Millennials showing the world they can change it

Susette Oñate

Susette Oñate is an environmental activist working to reintroduce and rehabilitate native plant and animal species in southern Florida. She led her high school in the relaunch of a butterfly garden that serves as a refuge for endangered butterfly species. She earned the 2016 Brower Youth Award for her work as a young environmental activist and leader.

Q: How would you describe your areas of action and biological interests?

A: The butterfly garden was started about ten years ago by an officer of the National Honor Society at my high school and it was made to commemorate a science teacher who had passed away. It wasn’t really a butterfly garden per se since it didn’t have any butterflies, but that’s because it didn’t have any butterfly-attracting plants. Over time everybody forgot about the garden until my NHS sponsor brought it up at a meeting and suggested that we work on it again. At first we started with normal plants from Home Depot, but they kept dying. I started learning more about the environment and how important native plants would be in that garden, so I talked to the officers and I spoke with my AP environmental science teacher and with her we started getting more native plants. We would have the NHS members work on the garden each Saturday and they would each bring in $2 so we could collect that money and give it to our teacher to buy native plants. Slowly it started expanding to the entire school. The last I heard the special education department has been using the garden for therapy for the special education students and the science teachers have been incorporating it into their lessons. One of the latest projects that the science teachers had was that they were trying to clone some of the plants and students would take home the clones of those plants and expand the garden in their own backyards.

I graduated from high school last year and I just finished my first year at the University of Florida. I haven’t been able to work as much as I would like to with the butterfly garden this year since it’s a six hour drive from my hometown. But this year I studied abroad for spring break and I went to Belize. While there I was able to learn a lot about the environment; we visited a sustainable chocolate farm, we went snorkeling and we went hiking in rainforests. As soon as finals ended I went to the Climate March in D.C. and during this time, I was contacted by a French filmmaker about my work as she wanted to feature me in a documentary about nine people around the world who are under 20 and are doing something for environmental activism. Now I’m doing research in the Everglades with this program at my university called the University Scholars Program and I work under a professor as a research assistant. I’m sampling apple snails because there is a bird called the snail kite that is endangered in Florida and they found that after an exotic species of apple snails was introduced, the snail kite’s numbers started increasing. They have me on an airboat counting egg clusters every day and that’s what I’ve been doing now.

Q: What are some future plans you have in mind?

A: Through the Brower Youth Awards, Earth Island Institute has a lot of grants that could help expand our project. I’m planning to apply so we can expand the garden possibly to this park called the Amelia Earhart Park in my hometown of Hialeah, which is one of the biggest parks in Miami-Dade County and it’s a shame that it’s filled with mostly non-native plants. One of the guys I work with is a landscaper and he only landscapes native plants. He calls the area a “green desert” because the plants provide oxygen but they don’t provide a home or food for the native animals of South Florida. Our goal is to establish an area where only native plants are grown to give the region’s animals a home and hopefully spread awareness by making this an eco-tourism destination—the Hanging Gardens of Hialeah.

Q: It’s interesting to see the contrast of how much humans have developed South Florida in the recent past, but at the same time it’s still a jungle that humans are constantly fighting. How do you think we can cultivate symbiosis despite the human urge to claim this land for our own?

A: I think we can coexist with nature. It would be awesome to not develop as much, but we have a lot of green spaces within development. Most palm trees aren’t even native to Florida, they’re more Pacific plants. Instead of putting in all of these commercialized plants that are non-native, invasive and not as good for the environment, we should be filling it with native plants so bugs that live in the area can continue to exist. By the bugs continuing to exist, then all of the other animals can continue to exist.

Q: In your eyes, what is the value of reintroducing these native plants back into this area?

A: I’ll give you an example. There was a species of butterfly and by the 1930s it was extinct but then they were able to reintroduce it in the 1960s because they found a few caterpillars in Key Biscayne. By planting the plant that attracts those butterflies, they were able to bring the population back to the mainland of South Florida.

Q: And these are pollinators, so that creates a ripple effect throughout the food chain in that area.

A: Exactly. Pollinators are basically the foundation of our biological system. Without pollinators, no life would be possible. Trees wouldn’t be able to continue to survive. We depend on these pollinators and I feel like humans don’t acknowledge that very often. For example, the administration in my high school hates having all of those native plants because they don’t like how it brings a lot of bees. I remember they would talk about the bee problem all the time in my high school and they considered the land next to the auditorium, which is the butterfly garden, the area where all of the bugs would hang out. Because this is inconvenient to them, they don’t like all of these bugs around. But they should acknowledge their importance more.

Q: There is a disconnection between humans and the other species around us, so we often fail to see the value that they have in our lives.

A: We think of the world as only serving us and we don’t think of it as serving other species. For example if we see that one of the native plants we have attracts butterflies and caterpillars, then once a year it will be completely bare because the caterpillars will eat it and it looks ugly to us. That’s why commercial landscapers won’t use those plants because it looks ugly and it won’t make money. That’s why they call it pest-free landscaping, but all of those “pests” are actually bugs that we do need.

Q: It feels like we’re in the midst of a growing environmental understanding as a society. What do you want society to understand about our ecosystem and the way we fit into it?

A: I feel like society right now, especially in America, prioritizes money and corporate interest. I think that society needs to understand that without a planet there won’t be any money. It won’t matter how much money you have if there is no planet to live on. The older generations don’t care about it as much because they’re not going to see the effects, but we are. Right now what we need to aim for is policy-making because that’s what’s going to affect everything on a larger scale, but doing small grass-roots things like the butterfly garden does help too as it spreads awareness and builds the movement so that these policy changes can be made in the future. You should do everything you can.

Q: What advice would you give to other young activists who may also feel strongly about their interests but may not know where to start?

A: I would say don’t let anybody stand in your way. If you look up my name up on YouTube, you can watch the speech I gave for the Brower Youth Awards where I talk about a time in which the custodians at my school actually destroyed the garden. It wasn’t their fault because the administration actually told them to go cut everything down. They did and it was basically a caterpillar massacre. Don’t let anything stand in your way because even though that happened, I continued to fight and we brought more plants in. Now the butterfly garden has undergone a lot of destruction again because of the construction going on in my school. That school is the oldest high school in Hialeah and now they’re finally remodeling it for one of the first times. The construction workers haven’t really cared about what happens to the garden, but my AP environmental science teacher has continued to work on the garden and every time I get a chance I come and help her. This most recent time when we were filming the documentary, I was able to bring an endangered plant called Coontie full of the endangered Atala butterfly chrysalises.

Don’t let anything stand in your way even if they tell you that you can’t do it. My parents, for example, are very conservative. My dad was so against me going to the Climate March and he encourages me to just wait four years and let the president do his job and don’t stand in his way, but I can’t just wait four years because once it’s messed up it’s hard to fix. My parents are supportive of what I do, but it’s just because I’m their daughter and they want to be supportive. They don’t really care that much about the environment. The town I grew up in doesn’t care much about the environment at all; they don’t even have recycling at my school. But I don’t let any of this stop me from doing what I can to make a difference. Bottom line is don’t let anything stand in your way even if they tell you that you can’t do it a million times, just continue to fight.