy rain, out comes the sunshine.”

All these and more only on Greater Good Philippines. Click here to listen to the interview.

Jay-R Patron: What does being executive director for Greenpeace entail? What do you do for Greenpeace Southeast Asia?

Von Hernandez: I just started as executive director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia last March, although I’ve been around. I’ve been with Greenpeace Southeast Asia for years now, serving in various capacities, the last one being director of campaigns. Greenpeace Southeast Asia is one of the national and regional offices of Greenpeace worldwide. We have presence in 41 countries. We have 29 national and regional offices. Southeast Asia is one of the, what we call, regional offices. Comprising the regional entity would be our operations in the Philippines, our operations in Thailand, and also Indonesia. As executive director for a regional entity, I am overall and ultimately responsible for the viability of our operations. By viability I mean the success of our campaigns, and also our financial self-sufficiency, to be able to operate and run better campaigns. In the region we are running four major campaigns. Most of them are also global in nature. For example, planet and energy campaigns are priority campaigns. We are on board the Rainbow Warrior now. The ship is here in Manila, testament to this ongoing campaign that we are having in the region; dirty energy, exposing the problems with fossil fuel, and promoting the shift to renewable and clean energy. That’s our priority campaign. We also run our forest campaign in Indonesia, which has the highest rate of deforestation in the world today. That’s also contributing to global warming. In Thailand and the Philippines, we run what we call the Clean Water campaign. This is a project of our toxic campaign against pollution, promoting clean production and industry. We also run a campaign against genetically modified organisms. In a way, this is the content of what we do in this region. While we have actual presence in this three countries, our premise covers the whole Southeast Asia, places like Vietnam, Cambodia, where we should be able to protect our campaigning when the need arises. As chief executive officer of our operations in Southeast Asia, I have to be able to juggle my self in between these three countries that also compete in priorities, at the same time, serve the interest of our campaigns, serve the interest of our fun-raising operations, our public outreach programs, as well as our supporters. In the region, we have about 30…well not 30…at the moment it’s running between 22 to 25 thousand supporters in the region.

Jay-r Patron: How long have you been with Greenpeace?

Von Hernandez: I’ve been with Greenpeace close to 14 years now. Before I joined Greenpeace, I was already in the environmental business in the Philippines. I’ve led various campaigns before I joined Greenpeace. I led a campaign against commercial logging in the country. I joined Greenpeace in ’95 as part of a crusade we had then against the practice of dumping hazardous wastes from OECD or industrialized countries to poor nations. I was one of the first Greenpeace campaigners in Asia before we even had the actual offices in this region. My first project involved documenting and exposing this hazardous waste trend that was taking place. The industrialized countries are taking advantage of the lack of environmental standards, the lack of controls, the lack of enforcement, in poor countries to justify that kind of thing using economic guises of recycling. We were able to expose that, in fact, as a result of our campaigning, the international community decided to prohibit this practice and that culminated in agreement called the Battle Plan or as part of the Battle Plan.

Jay-R Patron: Where did you get that passion for environmental protection?

Von Hernandez: I have been often asked this question. If you look at my history, my background, I started as a teacher. I started assisting in college in the university and I was teaching Philippine Arts and Literature in the University of the Philippines before I got sucked into environmental work. At that time, I was doing a lot of volunteer work for this health relief organization that’s called “Kapwa Ko Mahal Ko”. It’s no longer around but that that time it was one of the more active health charity organizations. They were doing medical clinics and relief work for communities. I was also helping out in the operations of another group called the Green Coalition, which was then involved in environmental policy. I was dabbling on environmental issues until 1991 when disaster struck this central Philippine island, Leyte. It’s called the Ormoc tragedy.

Jay-R Patron: The flooding.

