The Art of Fighting Climate Change
Art. Climate change. Two different things that appear on two different spectra. But for A.G Saño, art has become a tool in educating about and fighting climate change, which he hopes will eventually lead to climate justice. He shares with us how he is using art to promulgate his advocacies.
You’re called the Whale Boy. Please share with us how you got that moniker.
A.S: Back in 1999, I applied for a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) expedition that would conduct a survey of humpback whales in the Babuyan Islands. I was accepted as team photographer and deployed in the summer of 2000. I went on to join the expeditions in the succeeding years and have collected a good amount of photography materials on whales and dolphins. In 2010, I started the dolphin mural campaign. My murals and photographs of whales were featured in a CNN International interview. That kicked off the name, “Whale Boy.”
…we are the vulnerable ones because we don’t have the resources that can help us lessen the impact and prepare our heavily hit communities for the worst. That is where fairness is lost. That is where justice is denied.
In the Photo: hand painted shirt by A.G Saño. Photo Credit: A.G Saño
You’re an advocate of climate justice, the environment, and peace. How did one advocacy lead to another?
A.S: My advocacy for the environment came in first when I volunteered for WWF in the late 90s. The humpback whale and marine mammal expeditions around the country solidified that cause and as a street artist spreading images of dolphins in the extreme northern and southern regions of the Philippines, I found myself painting and mentoring communities in conflict areas in Mindanao, including the islands of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Basilan. I also got invited to join peace mission trips around the Lanao Lake, where I conducted mural sessions. These engagements opened up my heart and mind about the need for peace that led me to my peace advocacy.
After Typhoon Ondoy (international name: Typhoon Ketsana), the Philippines (especially Metro Manila) was awakened to the realities of climate change. Year after year since Typhoon Ondoy, we’ve been hit badly by extreme weather disturbances that left trails of devastation across the land. I was in Compostela Valley when I saw the destruction that was brought about by super typhoon Pablo. While I was there for a relief mission, I decided to tag a big wall along the perimeters of the municipal hall. Together with a missionary priest who is also an artist, I wrote the line: “BABANGON TAYO! New Bataan” (translation: “WE WILL RISE! New Bataan”) which came out on broadsheets the following day as banner photos. The graffiti also became a favorite background of television news coverages. That jumpstarted my climate advocacy.
A year after that, I found myself trapped in Tacloban during Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Typhoon Haiyan). And there, I lost my friend Agit. He perished along with his parents, wife, and son. When I first visited Agit’s grave, I vowed to tell the world about him so that people would know how real climate change is.
In the Photo: Climate Justice poster. Photo Credit: Greenpeace
What is climate justice? How can we achieve this?
A.S: Justice, in simple terms, refers to fairness. In the context of climate change, developing countries like ours did not contribute significantly to the carbon dioxide emissions that gave way to global warming. But the rich countries did! In the process of becoming rich, they burned fossil fuels and produced an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. And now, it is us who suffer. And we are the vulnerable ones because we don’t have the resources that can help us lessen the impact and prepare our heavily hit communities for the worst. That is where fairness is lost. That is where justice is denied. We can achieve climate justice only if the rich countries take responsibility for their actions and assume the task of creating fairness.
The biggest challenge that we Filipinos face in the context of fighting climate change is our own lack of discipline and our apathy.
In the Photo: Mural of a lady weaver in Mandaue City, Cebu (Philippines). Photo Credit: A.G Saño
What statement do you wish to make with your art or Artivism so to speak?
A.S: As far as the dolphin murals are concerned, the statement that I wish to convey is that they live happily and freely in the seas and that they thrive without our presence and they can swim far, fast, and deep and play amongst the waves with their families and friends. My artivism wishes to tell everyone that we need to care. We need to take part in the solution for the crisis that prevents the world from becoming a more pleasant place to live in. That fighting for nature is fighting for humanity as well. And that art can be shared and taught to the masses.
Video Credit: Oxfam Deutschland
In a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest), how would you rate the Philippines in its involvement in solving the pressing issue of climate change? Why?
A.S: I would say that the Philippines’ effort in solving the issue of climate change is a 5. I say this because I have been in touch with NGOs and communities and even with the gallant people from the Climate Change Commission who work tirelessly for this cause. Information and education regarding this crisis may be far from perfect but we are getting there. We are also considered as frontrunners when it comes to legislation relating to climate change. My big doubt, however, is how we can convince the big polluters in acting justly.
In the Photo: A.G Saño and his brother, Yeb Sano with former US Vice President and climate champion, Al Gore, in Paris. Photo Credit: Kasia Strek
What do you think are the three (3) biggest challenges that the Philippine government and us Filipinos must overcome to be more involved in fighting climate change?
