For a 28-year-old, Joanna Sustento has experienced a lot of tragedy in her life. A native of Leyte in the Philippines, she survived the destruction of her home and lost loved ones to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the strongest tropical cyclones in history. She has since talked about the experience, appearing in the Climate Summit in Germany and Poland.
The devastation brought by the super typhoon pushed her to become an environmentalist. She has protested around the world to make sure people are aware of how climate change has ruined her community.
She’s now back in the Philippines and started a lone protest on September 16 to pressure gas companies to stop using fossil fuels and switch to clean energy. She stood outside the Shell Headquarters in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in the rain while holding a sign that read "Climate Justice".
For this, she was taken by 30-40 police officers from Taguig and brought to a Bonifacio Global City police station for questioning. They questioned her on the reasons behind her protest before releasing her due to lack of probable cause.
A few hours after being released she returned to the Shell Headquarters to hand over a "gift"– a poster of her missing nephew and an open letter addressed to Shell.
It’s been 4 days since her lone protest started but her passion for the cause is as strong as ever. In the midst of her fight, Sustento took the time to speak with VICE about how her activism began, her motivations, and how the voice of the Filipino is significant in the global fight against the climate crisis.
What has your journey been like, from surviving Typhoon Haiyan to eventually becoming an activist?
I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my Typhoon Haiyan experience to other people because they didn’t know how to respond or react; I didn’t like putting them in that position. I needed an outlet because it was so heavy to keep inside, so writing was therapeutic, and revising and adding to my story brought me to a mental space that allowed me to process and grieve. I felt like I couldn’t process it properly during and after the typhoon because I was busy looking for food and my loved ones.
I eventually found an online space collecting Yolanda (local name for Typhoon Haiyan) stories. I submitted my story and the next day I was flooded with reactions. It was helpful for other victims as well who were still looking for loved ones. People who weren’t in the province where it had hit also understood the situation better. My story eventually got published in books and I was invited to speak at seminars to share my coping mechanisms.
Journalist Howie Severino then produced a documentary about climate justice where I was interviewed. Because of this, I was approached to speak at different global meetings arranged by the United Nations and Greenpeace.
What were you doing when you were approached by international environmental groups?
I was an English teacher for Koreans and in a small school in Ormoc. I went through a quarter-life crisis and I lost everything I had in the typhoon, so all that I was left with was my story. I felt like I had a second life and I wanted to make something beautiful from what was left.
I wanted my story to be one that would empower my community and the communities around that are vulnerable to climate impact.
Do you now identify as an activist?
I am an activist now. Before, I didn’t feel like I was worthy to call myself an activist. In fact, I used to think they were just troublemakers. My dad was in the military and he didn’t have the nicest things to say about them. But I realized they’re not all like that; I understand now that it’s more than that. So yeah, I would like to call myself an activist.
Do you think if Typhoon Haiyan never affected you, you would be doing something different?
Honestly, if Yolanda (Haiyan) didn’t happen, I feel like I would be somewhere different. I’m not the only one in my community that would say that. The experience really opened our eyes. But right now, I just don’t want people to wait for another tragedy to happen before they decide to take action.
What's a day in your life like?
I wake up and check emails and messages. I like to go biking and do yoga. Then work, which differs if I’m on the field or not. Recently, I’ve had a lot of meetings with partners on plastics and climate justice. I also do a lot of work with the academe and student youth.
On a personal level, what environmentally-friendly habits do you abide by?
Aside from demanding corporate accountability, I try to do my part as an individual. I bring my own reusable water bottles and, as much as possible, I don’t get food for take out, nor do I order fast food. This helps me try out more local restaurants and carinderias (street food stalls). I lecture people in my community about their use of plastics and they are receptive to it. I also try to walk as much as possible and I've let go of a lot of the bulky personal items I don’t need.
What does it feel like to be a voice for change and to represent the Philippines in multiple international hearings? Do you feel any pressure?
I don’t want to call it pressure. I don’t feel like I'm carrying an image or representing anyone else, I’m just telling my story. But there are times when there’s mental and emotional exhaustion, I feel guilty for turning down some interviews or speaking engagements. But at the end of the day, I need to take care of my well being and I’m sure I will be able to make a bigger impact if I choose my battles.
Why do you prefer to hold a lone protest when there are other activists who are also passionate about ending the climate crisis?
