“The biggest challenge is changing the mindset.” It’s a hot day in July on Siargao, and Marja Abad, founder of Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement, has work to do. Marja is a busy woman, and given the day, that could look like any number of things. Between running one of the most prominent environmental non-governmental organizations, managing Kudos Surf, the sustainable surf brand she helped found, and helping to keep things green as can be at Greenhouse (an eco-resort, surf shop, and café), she’s got a lot on her plate to say the least.



It’s often those with strong connections to the natural world who lead the movements to protect it, and in the case of Marja, this is especially true. Born in Manila, Marja’s passion for rock climbing, river rafting, and surfing has taken her around the world, but she’s returned to the Philippines to settle down, having fallen in love with the beauty and waves of Siargao. Moreover, she recognized that the island was at a tipping point, facing a surging wave of tourism, and in danger of becoming another Bali or Boracay (another island in the country that had been closed down to heal from tourist damage).



“As surfers, we travel a lot, and we are exposed to different types of mindsets, different cultures, different practices. Coming to Siargao and living here, I tried to apply what I learned from our lifestyle,” said Marja.



S.E.A. Movement is an environmental N.G.O. that works with the island’s indigenous communities, businesses, and government to help ensure that proper measures are being taken to preserve the island for the current and future generations. They focus on environmental awareness and protection projects and strive to be the country’s leader in sustainable tourism.



So far, admirable progress has been made, including a single-use plastic ban, solid waste segregation centers accessible to all, and collaborating with the W.S.L and Philippines Surfing Championship Tour to create plastic-free surf events.



Siargao is designated as a protected land and seascape by the Philippines Government, which sounds good in theory, but it heeds asking, what does that look like in practice? Individuals such as Marja are working on the answers to that question, although she’ll be the first to remind you that it isn’t always that simple.

“We are working on actions that bring change on a larger scale,” says Marja. Seeing that local beach cleanups were only going to shift so much, Marja instead began to address her local government, lobbying issues such as open dumpsites, the lack of solid waste management systems, and establishing environmental approval certificates in order for a business to open.



“Now, the only problem is truly implementing it,” explained Marja. “Of course, you always feel like there is more to be done, more programs, more support needed. We hold ourselves to these benchmarks, but you have to remember, it’s different here. It’s different when we’re dealing with existing systems in developing countries.”



When Marja speaks of shifting mindsets, this is what she means. Just because a law or policy gets approved, doesn’t equate to it being enforced. This is where S.E.A. Movement pushes for accountability and education within the local communities in Siargao.



“We need the community. Without them, we’re nothing,” says Marja. “The more effective actions that bring about big change, those come from the government, that’s the reality. But, we as citizens have to influence them—the more we voice the need to look after important things, the more they listen.”



The boom in tourism benefits many, but it stands as a threat to others: locals living further inland have suffered food shortages and rising food prices, as more and more leave behind traditional practices such harvesting copra and fishing, for more lucrative jobs catering to the influx of tourists. There have been days where the fish market sells out the day’s catch to the resorts, and locals are left eating canned sardines.



Marja will be the first to acknowledge that these large shifts such as banning single-use plastic and strict segregation of waste require alternatives for the locals who aren’t on the same economic footing as fancy new resorts or foreign-owned businesses popping up throughout the island, specifically in General Luna. The creation of livelihood projects and events that include local youth and families has been a key part of S.E.A. Movement’s efforts from the start.



S.E.A. Movement has a long-term vision of inclusive growth for the island. “That’s part of my dream, ten years from now, I hope that it’s still inclusive—that the locals will still be part of the development.” Marja recognizes that there has been a massive shift of opportunities from generation to generation on the island, and that this will only continue. She hopes to see organizations like S.E.A Movement embrace this as a chance for positive change, and guide the island and its people on a sustainable path of growth.



“S.E.A. Movement stands for the community, we’re not exclusive,” explained Marja, “It’s part of the ideology that we’re trying to make a shift for the whole island.”




To learn more about S.E.A. Movement, keep up to date on their progress, or contribute to their efforts, follow their journey on social media: