Smithsonian Institution Fellow joins Wovoka as Director of Biodiversity and Community Development

May 1, 2024

Wovoka is proud to introduce Giniel Mae “Ginny” Tiongson as its Director for Biodiversity and Community Development. Tiongson holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science from the Ateneo De Manila University and a Master’s Degree in Marine Science from the University of the Philippines Diliman. For a year, she led the community engagement and regulatory compliance efforts of Wovoka’s projects as a Carbon Development Associate. 

Through this interview, Tiongson shared how her diverse background and interests in community development, forestry, and marine science came together in her work at Wovoka.

Learn about her exciting career journey through the interview story below! 

Environmental scientist Ginny Tiongson is Wovoka’s Director of Biodiversity and Community Development.

About Ginny Tiongson

Since childhood, Tiongson has always had an affinity for nature. She was born and raised on the coasts of the mountainous region of Mindoro surrounded by forests and the sea. Therefore, her choice to pursue an environmental career is no surprise. But for Tiongson, the wake-up call came during her undergraduate years when she became aware of the modern challenges presented by climate change.

“I remember feeling helpless after listening to a climate change talk that I joined in 2015, which kind of cemented my life’s mission to work in the field of environment. Then, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with our department head who later became my mentor.”

As early as her undergraduate years, Tiongson had exposure to fieldwork, visiting mangrove forests in Palawan for a sea level rise mitigation project and doing a study on benthic ecosystems as impacted by the coastal development in Puerto Galera, Mindoro. 

She was also one of Georgetown University Impacts Program fellows in El Nido, Palawan. The fellowship program provided her a lot of immersive experiences in sustainable tourism and business models, as well as community and stakeholder engagement. 

One of the highlights of the fellowship was organizing the Sustainable Tourism Summit that aimed to foster a collaboration among the local government and well-represented stakeholders of the tourism sector in El Nido and create an avenue to tackle and address the tourism and environment issues at the grassroots level.

The event's output was a set of agreeable action points that would steer El Nido toward sustainable development. Eventually, it was these kinds of on-the-ground experience that empowered her to become a part of the solution to the crisis threatening the planet. 

“Learning from my mentors in the field and hearing the stories of the community immensely helped me cope and opened my eyes to the ways that I can turn an otherwise paralyzing situation into an opportunity to contribute to mitigating this climate crisis that we have now,” Tiongson shared.

Ginny Tiongson surveying the coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea as part of her work at the Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines Diliman.

Importance of a multi-faceted approach in her work

For three years, Tiongson held various roles related to biodiversity and community engagement as an environmental scientist. She experienced on-the-ground planning, surveying, and mapping of restoration work under the National Greening Program by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, as well as biodiversity assessment of wildlife in some of the protected areas in Mindoro.

Eventually, she found herself in the field of marine biology, where she studied marine invertebrates ecology, and was also involved in coral, and harmful algal bloom research. 

Her diverse interests and training in conservation, restoration, and resource management helped her develop a transdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. Environmental issues are never just an environmental problem, but rather multifaceted. 

“I believe in a transdisciplinary and collaborative approach to biodiversity conservation, ecological restoration, and climate change mitigation. Therefore, I work with people from different disciplines to come up with comprehensive solutions and informed decisions regarding matters of the environment.”

Tiongson’s Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution

In January 2024, Tiongson joined the Smithsonian Institution Marine Station at Ft. Pierce in Florida, one of the most prestigious research institutes in the world. As a Research Fellow, she studies coral diseases that affect reef health across the Caribbean region through a chemical ecology perspective. 

“Our findings can provide key insights into the impact of coral diseases and other stressors on our reefs. Understanding the complex interactions at the molecular  level that affect coral reefs may inform future reef management and conservation efforts. These ecological and scientific concepts may also be applied in other marine and terrestrial ecosystems.”

One of the many things that Tiongson is learning from her fellowship stint is how the culture of collaboration works in biodiversity management which she hopes to replicate once she returns to the Philippines.

She now recognizes that while it can be challenging to communicate scientific concepts to non-technical audiences and to translate scientific findings into policies that engage communities, it is certainly achievable. “I am learning a lot about how Florida conserves its natural resources. I love the confluence among the government, research institutions, and non-government organizations and I think they are doing an incredible job of protecting their environment.”

Currently, the Philippines is still in the process of developing national strategies for its climate change mitigation process and guidelines for the carbon industry. “This would be a perfect time to work collaboratively with different stakeholders so we can come up with solutions that will generate results at scale.”

Ginny joined Smithsonian Institution to study coral diseases affecting reef health across the Caribbean region.

Her work at Wovoka

At Wovoka, Ginny Tiongson handles both the science and community development aspects of reforestation work that align well with her aspirations and advocacy. But for her, the community work is what inspires her to champion Wovoka’s initiatives in environmental conversation and climate justice. 

“I firmly believe that successful conservation efforts are not only ecological but also deeply socio-economic. They must involve and prioritize the voices of communities that are most vulnerable to climate change.  My years of experience in doing reforestation work taught me that conservation and development would never be feasible without the buy-in of local and indigenous communities — so involving them in these endeavors is highly crucial.”

Tiongson also shared that she finds value in having an interdisciplinary mix of people on the team working with the community who are equipped with local ecological knowledge and have a long experience in doing reforestation.

“It is such a delight to work with our team and our partner POs because everyone brings in so many valuable perspectives and contributions to the table.”

A call for collective action

When asked about her hopes for the future of Southeast Asia, Ginny Tiongson emphasized the environmental importance of the region. “Southeast Asia harbors so much beauty and richness, yet we are also losing so much at an unprecedented rate due to decades of destructive extraction.”

Tiongson also recognized the need for everyone to be involved in overcoming the climate change and biodiversity loss problem. “I hope that environmental managers, project developers, businesses, organizations, and the government will go beyond the business-as-usual approach to save and protect the environment.

She also mentioned that a paradigm shift in resource utilization and management is needed for a sustainable world. “We need to realize that the benefits we gain from nature do not necessarily have to be extractive. We can place value on intangible things often taken for granted, such as various ecosystem benefits , and a high-quality environment which are all essential to our well-being.”

Next steps for Ginny

Ginny Tiongson laid out her immediate plans as Director of Biodiversity and Community Development. In general, she wants Wovoka to set an example for other project developers who are doing the ecosystem approach to restoration, especially in the Philippines. 

She emphasized the value of having science, community empowerment, and sustainability principles at the heart of any restoration initiative.

”I am committed to ensuring that our project development is grounded in robust science and sensible environmentalism, considering ecological principles along with social and economic factors. I believe that integrating diverse ecosystem and socio-economic benefits is crucial for creating high-integrity, high-value carbon projects.

We are also eager to explore the use of biodiversity indices to demonstrate and track the effectiveness of our restoration strategies. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that communities and natural ecosystems are sustainable and thriving, rather than merely surviving.” Tiongson shared. 

In the next months, the team will be fully engaged in writing the Project Design Document necessary to verify Wovoka’s Camarines Norte project. Tiongson will lead the team’s engagement with the community, science advisors, and other relevant stakeholders.

“However, I  must also admit that undertaking all these things is rather expensive and tedious, with a  huge funding gap especially in the early stages of project development. So I am reaching out to investors and partners who are willing to collaborate with us in achieving our goals.”

Together with Wovoka’s COO Tin Dalida and Capalonga Mangrove Development Association President Ramil Raviz, an active leader of one of our partner communities, Tiongson is scheduled to fly to Kenya to attend a blue carbon training hosted by Fair Carbon.

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