Ivy Marie A. Mangadlao

Published: March 25, 2024

Climate change became personal for environmental lawyer Cecila Therese “Niner” Guiao when Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) struck her home province of Rizal. This experience ignited her passion to make a difference in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.

As the operations director of Parabukas, a women-led consultancy focused on climate change, environmental law, and sustainable development, Guiao is deeply committed to enhancing understanding and inclusivity in decision-making processes for these critical issues. 

Beyond Parabukas, Guiao shares her expertise as a law professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) and the University of Makati.  She also serves as a senior legal associate at the Institute of International Legal Studies of the UP Law Center, where she leads the International Environmental Law Research Program.

In this interview with Climate Tracker Asia, Guiao discussed how experiencing a typhoon opened her eyes to the harsh realities of the climate crisis. She also reflected on her encounters with gender-based challenges in the field of climate change and environmental law.

Can you share a bit about your journey into climate change and environmental law and policy? What inspired you to specialize in this field?

NINER: I initially learned about “global warming” mostly through science classes, TV shows, and—every so often—the news, but I was re-introduced to it more in-depth when I was in law school, just before my fourth year. I was burnt out and thinking of quitting, but couldn’t quite make that step. A mentor helped me find an internship abroad at a think tank for developing countries, where I was assigned to work on international climate change law and policy. I have to admit, it was interesting, but it didn’t quite lead me to that aha moment where you suddenly know what to do next. Climate change was a problem, yes, but it wasn’t quite real to me yet.

About a week after I returned home though, Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana) hit the Philippines. I live in Rizal, which was among the areas hit the hardest. It was terrible—we had friends who lost so much, went through so much, and even lost their lives. It hit me then; this is climate change. It’s real, with impacts on real people, real lives.

I went back to law school the next semester. As soon as I got back I saw a call for applications for a research assistant at the University of the Philippines Law Center for a climate change project, and I went for it. I’ve been working in the field ever since. (I’m told it’s a curse—once you get started, you can never get out. Just kidding!)

Reflecting on your career, could you share a particularly significant achievement related to climate change and environmental law and policy where your efforts made a tangible impact?

NINER: It’s actually really hard to answer this question. When you work in law and policy, achievement is relative. It’s difficult to see the impacts of your work—it may take some time for your research to make a mark on policy—and decision-makers, for example. Or policies influenced could take a while to reach the ground, and even then it could be difficult to see or pinpoint which part could be traced back to what you’ve done. 

I think, if you’re in this line of work, you have to be ready to play the long game, and that includes the possibility of not seeing your work come to fruition immediately—or even, as I was told by people who have done this work long before I have, not in your lifetime. It’s a sobering thought.

Have you personally encountered any gender-specific challenges or biases in your climate change and environmental law and policy work? How did you address or overcome these challenges?

NINER: Oh yes. I think gender-specific challenges and biases exist everywhere; the climate change and environment sector is in no way exempt. An additional challenge we encounter with the work we do is the perceived capacity gap between people from developed and developing countries, and the preference for the former when it comes to grants or contracts. 

When we first started Parabukas, we encountered so much of that—the difficulty of getting projects or taken seriously because we’re from a developing country, and women to boot. This is a perspective shared by funders and/or prospective clients not just from developed countries, but developing countries as well, perhaps unconsciously. 

We still do encounter it these days, but it helps that we’re no longer such as new firm; we have more of a track record now that we can fall back on. There has also been an increase in awareness in the sector of this very problem, and more attempts to remedy it.

It can get really tough, and you just have to grit your teeth and hang on, keep working because you believe in what you do, and most of all, you believe in yourself. Sometimes with all the rejections, with all the complications, it comes to a point where you question yourself. It’s inevitable, I think. But you weather through it with a combination of openness, stubbornness, and faith. Remember that you are not alone, even though sometimes it will feel like you are. A good support system is invaluable; it’s important to have one.

Have you had mentors or role models who have influenced your career, and how important do you think mentorship is for women pursuing careers in environmental law and climate change policy-making?

NINER: Oh, definitely! There are a number of people I regard as my mentors. Having mentors is critical to learning the ins and outs of the sector you are working in; you learn through their lives and experiences, and you benefit from the knowledge they’ve gained along the way. But more importantly perhaps, they help you gain perspective. 

I’m blessed to still have most of my mentors guiding me now—Dr. Tony La Viña, Justice Marvic Leonen, Vicente Yu, Lando Velasco, Yeb Saño, Jasper Inventor, to name a few. Bernarditas Müller unfortunately passed a few years back. 

I came into the field at a time when there seemed to be more men than women in the sector, but now things seem to be changing. There are more and more women working in the environment and climate change sector—I think now we outnumber the men? I’m not sure. But I sincerely hope I am able to be of help to others in the field as well.

What advice would you give to aspiring women lawyers interested in pursuing a career in climate change and environmental law and policy?

NINER: I would say go for it! Doing this work is so very necessary. But I think go into it knowing that it can be tough—environment and climate change issues strike at the heart of you. There is so much of you that you will put into what you do, so remember to also actively and consciously take care of yourself. Burnout is real—it’s not just the work, it’s also what you are fighting for. 

The thing about advocacy work is that what you are advocating for is close to your heart, so the hits are harder—but it also means the wins are sweeter, more fulfilling. A good support system is also critical as you navigate through your career.

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