It’s not that I want to do it alone. I just want the community to understand that I’m fighting a big industry on my own and that it can be done. It sends a more powerful message, sort of like David and Goliath.
A lot of people have been fighting and these movements never started big. It started with one firm decision proving that these issues were bigger than just one person but it sparked change.
I’m not connected to anyone powerful but I want to show people that I am enough to fight for my community. That’s how it should be for others; they need to know that they don’t need to have a powerful position to have a voice.
I stood in the rain for about two hours until I was taken by the police. But they didn’t know what to charge me with since it wasn’t scandalous. The police had no idea what to talk to me about since they were unaware of the issue. “Ano yung panawagan mo? (What is your calling?)," they asked.
Building security didn’t want me to stand under the rain and tried to redirect me to someone from Shell, but of course, the representative didn’t come down to speak to me. Instead, a female guard from building security was sent to speak to me, I told her my story and she said she too had loved ones from Tacloban.
My protest moved her and she said she would get my message across to the Shell representative. That conversation proved to me that even if you are a lone protester, you can make people understand. I imagine her telling other people about that conversation and that is already a step.
Within the day, I came back to give them a poster of my missing nephew and an open letter. It was like I was asking Shell where he was. The guards picked it up and I don’t know what happened to it.
Speaking of family and loved ones, are they worried about your decision to do this? Are they supportive?
There are no negative reactions from them but they’re worried. Just last Monday, I left my phone off during a protest and when I turned my phone on I had received calls from different cousins who had seen me on Facebook Live.
Although they do tell me that they support me because they see that I have found my purpose, they also warn me not to be too aggressive. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by people who protect and support me.
What would you like your protests to achieve?
To call out the fossil fuel industry to take responsibility for what they did that brought upon climate change. This industry has blatantly deceived the whole world. They knew about the catastrophic effects of their business and totally ignored all climate studies for money, but for what expense? It’s my community losing lives. I want them to take responsibility for the climate crisis and to shift to cleaner energy.
The blame eventually gets passed on to individuals who think it’s their fault for driving cars and not throwing trash properly. But if the system they created is sustainable and does not support dirty energy, we wouldn’t have a problem. if they just gave an alternative source for energy, we wouldn’t feel this.
Even if individuals do what they can daily, nothing will happen if the system doesn’t change.
Is there a specific reason you protested outside the Shell office? What about the other gas companies?
The lone protest wasn’t targeted against Shell, it was against all fossil fuel companies. But they are the biggest oil company that has contributed the most to the crisis and there is evidence that they knew about the effects of their business. They had a choice long ago. The ball was in their court. They chose dirty energy because there was more money there. The decision-makers from these companies probably assumed that we would already be dead by then, without thinking of the future generations.
But these companies have chosen to ignore your plea, what do you have to say to that?
I feel like because of their ignorance, they are discounting and invalidating what happened to my community. It’s like they’re forgetting that what I'm fighting for and what the whole world is fighting for is not just for myself but also for them. In the end, we’re all drowning, if you want to be dark about it. If we keep thinking that the measure of the economy is how rich a country is, we’re all going to die.
Climate change is not going to kill us, it’s their greed and their apathy. They already know what’s going to happen, but they choose to be blinded because they think that storms choose where they want to go. Eventually, all of us are going to be affected by climate change. They might think that they have to feed their children, well good for them at least they still have their family. Where will their money get them if we’re all underwater? Can they pay God to let their families live?
If people your age, who hustle all day would like to help out with the issue, how could they do that?
I return the question to them, what skills do they have and what are they willing to sacrifice to see the change they want? So you’re a writer and with that skill, how will you use your talent to make a difference?
We were all given different capacities and we can all tweak that to help out. There is no blueprint for advocacy. There are different ways to be an activist.
If we are already informed about the climate crisis, let’s do our best to get the word out. There need to be more people aware of the issue and why there is a need to take urgency and take action. Let’s not be afraid to ask questions because if we just accept what is fed to us by the system, nothing will change. We can work towards better solutions and that’s where change will come from.
Here in the Philippines, we are already living with the consequences of the climate crisis. We have already lost loved ones, and the world needs to know that this isn’t something in the future.
When people in other countries talk about the climate crisis, it’s always in the context of “happening in the future,” that we have x amount of years, but I need them to understand that they should take action now because it’s currently happening. There have been a lot of dreams lost and not realized because of this.
Interview has been edited for clarity.