Von Hernandez: The flooding, where more than 8000 people perished. But there was also this massive flashflood coming from the mountain that was because of the abnormal rainfall. And this is the culmination of years of logging and mindless conversion of forest lands into agricultural lands in that area. “Kawpa Ko Mahal Ko” sent a relief and rehabilitation team to Ormoc and I was part of that team. That really, to me, was my baptism of fire. It opened my eyes about the nature of environmental threats that people have been saying that, in fact, they’re emphasizing that the nature of the environment has become very much a survival issue especially for Filipinos living in these frontiers. At that time, I decided to take my goals for the environment more seriously. I left my teaching career in the university and started working full-time for environmental issues. So I joined the Green Coalition. I also initiated a number of campaigns in the Green Coalition including the community effort to clean up the Pasig River. I also continued my advocacy against commercial logging, and at that time, I managed to tie up with international groups including Greenpeace, who have been doing these campaigns. That’s how I go even more involved. I’ve never stopped since.

Jay-R Patron: How important is your family’s role in shaping what you are as a person?

Von Hernandez: First of all, the kind of work, in my case especially…I have to constantly move around, I have to—in certain circumstances—I have to face risks also, for my safety. Just being away from them, I have three kids and they’re all growing up, you need to have a very supportive family to be able to continue this kind of work. At the same time, I draw my inspiration from my family from my children. Whenever I see injustice, whenever I see environmental abuse I know that what to take care are issues of our children, the future, of our society and our nation. So I think about them and to me that fuels my inspiration to continue doing the work that I do.

Jay-R Patron: As a person, what do you do to contribute to the minimization of your carbon footprint?

Von Hernandez: Carbon footprint. As you know, we all have our contradictions. In my case, it’s so difficult. It’s really a challenge. I ran a regional office. I have to be constantly moving so the flying around, of course, I’m guilty of that. But at the same time, you know that you have to do it otherwise the work will suffer. I try to think about it as the work is actually helping create that change needed for industries for individuals, first of all, conscious about their contributions, their carbon footprint and we need to lower them. Of course, we need to practice what we preach in terms of energy efficiency, in terms of waste management, in terms…simple things; unplugging, switching off.

Jay-R Patron: In your career, what has been the greatest challenge that you’ve had to overcome and how did you overcome it?

Von Hernandez: The greatest challenge. There are so many challenges. I initiated a campaign in the… around late 90s on dirty technologies including incineration and waste management. Metro Manila constantly suffers from the problem, even now. You see that the problem is still there, pretty much. I had to campaign against a proposed solution. They were proposing incineration as a way out of this crisis. So I initiated that campaign. Incineration will not make that problem disappear rather, it will convert the problem, the pollution problem, much more difficult to solve or deal with. So we had to campaign against this proposal and that campaign brought me in confrontation with business interests, brought me in confrontation with government officials, and also foreign governments, against chamber of commerce, all the mainstream established interest who were promoting this kind of solution to the problem. On the other hand, I had to work with communities, I had to work with local groups and others, to put together this coalition against the migration to dirty technologies. We won that campaign, but not without fears for my well-being. I’ve received a lot of intimidation as part of that campaign. And we won that campaign, and that culminated in to the passage of the Clean Air Act in 99-2000.

Jay-R Patron: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you still keep to this day?

Von Hernandez: One of my mantras in life is to always excel, to constantly reinventing your channels. Once you’ve attained an objective, you don’t stop at them. You move on but next time, you try to find ways to do it even better. I’m not afraid to make failures. I do make failures, I do make mistakes. I fail in some of my projects but that is how I learn. I keep reminding myself, so long that I don’t repeat those mistakes, and add value to do work that I do in the future. That’s one of my mantras, excel and pay forward; not to glorify failure or glorify mistakes but to learn from them.

Jay-R Patron: As I look at your bio I see a lot of awards. Out of all those awards, what do you see as the most valuable?

