A little girl stands with her feet in the water on the beach of an island in the Philippines. Her toes are wrinkling after having spent too much time in the water. The waves crash against her shins and then pull against her as they recede again. She notices a form in the water and bends over to pick it up: a starfish, prickly and glistening in her hands. Fascinated, and not knowing better, she takes a few home but they quickly begin to dry out and smell. Even at a young age, she realizes that these starfish are beings meant for the ocean and she returns them all to the sea, watching them reanimate as they sink below the surf. Years later, she feels that perhaps she too is a creature of the ocean and the call to return to the blue is too strong to ignore. Now a trained marine biologist and passionate conservationist, Camille Rivera is the Co-Founder of Oceanus, an organization aiming to conserve and restore coastal habitats in the Philippines, with a special focus on “blue carbon.”
It’s impossible to not be impressed by Camille. She is much younger than you might expect for someone who has started her own NGO, been awarded scholarships to study internationally, affected real change in her community, and been recognized by the Global Landscape Forum with the prestigious Restoration Stewards grant. It seems that many different things inspire and drive Camille. In one way, she’s been inspired by her parents. Her dad, a horticulturist who’s passionate about preserving nature, and her mother, a social scientist, are dedicated to engaging with people and communities. “It’s really an open communication with my family. We grew up with my parents talking about their work, it’s a huge influence and we’re such a huge family with strong family ties.”
The influences of both her parents’ work are visible in Camille’s and Oceanus’ work. Their projects not only plant mangroves, monitor coral reefs, and restore coastal wetlands but also educate and involve local groups to empower them and increase their resiliency in the face of a changing climate. This is something we can relate to at Restor where we’ve created a platform that mixes scientific knowledge with the power of human connection and storytelling. We realize that one can’t exist without the other and projects like Camille’s are the missing link between these two types of knowledge.
Another motivation for Camille was her desire to help the Philippines and its people, especially as a citizen of a country where many young people feel the pressure to move and work abroad. In some ways, it would have been easy for Camille to stay in Europe after studying at Ghent University and the Alfred Wagner Institute, “But I feel there’s so much more to offer in terms of impact here in the Philippines.” As an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines' past, present, and future are all closely linked to the health and the wellbeing of Earth’s marine systems, and yet Camille says she’s one of the few young people that she knows that has gone on to study marine biology. She recalls her friends expressing not only uncertainty about career opportunities but also a fear of the ocean and what they might encounter there. “If you like it there’s always a way,” responds Camille “As long as people are open to it, they can do it”.
However, above all, Camille seems to love her work because it's fun. There’s a joy and a curiosity that are evident when she talks about the ocean, the communities, and scuba diving. Camille smiles wide, “We have a joke when you’re a marine biologist. When you don’t dive you make this joke ‘my gills are getting dry’...it's my playground,” she laughs.
Despite the obstacles that Camille has encountered from finding a job to finding grants to start her own NGO, she has never faltered in her desire to work with the ocean and the Filipino communities that depend on it. “It’s feeding my brain all the time. That drives me a lot. I’m always hungry for knowledge, I’m always curious about what’s underneath. You can’t just know it from the surface, you have to know it underneath as well.” For Camille it’s that moment of wonder, picking up a starfish and diving beneath the waves that make sure she will always love what she does. It’s a part of nature that scientists often forget to talk about, the pleasure that mother earth is able to give. It’s something that we can’t lose sight of. Among all the reasons to protect our ecosystems we can’t forget how important nature is for our happiness and wellbeing.
Camille’s joy is contagious, and you can see it in the communities that she visits and the people that she works with. Even her Instagram is populated with images of her smiling in scuba gear and marvelous creatures that she sees in the ocean. This love for nature makes her unafraid. Restor can also be used to spread joy, we really have tried to build a platform of hope, something that is fun to use. With Restor you can connect with people, explore the world, and see how the land has changed, all from your computer. It's an enjoyable adventure that Camille, Restor, and the entire community are on together. When I ask Camille about how Restor made her feel, her answer is unequivocal: “I was looking at Restor and thinking ‘Oh my god! It’s exactly what I wanted!’”
Unfortunately, as fun as it may be there are still real hurdles that restoration practitioners face in their work. Camille says her biggest challenge is that not enough people have heard about her work. By putting her restoration sites on Restor she overcomes this difficulty. “As long as you have that network, it’s easy,” she tells me “It’s that connection and networking and sharing of knowledge where Restor can help out.” We know how powerful it can be to see land from above, and realize how closely connected we all are to each other. “It’s quite empowering,” says Camille. “It feels like what we do is making a difference and you can see all the people that are working in the landscape, it’s like we’re not alone”.
Camille’s optimism seeps through even this conversation about difficulties. She has hope for the future and is inspired by how much the global restoration movement is growing. With every new initiative, commitment, organization, project, prize, and platform, we get closer to making the planet a better place. Until then, we are comforted to know that there are people like Camille pulling joy out of every moment of Restoration, whether on land or deep below the sea.