Shane Howard: Singing the Environment

As early as the 1970s, singer-songwriter Shane Howard championed the rights of Australia’s indigenous people and their country. In the hit song Solid Rock (Sacred Ground), Howard and his band Goanna helped create a new awareness of the natural beauty, culture and spirit of Australia. In an exclusive interview with Gaia Discovery, Howard tells Mallika Naguran about what he thinks are the big environmental issues that need attention – and how we can help make them right.

Hitesh Mehta: On Ecotourism Trends in Asia from 2017

Hitesh S. Mehta, the president of HM Design, is a pioneer in the field of authentic ecotourism and a well sought-after ecotourism landscape architect, environmental planner and architect. Here, Mehta speaks to Mallika Naguran, the founder of Gaia Discovery, of his views on how ecotourism is likely to shape Asia in the years to come and about his next book - the second volume of Authentic Ecolodges.

Hitesh Mehta: Asia is big on ecotourism and will get even bigger!

Hitesh Mehta: Asia is big on ecotourism and will get even bigger!

18 January 2017, Singapore. Hitesh Mehta has years of ecotourism practice worldwide and capacity building involvement, beginning his practice in Kenya in 1991 and is now based in Florida, USAAmong the projects he has completed in Asia involving ecotourism principles are Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa, Guangdong Province, S. China and Nihiwatu Ecolodge, Sumba Island, Indonesia. He provided the Conceptual Master Plan for Pearl Sanctuary, Boracay Island, Philippines, among others and capacity building workshops in Borneo, India, the Philippines and more (see below for the list of projects in Asia). Mehta has also authored the highly illustrative Authentic Ecolodges. Mallika poses the following questions to him.

Based on your deep and extensive experience, what trends are you seeing in Asian ecotourism with respect to visitor arrivals and popular tourism activity?

Tourists, just like in other worldwide destinations, are searching for experiential travel and authentic connections with local peoples and nature.  Because of the rising middle-classes in India and China, more people are willing to pay for quality eco-luxury experiences. For example, domestic Chinese tourists are paying $700 a night for the new Bamboo Villas at Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa. 

Ecotourists are on the rise in Asia and there has been a noticeable increase in the number of ecolodges and ecotour operators, some of which are receiving international recognition.Of the fifteen Finalists of the 2017 WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, four are from Asia: Cinnamon Wild Yala, Sri Lanka is a Community Award Finalist; Misool Lodge, Indonesia, is an Environment Award Finalist and both STREETS International, Vietnam and The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation’s China Hospitality Education Initiative (CHEI), China are People Award Finalists. And to top it all up, the OSCARS in the Sustainable Tourism World - National Geographic World Legacy Awards also have several Asian based Finalists: Both Andaman Discoveries, Thailand and Chambok Community Based Eco-Tourism, Mlup Baitong, Cambodia are finalists in the Engaging Communities category which recognizesdirect and tangible economic and social benefits that improve local livelihoods, including training and capacity building, fair wages and benefits, community development, health care, and education.”  

Crosswaters Ecolodge in China exemplifies the use of sustainable building materials such as locally harvested bamboo. Here, an observation tower and a fine dining restaurant are located where two rivers meet.

Crosswaters Ecolodge in China exemplifies the use of sustainable building materials such as locally harvested bamboo. Here, an observation tower and a fine dining restaurant are located where two rivers meet.

The above-mentioned accolades from industry experts demonstrate that visitors to Asian destinations are increasingly frequenting those properties or destinations that are making a difference. With regard to visitor activities, the trends are both in nature and cultural immersion. Popular ecotourism activities include bird-watching, snorkeling, homestays, local foods, interpretative guiding and more. 

Setu Ecolodge's over-water villas on an island in northern Sri Lanka uses many eco-friendly planning and design techniques.

Setu Ecolodge's over-water villas on an island in northern Sri Lanka uses many eco-friendly planning and design techniques.

How about visitor perception of sustainable hotels and destinations? 

Visitors have become more aware of environmental and social issues. They do acknowledge that sustainable hotels are making a difference and they are more willing to support these properties than say ten years ago. They are willing to give their money to organisations like above finalists who are committed to sustainable tourism leadership in local community development, empowerment and cultural heritage, those that have achieved environmental best practice through biodiversity conservation, protection of natural habitats and who are dedicated to the development of capacity building, training and education to build a skilled tourism workforce for the future:

Do you see greater sustainability momentum in the design and construction of nature-based properties?

