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Women Saving the Planet: Lidy Nacpil of the Philippines

The veteran civil-society advocate came of political age under the Marcos régime in the Philippines. Today she’s one of the busiest organizers in the world.
Lidy Nacpil

Lidy Nacpil is the Coordinator of the Asian Peoples' Movement on Debt and Development and a veteran civil-society advocate for human rights and climate justice. 

The first time I met Lidy Nacpil, she was holding court outside a conference room in Paris, denouncing the organizers of the 2015 United Nations climate summit while a huddle of journalists shoved tape recorders in her face. Though COP21 President Laurent Fabius (also France’s foreign minister at the time) had promised “unprecedented transparency” at the 2015 negotiations, Nacpil explained to reporters that advocates for civil society had been barred almost entirely from the rooms at COP21 where the real decisions were being made.

“This has been one of the most un-transparent COPs that I’ve ever seen,” she said that day, delivering a methodical and withering critique of corporate involvement at climate negotiations, where industry types, as a rule, wield far more diplomatic clout than civil-society advocates.

What makes Nacpil such a coveted source in the middle of a press scrum is the intensity of her patience — the non-panic of someone who has lived through very real political hell. She came to age as an activist in the Philippines under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, a time and place where marching involved risking one’s life almost daily. And while Nacpil laments the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has “very strict measures governing civil society compared to other parts of the U.N.,” the frustrations of organizing at a COP or an intersessional meeting are nothing compared to the challenges she faced in her early years, including the death of her first husband, Lean Alejandro, assassinated in 1987 in Manila by forces widely believed to be acting for the Philippine military.

In other words, Nacpil isn’t phased by U.N. hypocrisy, nor does she take it as a personal affront; merely as the regrettable standard of how business gets done. While journalists and organizers all around her are tearing their hair out, Nacpil remains an indispensable presence of sanity.

Nacpil is one of the busiest organizers in the world. While helping direct the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development, Nacpil also fulfills a variety of other official and unofficial roles across civil-society organizations (CSOs), from climate-specific initiatives to broader human-rights campaigns. In all her capacities, Nacpil works to speak for as many people as possible. Take her current position at the Green Climate Fund — the UNFCCC mechanism that works to finance adaptation and mitigation initiatives in developing countries; on the GCF board, Nacpil is one of the two “active observers” from CSOs who actually get to speak during meetings.

“You’re in the same room,” she laughs, “but you don’t get a vote.” Nonetheless, Nacpil says, the chance to speak is important, and she takes advantage of video-conferencing so that as many advocates as possible can participate. “That way, we can continuously edit or change whatever we have prepared to present on behalf of CSOs, depending on how the meeting is going,” she says. Since the GCF board began to allow Web-casting in October of 2015, Nacpil says that sometimes she’ll see up to 80 people following the board’s meeting in real time — and responding with concerns via Skype.

It’s important to include more civil-society advocates in executive-level decisions on international climate policy, Nacpil says, not least because the people most at risk from a warming planet often have no ability to jet around the world to attend all these high-level meetings. “It took us three years to struggle it out with the GCF board to get Web-casting so that you don’t have to physically come to observe.”

Nacpil herself continues to jet; on our last phone call, she had just arrived in Samoa for a GCF board meeting. The airline said her luggage was still in transit, though no one knew where. “It was too late to buy any clothes when I landed,” Nacpil says, laughing. “And my meetings begin tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just have to wash whatever I wear every day.” It’s a grueling schedule year-round, and when I ask whether it’s optimism that drives her, Nacpil demurs.

“I think I would like to use the word ‘hope,’” she said, “and I don’t know if it’s being optimistic, but I’m very hopeful: I have hope even as there’s a lot of awful trends throughout the world, as democratic space is constricting in many places, and many right-wing leaders are assuming power including in your country. But I still have hope. It’s people that give me hope. I think I’ve seen it for myself, how powerful people can be, how courageous and determined they can be.” Nacpil wants to stress that you can be realistic without lapsing into cynicism: “I guess in a general sense that’s what makes me get up every morning, but in a day-to-day sense it’s really, you know, having a clear picture in my head of what needs to be done that day or that week, I just get up — because there’s a lot of things to be done!”

These days, Nacpil’s early organizing experience against the Marcos régime puts her in a position of expertise, as authoritarian nationalist movements appear to be gaining strength worldwide, from Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to nationalist parties in Europe, and even in the United States.

“Those of us who lived through dictatorships, who fought under dictatorships and successfully brought dictatorships down, I think there are a lot of lessons we can share,” Nacpil says. “You cannot let the government of a dictator or an authoritarian regime beat you back because the moment you surrender to what they’re trying to do, they’ll just keep spreading it. And I think that’s the greatest lesson that we had when we were fighting against a dictatorship: We just refused to be defeated. I can’t say we refused to be afraid; courage is not a lack of fear — courage is just continuing to act even if there’s fear, right? Because fear makes you wise, it reminds you about the care that you also have to use when you plan your actions.”

Nacpil has two other main messages for activists in the first world: include communities of color, and never treat climate as less urgent than other crises.

“Back then [in the 1980s], as activists fighting against dictator and for economic justice, we were thinking then that the environment is mostly a middle-class issue for people who have the time and the luxury to think about the environment,” Nacpil says, “because the rest were mainly fighting for survival, yeah? We were wrong to think that. The environment is about life. The climate is not just an environmental issue, and environmental issues are not just about the environment, it’s about people’s lives. Other struggles would be moot if we allowed the planet to warm to a level where all life on earth would change from the way that we know it profoundly.”

As for the specific role of women, and their disproportionate burdens under climate change, Nacpil has a special credo: “There is no gender justice without climate justice. And the reverse — there is no climate justice without gender justice.”

That historic night in December of 2015, when Fabius banged his gavel to signal that 195 countries had adopted the Paris Agreement, many activists and even half the journalists present were giddy beyond reason, intoxicated by such apparent international goodwill. Sober perspective was in short supply in the Blue Zone, until I found Nacpil and a few other leftist organizers sharing gossip. One man, a Brit, told me about last-minute diplomatic maneuvers on the part of the U.S. to mollify fast-sinking Pacific island states; he said that a number of island states were furious to have been left out of these secret, deal-sweetening bilateral meetings with the U.S.

Ahead of the agreement’s adoption, Fabius had told the assembly there would be champagne, but these advocates weren’t in the mood for bubbles. Where mainstream reporters celebrated the inclusion of human rights in the preamble, civil-society organization veterans were unhappy that such protections hadn’t been inscribed in a binding way in the body of the text. It was the classic pattern: World leaders invited us to marvel that any agreement at all had been signed, while Nacpil and her people invited us to keep working toward something better. “The real work begins after we leave Paris,” someone kept saying. For Nacpil, it never stopped.