Deep in the con­crete jun­gle, Davao’s rain­forests, or Africa’s vast sa­van­nahs, Feli­cia Atienza treads a con­scious path to con­ser­va­tion


Feli­cia Atienza’s nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion to­wards en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism

It is a typ­i­cal chaotic day in Manila: cars rush­ing and weav­ing through the roads, pedi­cab driv­ers’ coun­ter­flow adding in­sult to traf­fic prob­lems, a layer of smog en­velop­ing the heart of the cap­i­tal.

Driv­ing through the suf­fo­cat­ing, con­crete streets of Manila, we find a quiet oa­sis in the heart of Malate. An unas­sum­ing but gen­er­ous cut of prop­erty filled with lush flora and di­verse fauna, sand­wiched be­tween tow­er­ing con­do­mini­ums, post-war of­fice build­ings, and a Taoist tem­ple.

As we en­ter the res­i­dence, we are in­stantly greeted by at least two snakes in­side aquar­i­ums. Near the front door is a huge cage with a ma­ture al­bino snake that takes four peo­ple to carry. “Are we still in Manila?” I won­der, when in fact, we have just turned into one of the side streets from Taft Av­enue. In­side, a black Ger­man Shep­herd puppy wel­comes us. Trail­ing him is a bea­gle and a poofy Pomera­nian. Out on the lawn, an iguana freely roams. There are 47 dogs and nu­mer­ous rep­tiles, from snakes to tur­tles; I don’t bother to count.

This is the home of the Atien­zas. And this is their sanc­tu­ary. En­ter Feli­cia Atienza, all smiles af­ter drop­ping her three kids off at school. “I al­ways loved an­i­mals grow­ing up, too,” says Feli­cia. “I even owned a chicken be­fore,” she an­i­mat­edly adds.

Fur­ther­more, she made a name for her­self even be­fore meet­ing hus­band Kim Atienza. She is a for­mer fear­less fi­nance ex­traor­di­naire with a de­gree from Whar­ton un­der her belt, founder of the Chi­nese In­ter­na­tional School, board mem­ber of Rap­pler, and pres­i­dent of the Philip­pine Ea­gle Foun­da­tion.

In­ner cir­cle

With her var­i­ous af­fil­i­a­tions and the dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests of ev­ery fam­ily mem­ber at home, she says that keep­ing up with ev­ery­one can be a tad chal­leng­ing. Her day starts quite early—she wakes up at 4:30 in the morn­ing. “Kim and I have a long break­fast to­gether, right be­fore the kids wake up,” Feli­cia says. “It’s our bond­ing time.” She then gets ready for work and leaves with the kids at around 6:30 a.m. for school, where she also works.

The Chi­nese In­ter­na­tional School Manila lo­cated in McKin­ley Hill, Taguig, is the first of its kind in Metro Manila and also her very own brain­child. “When Jose (her first­born) turned two, I thought to my­self that I want to send him to an in­ter­na­tional school, but an in­ter­na­tional school that taught him Man­darin from the nurs­ery level,” says Feli­cia. “I was sur­prised that no such school ex­isted in the Philip­pines.”

So Feli­cia took it into her own hands and started re­search­ing and plan­ning dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems. Af­ter vis­it­ing many schools all over the world, in­clud­ing Man­darin im­mer­sion schools, she fi­nally opened the doors of her school in Au­gust 2007.

De­spite ev­ery­one’s busy sched­ules, the fam­ily con­tin­ues to find com­mon time to­gether. On week­days, din­ners at home are a must. Even if traf­fic makes get­ting from Taguig to Manila dif­fi­cult, she uses the time in tran­sit to get un­fin­ished work done and still ar­rive home in time for din­ner. They share up­dates about what went on dur­ing their days and have dis­cus­sions about pol­i­tics and so­cial is­sues. “Din­ners are usu­ally long and drawn out,” Feli­cia says.

But one unique bond­ing event for Feli­cia and her chil­dren is her promised once-ina-life­time solo trip with each one of them upon en­ter­ing their teenage years. The first of the three cubs, Jose, chose an ex­pe­di­tion to the Arctic. The sec­ond, Eliana, went to a sa­fari camp in Botswana. The youngest, Em­manuelle, opted to go deep in the jun­gles of the Ama­zon, which they’ll be go­ing to as mother-daugh­ter this com­ing sum­mer.

Call of the wild

To say that the Atien­zas are ac­tive and ad­ven­tur­ous is an un­der­state­ment. Be­ing an ex­plorer and a cu­ri­ous trav­eler is em­bed­ded in their genes. Feli­cia says that among the many ad­ven­tures they’ve had as a fam­ily, it’s her mem­o­ries of Africa that stand out.

“There’s some­thing about Africa,” she re­counts. “It was al­ready my third time last year and it still con­tin­ues to amaze me.” Prior to the trip with her daugh­ter to Tan­za­nia and Botswana last year, she had al­ready gone to Africa twice with Kim—first to Botswana and then to South Africa.