A.S: The biggest challenge that we Filipinos face in the context of fighting climate change is our own lack of discipline and our apathy. Many people have the attitude of relying on other people to clean up their mess. That is a big hindrance in preparing for extreme weather disturbances. To solve this crisis, we need to understand that the collective efforts of countries and cooperation among communities will get us through. Individualistic approaches will not help at all. Second, our dependence on fossil fuels, especially on coal, presents a big challenge. Sooner or later, we would have to wean away from dirty energy. Third, we need to protect our ecosystems. That, in a way, is a challenge because the degradation that we have been seeing in the past 2 decades seem to have no immediate end. WE need nature to nourish us and get us through such events.
Developed countries caused climate change. They have the moral obligation to fix the problem…They must assist us in putting the technology in place that can help us ease the burden. Technology in agriculture, disaster risk reduction, and preparedness are key areas where they can assist us.
In the Photo: Tallest mural in Santiago, Isabela (Philippines) depicting water conservation. Photo Credit: Norly Mercado
What is the most memorable artwork you’ve done? Why?
A.S: There are too many memorable works but I’d say the portrait of my good friend Agit Sustento in Paris stands out among them. I dedicated that mural not just to him and his family but also to the thousands of people who lost their lives when super typhoon Yolanda battered Tacloban and to the millions who suffer from the effects of climate change worldwide. It was the final act of our group, The People’s Pilgrimage, after walking from Rome to Paris in 59 days during the end of autumn and the start of winter in Europe. We reached Paris in time for the COP21 where the now famous “Paris Agreement” was forged by almost all the nations of the world to embark on a near impossible mission to save the world from climate change. Artists from different countries and organizations joined us in filling the colors of the 15 feet x 30 feet mural, most of which represented the colors of the Philippine flag. Agit, the last person to text me before Typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban, was a good friend and ally in the art and music scene. He was also an environmentalist by heart. He made climate change so real to me and others who met him in his lifetime. In European countries, climate change did not seem that urgent of an issue because they don’t suffer the way tropical countries do. They don’t lose loved ones in extreme weather events like we do.
In the Photo: Agit Sutento portrait in Paris. Photo Credit: A.G Saño
…fighting for nature is fighting for humanity as well.
Aside from street walls, where else do you make your art?
A.S: I also paint on bodies and shirts. I draw on sand too! When I teach kids in far-flung regions about art, I encourage them to draw on the sand and document them. Whenever paper is not available, they can always go to the beach and use the ground as the medium. Last June 12, I drew a 100-meter Philippine flag on a beach in Casiguran, Aurora. It was part of a mission that hoisted an underwater flag on the surface of Benham Rise to signify ownership of the territory.
I also create metal installations made of scrap metals that I gather from the roads whenever I do long distance walks here and abroad. In 2014, a group of climate advocates representing different environmental and human rights organizations led by my brother, Climate Change Commissioner Yeb Saño, held a 1,000-kilometer walk from Luneta to Tacloban City. The walk started on October 2 (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) and ended on November 8 (a year after super typhoon Yolanda devastated Tacloban). The metal pieces that I gathered from the streets became parts of my metal installations that included images endangered species and a portrait of Gandhi.
In the Photo: Drawing of the Philippine flag on a beach in Casiguran, Aurora (Philippines) on June 12, 2017. Photo Credit: Rolan Garcia
Based on the conferences you’ve attended in other countries, how do you think can developed countries help developing countries like the Philippines fight climate change? What viable solutions can we implement?
A.S: Developed countries caused climate change. They have the moral obligation to fix the problem. Therefore, they must commit to helping us in coping with the extreme events brought about by the crisis. They can help us by funding the adaptation measures that we have to undertake. They must assist us in putting the technology in place that can help us ease the burden. Technology in agriculture, disaster risk reduction, and preparedness are key areas where they can assist us. Ultimately, funding the advancement of renewable energy must take lead in the many solutions that we can work on while massive information campaigns and education projects are in progress.
In the Photo: A.G Saño at the Swiss Alps during the People’s Pilgrimage from Vatican to Eiffel Tower. Photo Credit: Albert Lozada/Greenpeace
A.G Saño’s artwork does not only tell the story of what is presently happening. It is a plea. A call to action. With millions of lives at stake, not just humans’ but the lives of all living creatures, how do we fight climate change? To repeat what the artist said, “fighting for nature is fighting for humanity as well.” So, how do YOU want to fight climate change?
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