Ecolodges have recently been developed in new and emerging destinations like Myanmar and Laos and established destinations like Indonesia, China and India are seeing more and more nature-based tourism facilities that are using sustainable technologies and figuring out ways to save money through water and energy conservation, use of local materials, passive design techniques etc. We are currently working on an eco-friendly yet state-of-the-art Mountain Experience project in Southern China. Mention should also be made of ITC Hotels in India, a 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Award finalist for their efforts to embed sustainability into each of their property's fundamental design. ITC also self-owns wind farms for its own consumption, with more than 50 percent of its electricity powered by renewable wind and solar sources. The hotels treat and recycle water, reducing consumption by 50 percent. Excess treated water and compost are shared with local municipalities, with nearly all solid waste recycled. ITC's policy is to replant all vegetation disturbed during construction, and they have planted more than 10,000 trees in the last two years, while also ensuring that at least half of all paper and wood is either Forest Stewardship Council certified, sourced locally, or recycled.

Do you also see increased infrastructure development as a result of increased tourism activity?

Some countries are more advanced with these and India has quite a few projects in the pipeline focused on ecotourism infrastructure development. Just like with cities, infrastructure is the greatest challenge for rural authorities who are generally strapped for money. It should be noted that increased infrastructure in the ecotourism world is not necessarily a good thing. The Railway currently being built in Kenya by the Chinese is cutting through very important wildlife corridors! And the road that is being planned in Northern Serengeti in Tanzania has caused uproar in the conservation community. Cell phone towers that stick out like sore thumbs in the landscape also kill the wilderness experience.

Nihiwatu Resort on Sumba Islands, Indonesia embraces ecotourism principles in its design provided for by Hitesh Mehta.

Nihiwatu Resort on Sumba Islands, Indonesia embraces ecotourism principles in its design provided for by Hitesh Mehta.

Do you think the trends described above are likely to continue from 2017 through 2020?        

Considering that urban populations are going to grow exponentially in Asia over the next 30 years, the need to travel to natural areas for rest and relaxation is inevitable. I have no doubts that ecotourism will indeed continue to set the trends in the tourism industry.

How is HM Design geared towards shaping greater sustainability in ecotourism?

HM Design is considered by our peers as the world’s leading sustainable tourism and ecotourism physical planning and ecolodge design office. Just this year, two papers written by our firm that are related to ecotourism and ecolodges are going to be published in a peer-reviewed book. Our intention is to promote authentic ecotourism and ecolodges, and continue to be the world leader for the next twenty years.

What else is needed, you think, to ensure that ecotourism is better understood, appreciated or managed? 

The Plataran Menjangan Lodge and Spa is designed after a typical North Balinese village and has magnificent views of four volcanoes.

The Plataran Menjangan Lodge and Spa is designed after a typical North Balinese village and has magnificent views of four volcanoes.

A global umbrella body like GEN (Global Ecotourism Network) that takes over from the slowly dying The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), which currently has no board members (advisory or otherwise) with specialisation in ecotourism. The Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) is a new organisation whose founding members are the entire ex-Advisory Committee of TIES.

GEN's mission is to bring together the world’s national and regional ecotourism associations and networks, destinations, indigenous peoples, global operators, professionals and academicians to grow the industry, provide advocacy and thought leadership, and to encourage innovation and authenticity in ecotourism.

GEN will act as a vital resource for evaluating ecotourism practices and disseminating authentic ecotourism trends, applied research and experience driven studies. 

GEN is also doing something that TIES has not been able to do over the past 19 years, which is to organise a conference in Asia! GEN is partnering with the International School of Sustainable Tourism, Philippines to organise a Conference in late May-early June to celebrate the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. Formal announcements will be out next week! 

What are the recent ecotourism projects that you have been occupied with?

We have projects all around the world so I will only focus on Asia. Our office recently completed a master plan for the Plataran West Bali Nature Reserve that was a few months ago nominated by Green Destinations as one of Top 100 Worldwide Sustainable Destinations

We are also working on another Sustainable Destination Plan - Crosswaters Mountain Experience (includes tree canopy walks, hiking trails, boardwalks, suspension bridges over rivers, zip lining etc.) in southern China and located right next to the international award winning Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa for which I was the Team Planning and Design leader. 