The vast ter­rain, free-roam­ing an­i­mals, and un­pre­dictable wilder­ness make Africa mag­i­cal to her. “When you’re in Africa, you

“Peo­ple will only be mo­bi­lized into ac­tion if there is an emo­tional at­tach­ment. There has to be a heart­break.”

would re­al­ize that noth­ing else mat­ters. It’s re­ally sur­vival.” But the one thing that caught Feli­cia’s at­ten­tion is how Botswana was able to meld to­gether the con­cept of con­ser­va­tion en­ter­prise. She con­tin­ues to share that, apart from gold, the coun­try’s big­gest rev­enue gen­er­a­tor, tourism is be­com­ing a sus­tain­able eco­nomic workhorse for Botswana.

“What they do is they carve out their en­tire coun­try into re­serves,” Feli­cia ex­plains. This gives camp op­er­a­tors op­por­tu­ni­ties to bid for that con­ces­sion, where the prof­its will then be shared with the gov­ern­ment and the in­dige­nous peo­ple. “If you talk to the peo­ple in Botswana, they re­ally know their cul­ture and their an­i­mals,” she adds. The in­dige­nous peo­ple are then re­lo­cated to a spe­cific area and these camps hire and train them to be­come camp­ing guides. The sa­fari camps also ad­here to very strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal pa­ram­e­ters. To make this work, Feli­cia em­pha­sizes, “When you are try­ing to con­serve a species or the habi­tat, it also in­volves buy-in from the cul­ture around you. At the same time, you also have to en­sure that your ef­forts are sus­tain­able.”

At home, as the pres­i­dent of the Philip­pine Ea­gle Foun­da­tion, Feli­cia is try­ing to find

ways to raise aware­ness about the plight of our na­tional bird. With only around 400 Philip­pine ea­gles left, 90 per­cent of them in Min­danao, it is al­ready con­sid­ered a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species.

With her ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent con­ser­va­tion ef­forts around the globe, Feli­cia at­tempts to roll out the en­ter­prise as­pect of con­ser­va­tion in the foun­da­tion. “One of our big ini­tia­tives this year is that we are get­ting women in­volved where the nests are lo­cated,” she ex­plains. In 2013, they col­lab­o­rated with Hong Kong-based group called Con­ser­va­tion Sew Mates, wherein they started teach­ing women from lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties—the first one be­ing the Manuvu Ti­nonanon part­ners from Tu­mand­ing—how to sew plush toys of en­dan­gered species to sup­port con­ser­va­tion aware­ness. In 2017, they ex­panded the project with in­dige­nous com­mu­nity part­ners.

With farm­ing be­ing their fam­i­lies’ only source of in­come, some res­i­dents near nest­ing sites opt to hunt for the en­dan­gered ea­gle for food or money. As they live deep in the jun­gle, very few op­tions are avail­able to lo­cals—hus­bands are farm­ers, and the wives are full-time housewives. The sim­ple project of sew­ing plush toys has given its part­ner com­mu­nity mem­bers a sense of em­pow­er­ment, with all pro­ceeds go­ing back to the women, and an en­livened sense of aware­ness on the dif­fer­ent en­dan­gered species sur­viv­ing in their lo­cal­ity. The col­lab­o­ra­tion project is al­ready in three com­mu­ni­ties, and Feli­cia is look­ing at cas­cad­ing the pro­gram to three more.

Lit­tle things, big im­pact

“It’s very hard for the youth to feel emo­tional at­tach­ment to the ea­gle be­cause they’ve never seen one,” Feli­cia says. “Ed­u­ca­tion is re­ally an im­por­tant com­po­nent for peo­ple to care more about the en­vi­ron­ment. Peo­ple will only be mo­bi­lized into ac­tion if there is an emo­tional at­tach­ment. There has to be a heart­break. To the point that you feel so moved and heart­bro­ken that you have to act on it.”

The call for eco­log­i­cal preser­va­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion, and cli­mate change adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion has been mak­ing head­lines in the past decade. The loom­ing threat of an eco­log­i­cal col­lapse detri­men­tal to hu­man ex­is­tence has been at the fore­front of global is­sues. But what can a reg­u­lar hu­man be­ing do to help stop this cri­sis? “I al­ways be­lieve that lit­tle steps can make a dif­fer­ence cu­mu­la­tively,” she an­swers.

At the Chi­nese In­ter­na­tional School Manila, en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence is in­te­grated in the cur­ricu­lum. Grade six stu­dents and up are taught about global is­sues, where en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy is part of the lec­tures. Sur­pris­ingly, it’s the low­er­level stu­dents who par­tic­i­pate more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in the school’s eco-friendly drives, such as re­cy­cling or Te­tra-Pak col­lec­tion drives. “When they reach grade six and older, they tend to be more jaded,” Feli­cia says. But it doesn’t stop her from pro­mot­ing her love for the en­vi­ron­ment. “We still try to in­flu­ence and en­cour­age others and see how we can work col­lec­tively, that it’s not sup­posed to be a lone ef­fort. A lone ef­fort is great, but col­lec­tively, we can make a big­ger im­pact.”

So long as the in­ter­est to save Mother Earth is grow­ing, no ac­tion is too lit­tle, and no ac­tion will be left un­no­ticed. Ev­ery­one can be an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, ac­cord­ing to Feli­cia. “You’re an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist if you be­lieve in and work to­wards and ad­here to safe­guard the en­vi­ron­ment for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. You do your part,” she says.

“No one is ask­ing you to live out in the for­est with no elec­tric­ity. Just min­i­mize your im­pact.”

Cover photo by Koji Ar­boleda

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