Elle Guison

Published: March 18, 2024

Climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan nurtured a deep passion for protecting the environment from a young age. This passion fueled her to advocate for a world that prioritizes people and the planet. 

In 2019, Tan became the convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), the Fridays For Future (FFF) of the Philippines. 

Tan has since led demonstrations that raise awareness about climate change and call for ambitious action to address the crisis both in local and international spaces, such as the United Nations climate conferences. 

She is also an organizer with FFF MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), ensuring that climate voices from the world’s developing countries are heard, amplified and given space. 

In this interview with Climate Tracker Asia, Tan talked about her experience as a young woman activist. 

What specific challenges or barriers in the fight against climate change did you experience as a young activist?

MITZI: Despite the Philippines being one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, climate awareness is still something that is building in the country. 

This is because the way climate change is taught in schoolif you are privileged enough to have an educationis very technical, westernized, foreign, not contextualized to our experience as Filipinos, and not empowering. It doesn’t expose how multinational companies, the richest 1%, and fossil fuel companies are the ones who have caused the climate crisis. It doesn’t teach us that there is something we can do about ittogether, collectively through system change. 

Add to that, the Philippines is also one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders and activists because of the militarization of Indigenous lands, and a history of the military abducting environmental activists to protect the interests of foreign companies and their profit. 

Adding those two together means that it’s difficult to organize around climate justice because not a lot of people understand it and to be an activist can be taboo and scary. 

However, we’re able to get over this by linking up with different social justice movements and continuously doing different projects and campaigns to raise awareness about the climate crisis in a contextualized and empowered way. As well as being creative and incorporating the use of music, art, and culture into our actions and organizing to ensure that activism is accessible to all.

 

How do you feel about the international recognition you’re receiving for your climate activism?

MITZI: It’s not something I focus on and it’s something I genuinely forget and when I do remember it, it feels weird to me. I’m grateful for the chance to connect with so many people, help amplify campaigns and struggles, to know that the work we’ve done is moving and empowering so many othersbut at the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about individual recognition. 

We need to reject celebrity culture and hero culture to ensure that becoming an activist is accessible to everyone and also to remind everyone that change will only happen through collective action. 

With all this, I also know that the recognition I’ve received comes with a privilege that needs to be kept in check and be held accountable as well. Everything I’ve ever done has always been with and alongside different communities and collectives. My joy stems from knowing that our collective efforts are making waves and bringing even more into the movement.

What insights have you drawn from Greta Thunberg’s global climate activism that you would like to emulate?

MITZI: Greta is a great activist and friend, and I care about her deeplyand just like with all other anti-imperialist climate justice activists I’ve met, we all inspire each other to keep fighting for justice and fighting against the multi-crises that we’re experiencing today and we all emphasize collective action and actively go against centering individuals, especially from the Global North. 

That said, a lot of my inspiration and actions that I would like to emulate, don’t come from Greta, but come from environmental defenders in the Philippines, like the fierce Indigenous leader Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, or the many soft, gentle, and nurturing while at the same time fierce and protective climate justice activist women from the Global South.

How do you address generational divides about youth involvement in climate activism in an international context?

MITZI: There is no generational divide in international contexts when talking about youth involvement in climate activism. I reject the idea that the climate crisis was caused by the older generation. 

This isn’t true, because the Indigenous leaders, the small farmers, the small fisherfolk, the working class, and the marginalized who all comprise the majority of the older generation didn’t cause the climate crisisit’s a very specific sector of the older generation: the richest of the world who have benefited from abusing and exploiting marginalized people and from taking wantonly from the environment and treating it as a mere resource to use. 

In the international and the national context, we have many justice-oriented elders and movements that have existed for decades that guide us and work alongside us to empower the voice of youth but also to bring about a better, safer, and more climate-just world for all.

Now that you’re receiving international recognition, what plans do you have in your journey in climate justice?

MITZI: I plan to continue the work I’m doing nowamplifying the voices of those most affected by the climate crisis, centering the experiences and solutions of frontline communities, building and supporting grassroots movements, empowering young people, especially Filipinos, to take action and get organized, connective even more with different social justice movements, and nurturing spaces of joy and love within the climate movement.

As a woman, what do you do when people invalidate your activism and call you out for the way you dress?

MITZI: Women activists and environmental defenders face a multitude of challenges, such as harassment by the military, threats to our families, belittling of what we’re saying, being reduced to objects for the pleasure of men, etc. I’ve personally experienced many rape threats and comments online and in messages from government trolls or even some police accounts. 

Another concrete example is how Lt. General Parlade said in the Manila Times that” young girls in short-shorts, [entice] youth, particularly young men, to take up such innocent-sounding issues as protection of the environment” to join the rebel army. Young women are not only called out for the way we dress but are objectified and sexualized, and our calls for environmental justice are reduced to bait for what the government views as terrorism. 

As a woman climate activist, I draw my strength from the multitude of historical women revolutionaries that the Philippines has that went against and brought down colonizers and dictators, as well as strong women leaders and climate justice activists in the Philippines and across the world. I stand strong with my community but also allow myself to be soft and gentle within my community where I can rest and take refuge.

Read more stories of other remarkable Filipina women in climate action here.