In the Philippines, we are finalizing the Conceptual Master Plan for an eco-friendly Development – Pearl Sanctuary in the dense developed island of Boracay and next month, we will start work on the planning and design of a unique Native Tropical Botanical Garden and Lodge - KayFled Gardens and Lodge in Antipolo, Philippines.   

Hitesh Mehta's conceptual master plan of Pearl Sanctuary works around nature such as the wetland in the Philippines.

Hitesh Mehta's conceptual master plan of Pearl Sanctuary works around nature such as the wetland in the Philippines.

You have conducted quite a few ecotourism planning workshops in Asia. Can you share a few interesting observations from there?

I must admit that I have conducted more ecotourism and ecolodge planning workshops in Asia than any other continent. It is indeed my favourite place to conduct workshops. I sit on the Board of the International School of Sustainable Tourism (ISST) based in Subic Bay, Philippines and over the years I have conducted five workshops just in the Philippines. Other workshops have been held in India.

These workshops are attended by a wide range of participants – seasoned professionals (architects, planners, sculptors, engineers, landscape architects etc.), academicians (professors, deans, students), ecolodge owners and developers, government officials and more.

These five-day intensive workshops are both theory- and practice-based and participants get to put into practice over the last three days what they have learnt in the first two days. It is the only workshop of its kind in the world and average ratings are 4.7 out of 5.

What can we expect from the second volume of Authentic Ecolodges and when will it be published?

Authentic Ecolodges - Volume Two will be different in the sense that each property will have at least eight pages out of which half a page will be a poem written by my wife that best describes the sense of place of the respective ecolodge.

The intention is to highlight in this second book those countries that were not represented in the first book. I have already researched and photographed 10 ecolodges and have 20 more to go. Most recently, I inspected and photographed The Jim Jungle Retreat, a lodge in Corbett Tiger National Park, Northern India and was impressed by the way it had taken a destroyed forest and resurrect it through native plantings. It is the kind of ecolodge that will appear in my next book. I am looking at a publishing date of July 2019.

Thank you Hitesh Mehta for your second interview with Gaia Discovery.

Read the first Gaia Discovery interview with Hitesh Mehta here.

Here’s a list of Hitesh Mehta’s involvement in Asian tourism projects as of December 2016.

  • Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa, Guangdong Province, S. China.
  • Nihiwatu Ecolodge, Sumba Island, Indonesia.
  • Conceptual Master Plan for Pearl Sanctuary, Boracay Island, Philippines.
  • Sustainable Tourism Destination Plan for Vagamon Hill Retreat, Kerala, India.
  • Mannar Island Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, Mannar Island, Sri Lanka.
  • Sustainable Development Master Plan for Wolong Panda Reserve, Sichuan Province, China.
  • Sustainable Tourism Plan for Plataran West Bali Nature Reserve, Bali, Indonesia.
  • Sustainable Tourism Plan for Crosswaters Mountain Experience, Guangdong Province, S. China.
  • Antam Cluster Conceptual Master Plan, Java, Indonesia.
  • Conceptual Master Plan for Gandhara Flower Valley, Yunnan, China. 
  • Visioning for Woto Moro Ecolodge, North Maluku , Indonesia
  • Short Consultancy for refurbishment of Dhikala Ecolodge, Corbett Tiger Reserve, India.
  • Provided short consultancies for Ecolodges in Vietnam, Mongolia and Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia

Mehta has conducted the following capacity building activities in Asia:

  • Five-Day Ecolodge Planning and Design Training Workshops, Philippines. (1998, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016)
  • Five-day Ecolodge Planning and Design Training Workshops in Sikkim and Jim Corbett NP, India
  • Two-day field trip of Eco-Friendly Properties in Sabah Province, Malaysia
  • One-Day Eco-Planning and eco-Design Workshops- Blue Ridge Mountains, Alice Springs and Tasmania - Australia
  • Half-day Trail Design Training Workshop, Tasmania, Australia
  • Half-day Trail Awareness Building Workshop, Mannar Island, Sri Lanka

Photos courtesy of HM Design.

Joanne Reed: Biodegradable PicknBin Bags Promote Nature Conservation

In an exclusive interview with Gaia Discovery, Joanne Reed - owner and managing director of PicknBin LLC - shares her motivation behind the design and marketing of a unique green product: PicknBin Clean-up Kits that comprise handy biodegradable bags and wet wipes encased in an easy-to-carry wallet for carrying trash and treasures alike.