Von Hernandez: The awards they’re just recognitions of the work that you’ve done. Let me put it this way, in all my work as an environmentalist, I’ve seen…I’ve worked with communities, all levels… and I would say the most rewarding is seeing change in different levels, the community level, when you are being able to empower communities to resist an incinerator, a landfill for example, being proposed in their area and actually being able to do it. To me, that is validating those types of local victory, and then putting that together, working with other groups, promoting a different policy makes it even more lasting. The fact that we won the Clean Air Act and the Ecological Wasteland Act would be proof of how we are changing mindsets, this time involving decision-makers, policy-makers. The greatest validation for me is seeing how people are shifting their mindsets away from dirty practices. Before when you talk to a local official, at the barangay level, maybe even a man on the street, and you ask how to deal with waste, the automatic answer would be to bury or burn, right? In fact you still see these episodes happening in our daily lives; burning garbage in the streets, backyard burning. But now, there is greater awareness that there is another way. Not many people… a lot of people still have to practice it but they know that burning is bad. They know the right set of response, which include segregation and composting. I talked to local government officials, and the fact that it’s already an embedded policy, they know that that is the first thing that they have to do. To me that is very gratifying, that we are and I have witnessing a mind shift. Global warming and even the greater threat of ecosystems collapse, the more urgent our mind shift becomes… the awards are just awards. At the end of the day they’re just recognitions for the good effort but what is truly awarding is being part of the shifting paradigm and being able to catalyze that somehow.

Jay-R Patron: Considering what you’ve just said, would you consider that as your greatest accomplishment? If not, what is your greatest life accomplishment so far?

Von Hernandez: So far? I haven’t really… because to me the work continues. But anyway, I would consider my greatest life accomplishment is seeing this paradigm shift actually taking place. In fact, one of the things that I’m really aiming for at the moment is I want to see in my lifetime governments really taking action and moving away from dirty fossil fuels towards the next… solar generation, shifting us from dirty fuel to a renewable, clean energy. I want to see the current leadership transform the interest of the future and this is what’s driving me now. And when I talk about climate impact, environmental impact, I often think about my children, that in fact, we are no longer talking about their children, but it is this generation of young children and young adults alike who will now suffer from the brunt of climate change if we don’t do anything. So that drives me. I want to see, while we have a narrow window of action, I want to see that change actually take place. I’ve seen that change happen. In my work in other, on waste for example, in incineration, I’ve seen that change happen and it’s still happening. If you look at communities around the country, we have 40 thousand barangays. Maybe if you do a survey, how many of these barangays are actually doing ecological waste management? Maybe less than 10 percent. I did that survey five years ago, it was about five percent. I know that level of compliance is increasing. More and more dumpsites are being shut down and more and more communities are demonstrating the priority of this approach beginning with cross-segregation; material recovery rather than material destruction. So there is a change of mindset in terms of thinking about how we should approach and use our resources. While the problem still persists, we still see garbage in the streets, we know the days of dirty practice are dwindling, and that we are moving towards a cleaner… it will take time but I have no doubt that we are moving towards the right direction.

Jay-r Patron: It seems that what you do is not just for the environment but also for the community. Why do you think it is important for Filipinos to give back to their community and do their part in the conservation and preservation of environmental resources?

Von Hernandez: Come to think of it, the environment is really the base of all kinds of human activities. Without a clean environment, we actually don’t have base for economic development. At the end of the day, you may have good economic growth rate but you cannot make money. If all the water is dirty, all the air is polluted, life would not be possible. So, the environment is also the context within which all other human activities take place. Our relationships, work, employment, industry, all these happen in the context of… so it is important that that connection is established and that connection is actually acknowledged. We are constantly fighting for giving preferential treatment for environmental issues. It’s one of those things; we campaign on specific issues but at the same time we are pushing for (24:13) to be recognized, the role of environmental and human economic development. What was the question again?

Jay-R Patron: Why is it important for Filipinos, our countrymen, to give back to the community, pay it forward, for the community and for the environment?

