Millennials Who Matter: Marianna Vargas As A Force for Change

The 26-year-old talks about the roots of her advocacy, battling against complacency, and the unconditional support from the people she looks up to the most.
IMAGE Joseph Pascual

If you don’t really know someone but you’d like to get a glimpse inside their life, looking them up on social media is the easiest way to do so, as it offers visual clues that a Google search won’t often turn up. In the case of Marianna Lopez Vargas, it would appear that she fits the mold of today’s affluent 20-somethings. There are the requisite selfies, vacation snaps in exotic locales with friends and family, and the candid shots of young people just having the time of their lives. But the problem with social media is that it shows you just a peek, a partial gaze of what actually lies beneath. A picture tells a thousand words, we’re often told, but how many actually do?

Change Is Coming

It’s only when you speak directly to Marianna, a pretty, sun-kissed 26-year-old who has inherited her mother’s freckled skin, that you learn much more than what is admittedly very well presented online. She is warm and bright-eyed, speaks intelligently with confidence, and laughs heartily and often. When we get to a subject she has become very passionate about, she is sincere without being preachy, and conveys a genuine concern for others. Since late 2015 she has been with the Oscar M. Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management Foundation, or the Oscar M. Lopez Center for short, now serving as its partnerships officer, building the network of corporate, institutional, and educational partners and helping spread the word about climate change and its effects on the nation. “We are a research institution principled on climate science,” says Marianna. “It is premised on the idea that in the Philippines we are facing climate change regardless of what the world does now to mitigate it. We have all these different international treaties committing to reduce carbon emissions, but we are naturally and geographically susceptible to climate change, regardless of what happens from here on out. What the center does is find out how can we adapt to all those changes and find science-based solutions to these changes.”


“I don’t believe in shoving issues down people’s throats. I think that’s why people close themselves against certain issues, because others are so self-righteous. That’s the last thing I want to come across as."

So far the center, whose vision it is to create a “resilient Filipino society, able to cope and prosper in the midst of climate-related risks and disasters,” has struck up partnerships with a number of local universities and science organizations including De La Salle University, Ateneo de Manila University, University of the Philippines, Isabela State University, the National Academy of Science and Technology, Climate Change Commission, and PAGASA. Internationally, it has partnered with the World Agroforestry Center, Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research, and Center for Environment Research Education and Development, to name a few. One aspect about the job that Marianna loves is that she gets to go work closely with scientists, learning what they are working on and discovering, being among the first to see results of their research. “I get to feel like I’m a scientist also, a scientist by osmosis,” shares Marianna with a smile. “I get familiar with the jargon, all the data that is being produced. It is really an exciting field to be working in now.”

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Nature and Nurture

The daughter of Vincent Vargas and Cedie Lopez, Marianna also happens to be a granddaughter of Oscar M. Lopez, chairman emeritus of the Lopez Group of Companies and a well-known environmentalist and nature lover. The secretary for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Gina Lopez, is her aunt. In Marianna’s view, it wasn’t surprising that she ended up in this field. “It was sort of inevitable,” she says, smiling as recalls her younger days. “I grew up so immersed in nature. My Lolo made it a point that our family summers were spent in the water or up in the mountains. Our family bonding to this day is climbing mountains. He never told us to be passionate about the environment, it developed organically throughout my childhood because I was so immersed in it. He made it a point that we valued Philippine natural landscapes in particular. We spent so many summers going to the different islands in the Philippines, and I saw how beautiful and how rich it was.” Suddenly, her tone shifts. “Then as I grew older, I also started to see how threatened it was.”

This realization came sometime in 2009, when she joined Bantay Kalikasan, her aunt Gina’s environment protection project with the ABS-CBN Foundation, as an intern. “I grew up seeing her passion and her drive. I was front row to her passion many times. I’ve always thought of how I came to where I am now. I was born into a family where nation-building was a huge aspect of all their activities, all their efforts. Their public service was something that I witnessed. ABS-CBN’s tagline, ‘In the service of the Filipino,’ has stayed with me all throughout, and I guess it was inevitable that I ended up in something related to that as well.”


At the time of her internship, Marianna was in her second year of college, taking Environmental Science at Ateneo, and major life changes where about to take shape. Feeling that she wasn’t unlocking her full potential as a student, Marianna took the big, bold, and brave step of uprooting herself and moving to a new country. “I felt I wasn’t being challenged enough. I felt very comfortable. Everything just felt so familiar. I didn’t want it for myself for the next three or four years. I don’t want to say I was bored—because my life was pretty awesome, it was fun—bored isn’t the word. It was complacent. Complacency scared me a little.” Looking back on it now, she says going abroad turned out to be the best decision she ever made.

In the Land Down Under

After receiving her parents’ blessing, Marianna moved to Sydney and enrolled at the University of New South Wales, where she took up Environmental Development. After graduating, she stayed to earn her master’s in International Relations. Marianna remembers the first year of the whole experience being the most difficult, struggling with homesickness and coming to terms with her first legitimate taste of independence. Those five years in Australia proved to be an invaluable experience, as it tested her mettle and showed what she was capable of. She wanted a challenge, and she got it. “I learned so much about myself. I learned how not to rely on anyone else, learned how to think on my own, develop my own ideas about the world. Manila is so small; sometimes, you have to get out to see it from the outside, develop your own opinions, your own world views. To not take anything for what it is, to be able to critically analyze all these situations, developing my ability for independent thinking, that’s what I value the most.”


"One of the most beautiful things I witnessed, especially as a woman, was how my dad respected my mom’s choice of pursuing a career while being a mother as well. It was such an important, crucial thing for a young girl to witness."