Prof Lye Lin-Heng: Why Attend the Sustainable Development Goals Conference 2016 in Singapore?

In an exclusive interview with Gaia Discovery, Assoc. Prof Lye Lin-Heng, Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law (APCEL) and chairperson of the organising committee and highlights the significance of the first-of-its-kind conference on "Attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals - Environmental Law, Policy and Management" in Singapore.

Robi Navicula: GINKalimantan Helps Kids Become Change Makers

A GAIA DISCOVERY exclusive with Robi Navicula, leader of GINBali, who calls for support in the upcoming GINKalimantan conference.

Vilma D'Rozario: Passionate about wildlife

Gaia Discovery connects with Vilma D'Rozario of

Cicada Tree Eco-Place

 for Mallika Naguran's

MEM Alumni Group and the Nature Society

talk titled "Face of the Conservationist". Originally presented at the SG50: Nurturing Nature with Community Involvement" Seminar. By Shermaine Wong.

Singapore, 12 May 2015.

How did you first get involved in conservation advocacy?

Vilma D'Rozario, co-founder of the Cicada Tree Eco-Place. Photo credit: Yeo Suay Hwee.

Vilma D'Rozario, co-founder of the Cicada Tree Eco-Place. Photo credit: Yeo Suay Hwee.

I first started as a member of the Nature Society Singapore (NSS). I was the chairperson of the NSS education group from 2000 to 2008. And prior to that, as I was growing up I was always encouraged by my parents to enjoy nature outdoors, so I think it was kind of natural. I had come back from the United States in the mid-1990s, and felt that there was really not so much nature around compared to the US, but then I joined the NSS and then learnt from experienced nature guides that there was really a lot of nature to see and enjoy. Hence I started to serve in the society as education chairperson. After that I felt that we would like to branch off on our own to start our own NGO so that we can just focus on education and education outreach and also wildlife, nature, conservation advocacy. I would say about 2007 to 2008, my friends and I started the organisation Cicada Tree Eco-Place; what we do is to help kids and their families know a bit more about nature, biodiversity and conservation.

I am still a member of the Vertebrate Study Group of the NSS, I do a lot of biodiversity surveys and I have been consistently active as a nature surveyor and help NParks to survey biodiversity. We also have our own surveys. I would say we have quite a good contact with wildlife in Singapore. 

What were some challenges that you faced in the past 10 or so years that you have been in conservation advocacy?

Juggling time, because I work full-time as a teacher educator at NIE. Wildlife is my passion, so time is a challenge, to do whatever I want to do, over and above what I have to do.

The other, I think is the struggle to advocate for wild places in a very small island which rapidly develops and faces the constant pressure for developing land for the human population rather than a population of native fauna. I see humans as part of the animal kingdom too but it feels that it is always a constant struggle to give non-human animals a place, a rightful place and space to live; because our island is very small, use of land is just tough, it’s a fine balance between development and conservation. I found that it is tough advocating for wild places, as developments and plans are in the pipeline, there’s this constant need to be engaged with the government I think, in order to protect and safeguard wild habitats. So I see that as a constant struggle but I would say that in the past 10 years the struggle has become easier, I do feel that the government is listening, I would say that there has been a vast improvement in conservation of wild places.

I want to do a lot of things for wildlife but I struggle because I don’t have a lot of time.  The other one is the fact that we have very little space to conserve and develop for humans, to conserve wild space as opposed to use the space for development for human population.

What nature and conservation work are you involved in and what are plans for the future?

With Cicada Tree Eco-Place, I help with the programming, so coming up with events for children and their families. We are focusing on programmes for younger children from kindergarten to primary school. We do have programmes for secondary school children, but we are focusing on younger children. So that’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to, planning, programming and helping to arrange for these to happen. I’m not one of the nature guides but when there isn’t anyone to guide, I do. And I assist the nature guide, look for sponsors, attend meetings.

