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How Connecting Over Environmental Action Can Improve Mental Wellbeing and Biodiversity

Caring for the Earth and protecting her species provides an abundance of benefits to our mental well-being. This World Mental Health Day, we look at how building a community around environmental protection has supported Filipino youth in realizing their dreams of a better future for the planet.

By Althea Serad, Haribon Foundation Media and Communications Officer

Rufous-headed Hornbills show us how important kinship is to all living beings. When this species is living in good forest conditions, they move in flocks. Locally known as the Dulungan in Hiligaynon, which is the local language of the people of Panay, Negros, and other islands in the central Philippines, the local term for the species means “together”, with Dungan (short for Dulungan) meaning “doing something together.”

Like these birds, today’s youth also understand the value of having a community. This desire to connect with others over environmental issues is among the reasons why Javie Barcinal created the organization ‘Dulungan Youth’. The 22-year-old shared the story of how being in a supportive environment with like-minded people helped sustain his mental well-being, and how he planned to pay this forward to fellow youth in his province.

The value in finding your tribe

Javie considers himself very fortunate to be living in the province of Antique, located in Panay Island, one of the most abundant ecological frontiers in the Philippines and among the most significant habitats of the Rufous-headed Hornbill. However, working in community-led conservation, Javie has also been exposed to many stories about the negative impacts of the ecological crisis on his generation. He also understood first hand how this is taking a toll on his generation’s mental health, causing fear and despair for the future.

“Privileged enough to study outside the Philippines, I saw how a lot of environmental issues are rooted from the global North, but we are the ones experiencing the impacts here in the global South. Just last week, the typhoons here in Antique kept occurring one after the other. It affects not only the livelihood of the people, but also the mental health of young people. It really adds to the trauma of how young people are growing up. That’s something that I worry about a lot, that young people become less and less hopeful of their future,” he says.

The growing unpredictability of the climate has irreversibly affected world economies and has robbed the younger generation of hope for their future. But for youth like Javie, perhaps there is no choice but to stubbornly pursue a better future for his generation. The creation of Dulungan Youth has sustained him holistically and allowed him to pursue influential work that furthers wildlife conservation in the Philippines.

In 2018, Javie began conservation work as a volunteer for Haribon Foundation’s (BirdLife in the Philippines) Eco Guardians and Eco Rangers initiative under the Species of Hope (SOH) – Dulungan project. This project and the organization’s strategies showed him the integral role of communities in conservation, especially in Antique. In July 2019, as the SOH project’s activities were ending, Javie was inspired to create Dulungan Youth. He saw this as an opportunity for young people to become more environmentally conscious and sustain the work that Haribon began. It’s been almost four years since Javie founded the organization, and what started as a passion project has evolved into several initiatives with communities using holistic and inclusive approaches.

The gift of giving

Giving back to the community has given the Dulungan Youth a shared purpose. Since the provincial government of Antique declared the first Dulungan Month in August 2020, the Dulungan Youth have been involved in the annual celebration’s programs and activities, actively engaging youth from different municipalities in the Southern and Northern areas of Antique and its neighbouring provinces in the Panay Island.

This community engagement has paid off. During that first Dulungan Month in 2020, a young person posted a captive Rufous-headed Hornbill on Facebook. A commenter then reported this incident to the Dulungan Youth and Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This simple act that stemmed from Dulungan Youth’s community programs, has a great impact on a rare species like the Rufous-headed Hornbill. “That’s what we really want in terms of impact. If young people are more connected to their ecology, they’ll have that lifelong commitment growing up as adults with a connection and mindset about the importance of their ecosystem not only as a resource or commodity, but that they are also part of nature,” Javie proudly shares.

During this year’s Dulungan Month, their team went to upland communities engaging elementary students in the 5th to 8th grades. To date, the organization has mobilized more than 600 individuals including volunteers, community members, youth, and public and private partners in direct grassroots engagements.  Together, these groups have implemented 32 grassroots initiatives ranging from capacity development programs, to conservation storytelling exhibitions and even habitat conservation campaigns.

Inspired by the love for his culture and the Rufous-headed Hornbill, Javie’s Dulungan Youth has helped improve his emotional and mental well-being in positive ways. His dream is for the fears and struggles of young people to be at the heart of decision-making nationally and globally. He can already see the ripple effect that young people and local communities have made in addressing the global biodiversity crisis. He now strives to see that movement ripple out and inspire young people from other communities to have a stake in the future their own environments.

The volunteer-led organization is currently an active partner of Haribon Foundation, DENR, various Local Government Units, and the Provincial Government of Antique. They have also acquired seed funds from international and national partners including the Creators of Hope by the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific, Save Philippine Seas, the US Embassy in the Philippines, the US State Department, Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), and USAID SIBOL.

Panay Mountain Range in Antique Province
Panay Mountain Range in Antique Province. Photo provided by Haribon Foundation

“Somehow it [the Dulungan Youth] gave me that kind of purpose and optimistic outlook that young people like me urgently need to be more hopeful. Even though it’s hard, there is a need to be hopeful many times. It instilled a strength in me to see a better perspective of life that’s more pragmatic and radical towards being hopeful.”

Javie Barcinal
Javie Barcinal speaking at a Dulungan Youth meeting
Javie Barcinal leading a Dulungan Youth meeting. Photo provided by Haribon Foundation