While Marianna was in college, the science of global warming and climate change became more prominent and she was instinctively drawn to it. “It’s something I became very passionate about. The science of climate change is relevant now especially in the Philippines, but to study climate change in the Australian setting, which takes a Western approach and where all my classmates were very passionate about social justice, it felt good to not feel that you had to be silent, that your voice was heard. That’s what drew me most. It was the people with so much fighting for the people who had so little.”

After completing her master’s, Marianna started working for an Australian NGO. It offered to help with her residency papers, which spurred another life-changing decision. After thinking about it, Marianna recalls feeling a sense of unease. “There was a dissonance. The NGO wanted me to stay to help them with issues that were also happening in my country. If I stayed, I don’t think I would have been comfortable with myself, in that I didn’t help with my country’s problems first. As much as I loved living in Sydney, I was happy to come home.”

Perfect Timing

Call it luck, timing, or destiny, things had a way of working out for Marianna once back in Manila. As it turns out, the Oscar M. Lopez Center was broadening its scope, and yes, while she was the granddaughter of the founder, it was her qualifications that made her the perfect fit for the organization. “After graduating, I had to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Marianna. “Then I found out the center was expanding at that time, which was very serendipitous in a way. They were looking for people with the expertise that I had developed in Australia, which was the social aspect of science, the ability to do science communication. The timing of their expansion, I think, it was a matter of the universe falling into place.”


Marianna is often labeled an environmental advocate, but she claims she’s not really deserving of the title environmentalist, thinking herself more of a social justice crusader, “helping those who will be most affected by climate change.” The center’s research is already paying off and changing lives. She mentions this project that they funded where they were able to boost rice production even when farming conditions have been less than ideal. “Pampanga is traditionally a high rice-yielding province, but in this particular area, the people started to notice the floods were getting higher and lasting much longer.” The center did an aerial map of the area, charted the topography of the barangays, and studied the varying flood levels and their duration. “Based on that data, we were able to inform the new ricefarming practices of the community. We were able to determine the optimal planting cycles and what variety of rice to plant. This is just one aspect of what we do. We are helping people adapt to the new normal.”


"If I stayed, I don’t think I would have been comfortable with myself, in that I didn’t help with my country’s problems first. As much as I loved living in Sydney, I was happy to come home.”

Marianna is aware that there still are climate change skeptics out there, and she’ll try her best to convince them about it, but only up to a certain point. “I don’t believe in shoving issues down people’s throats. I think that’s why people close themselves against certain issues, because others are so self-righteous. That’s the last thing I want to come across as. When I encounter deniers, I try to have a constructive conversation with them. I try to understand, respect their opinions, but engage them in productive conversation. Try to enlighten them with facts. If that doesn’t work, that’s beyond you already. I’m not one to force my way, bend them into accepting that my opinion is much better than theirs. That’s not how the world works.”

Getting another audience to listen proved challenging as well: eight-year-old school children. “I’ll admit I didn’t have their attention very long,” admits Marianna sheepishly. But as long as they come out of those talks having just a simple idea of the message that I’m trying to get across, that’s enough. With everything that is happening in the world, with climate change becoming a more important issue, throughout the different sectors, the concern for nature and the environment will get nurtured, hopefully.”


Marianna informs us that the center is also involved in weather forecasting, providing updates to its partners on weather conditions to help them prepare employees for disasters and help them secure physical assets. “Eventually, we are aiming to climate-proof risk management for the private sector, so their decision making takes into account the physical, meteorological, and hydrological changes in nature. For example, if a company decides to put up a structure, we will evaluate the risks—landslides, flooding, storms—taking those into account into the design decision-making. It’s my job to tell people that, hey, the center exists, and we can do this sort of thing for you.”

A New Day Dawns

Very soon Marianna will begin a new chapter in her life, as her boyfriend of eight years recently proposed. Though visibly happy about this development, it’s the only time in the interview where she becomes coy with details. “He’s a very private person,” she explains, and we get the hint. In a matter of months, she’ll be leaving the home she currently shares with her parents, whom she counts as the most influential people in her life. On her momCedie, who also appeared on the cover of Town&Country two years ago, she says, “She inspired me to go for my dreams, regardless of what other people thought. She nurtured the independence in me, and I’m very grateful for that. Even if the Philippines has one of the more equal playing fields for men and women, it is still not easy. There are still some expectations for Filipino women. My mom broke and shattered that glass ceiling for me, through her own pursuits. I felt empowered all throughout my growing up, there were no limitations, no obstacles that couldn’t be overcome. She showed me herself what was possible.”


She heaps equal amounts of praise on her dad Vincent, calling herself the quintessential daddy’s girl. “I’m the youngest and the only girl, with three brothers. We are all very close, but my dad and I have developed a very unique friendship in the last couple of years. It was an important transition, from beyond father and daughter, we have a real friendship. It transcended that level, to being friends. My dad is one of my best friends now.”

The best piece of advice they shared? “They told me don’t lose yourself when you get married. Always make sure your husband respects your independence. I saw that with my parents. They are very good together, but they have their own identities, separate from each other. One of the most beautiful things I witnessed, especially as a woman, was how my dad respected my mom’s choice of pursuing a career while being a mother as well. It was such an important, crucial thing for a young girl to witness. My dad tells me, ‘Even when you are married, don’t lose sight of where you want to go. You can be an independent woman and still be a wife.’”


Her fiancé, Marianna tells us, has been briefed on this and is onboard with the plan. Hoping to get more information about the coming nuptials at her cover photo shoot, someone asks if it will be an out-of-town wedding. In Iloilo or Bacolod perhaps, where both the Lopez and Vargas clans have their roots? “Oh God no!” Marianna cries in horror, sticking to her principles to the very end. “Can you imagine the carbon footprint for that?”

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Pierre A. Calasanz
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