Von Hernandez: For the community, we have to look out for each other. We have to look out for the interest not only of yourself, your family, you have to… when you talk about resources, these are shared resources we are talking about; water, river, the fish, food coming from the forest, these are shared resources. I don’t think it’s right that some people benefit from the exploitation of those resources at the expense of others. Companies and even individuals pollute the river, in a way they are violating the rights of others. That cannot continue. Everyone has a right to a clean environment. Every one has a right to live in a safe and healthy environment. On the other hand, there is nothing in our laws that give companies and abusive industries the right to take away our resources. So we start with this concept of human rights and concept of environmental (25:58) to define the basic rights. So protecting the global commons should be a community undertaking, protecting the commons. Everyone benefits from the commons, therefore, everyone has to work together to find solutions to problems that degrade the commons.

Jay-R Patron: If there was one message out of what is discussed this morning that you would like to tell our listeners or our readers, what would that message be?

Von Hernandez: I think the message can be summed up with one word, which is hope. We see that the signs are really bleak, if we look at the global reports, the narrative coming from the scientific process on climate change, that narrative is telling us that we have practically a hundred months to act, take drastic measures to reverse this climate change, 100 months. People can just easily say, “Let’s give up. What’s the point? We’ll all die.” The other day, I was visiting this dumpsite, Smokey Mountain dumpsite, and the problem is still persisting. That gets to me. You’re campaigning and you still see, by and large the problem still remains. Easily one can give up. At the same time, I see communities taking initiative and I see for example, local governments moving to clean energy. We were in Legazpi just the other week, and the governor issued a statement saying that the province will not support coal. I see in this initiative, even at that local level, I see that that is where hope lies. That is where change will happen. People are slowly taking the initiative to make our democratic institutions work for a greener future. This is the important message, our forecast is bleak but after the heavy rain, out comes the sunshine. If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, the environmental destruction, abuse, you want to just give up and lose all kinds of hope. One drives my anger, the other inspires me.

Jay-R Patron: What can we expect from you and Greenpeace Southeast Asia in the coming days, weeks, months, years?

Von Hernandez: The most urgent in our view, that’s why we have the Rainbow Warrior here in the Philippines, we are pushing for the passage of the Renewable Energy law, to catalyze this shift away from dirty fossil fuel and towards clean energy. That law has been stalled in congress, it’s been pending, it’s been languishing in the House of congress for many years now and we hope our campaign push and momentum generated by this visit will help push that education finally. We are confident that we can get that passed and we’d also like to stop all this new proposals of dirty coal power stations. I think there are nine being lined up. That flies in the face of government rhetoric on climate change. One the one hand, we are one of the most battered nations in terms of extreme weather. The Albay, Bicol region is in fact the hottest hot spots in the world when it comes to climate impact. So exposing that hypocrisy on the part of the government, at the same time, saying yes to solutions promoting… providing them with the critical map and way forward to make that shift. That is what we are looking at in the immediate term. On the longer term, we are looking at how we will be able to move away from this fixation on development. When I talk about development, it’s not like we are anti-progress, but the kind of development path that is taken by Asian countries including the Philippines, unfortunately it is a dirty development path that will lead us to ecological ruin. We are sacrificing our security. So we want to move away from this dirty development model. In the case of the Philippines, leap frogging over dirty technologies, leap frogging over the mistakes of the West. We cannot follow that development path. If we follow the development path of Europe or America, I don’t think the planet will be able to sustain that.

Jay-R Patron: Just like India and China.

Von Hernandez: Just like India and China, that’s impossible. We probably need six more planets just to be able to sustain this massive need for resources. So we need to be able to leap frog over those mistakes and immediately make the shift. I think in the long term, it is going to be much better for our society. If government’s today invest in dirty fossil fuel, that traps us in to maybe another 25 years of dirty energy, that cycle, dirty energy and climate change. It’s hard to get away from that. But if we make the shift now, then we anticipate that that is the right direction for the future. I’m very excited about how we actually push our government, our decision-makers in making that change. I don’t think our nation can afford another, maybe a decade of vacillating short-sighted leadership. That’s why it is important that we continually apply the pressure. Even communities can send that message to decision-makers. The thing is many of the events happening in this country. Many of the decisions being made for our sake are decisions being made in closed doors and the community and the people are always the last to know. We must resist it and make sure that we also participate in shaping the narrative of our society.

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