Save the Malayan Tiger Fundraiser for Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Photo credit: Marcus Chua | Cicada Tree Eco-Place blog

Save the Malayan Tiger Fundraiser for Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Photo credit: Marcus Chua | Cicada Tree Eco-Place blog

The other things we are very much involved in this year is to partner MyCAT in tiger conservation raise funds 40,000 SGD for MyCAT, we have given them 20% of funds raised, 8,000 SGD. 60% of the funds raised is going towards bringing people from Singapore to Malaysia Pahang Sungei Yu forest area. So we bring citizens from here, whether international or Singaporeans, over to Malaysia and together with our MyCAT partners, we patrol poaching hotspots to look for snares and persuade poachers to stop poaching. I am the Cicada rep for two of these walks, and the other members are the reps for the other walks. So we are very much involved in this. We are planning to have all those in the catwalk to come together to see what we can do in future to continue to take action and stop poaching in the area, and especially to help conservation. Once you help the conservation there, you not only help the tigers but also other wildlife. I am also helping out with Vertebrate Study Group, we are involved in surveying other parts of Malaysia, surveying for biodiversity.

Through my work at the NIE, together with Susanna Ho from MOE outdoor education, we are doing research on nature’s benefits to kids, whether being outdoors benefits the wellbeing of kids. We have completed a literature review on this subject and we are starting on the second part. We are intending to interview ten master nature educators on kids being outdoors, the benefits and effects on wellbeing and how they got to nature education. What we are doing to select these people, is that we are going to ask the community to nominate people who are the best of the best in nature education and we will then interview them. We hope this study will inform us better and will in turn inform how we can include nature education in the formal school system.

Future plans are very linked to the present.  We are looking to come up with a book for kids, one would be for younger children, primary 1 and primary 2. There will be a colouring book and an accompanying book on nature, wildlife and wildlife interactions, though this is just something we would like to do. We would like to continue catwalks and we might be doing a seminar where we will get speakers from both Singapore and Malaysia to talk about conservation and taking action, corporate business CSR with biodiversity, that’s something I was thinking about. I am quite passionate about wildlife surveys; it’s only when you know about the wildlife in your country and the region then you can conserve them.

And hopefully I get less busy with work and really focus on nature outreach and conservation but that will be probably 5 years down the road.

I feel very much for young researchers, I really feel for young people, my wish is for young people to develop a better understanding and passion for biodiversity. Cicada Tree Eco-Place has raised some funds from the tiger fund raising last year and the money is to help young researchers, who want to research in biodiversity, to actually to do the studies they want to do. We can help with very small grants for young researchers, because I think there is a need for fundamental research in wildlife, locally as well as regionally. One of my dreams to help young people do this kind of research.

What troubles you still with regard to the conservation of nature and biodiversity in Singapore?

The fact that we are a very small island and there is constant competition, in terms of conservation of wild habitats and development. I see the challenge for Singapore is the growth in human population, I am afraid that this might displace wild habitats. My dream is for wild habitats to remain status quo, they have been encroached on ever since Singapore started developing many years ago, since its founding in 1800s till now. So population growth, I would see that this would pose a problem. I am for the population to not grow anymore unless there is a creative way of having more balance, means no more forest or marine environment should be encroached on anymore.

Vilma (left) and Teresa Teo tied themselves to a tree at Hong Lim Park to appeal to LTA to re-route the proposed Cross Island MRT Line. credit: Marcus Chua | Yahoo Newsroom

Vilma (left) and Teresa Teo tied themselves to a tree at Hong Lim Park to appeal to LTA to re-route the proposed Cross Island MRT Line. credit: Marcus Chua | Yahoo Newsroom

One case study that I have been involved, this is in my personal capacity, was for Love Our MacRitchie Forest. We actually tied ourselves to a tree for 24 hours to make a statement in response to the Cross Island Line (CIL), my friends protested with permission from NParks and the police. That sparked off interest, I think that was the best thing that happened. There weregroups like Toddycats, BES Drongos, I think we kind of started the ball rolling, as the young people went ahead and got trained and now we have the two groups guiding at MacRitchie. I really am thankful for being part of this movement. This is an example of how development could encroach upon a habitat.  All the conservation advocacy work, I would say, involves quite close communication between nature groups and government groups. In discussing the CIL, I’m really happy to say that things are promising in my mind, because there is a lot of discussion and I would say genuine clearing out of concerns from the nature groups, I am happy with that, but this is an example of one of my fears and challenges, competition for land use, between development and wild habitats.

Finally, what do you think are some probable solutions to addressing these problems?

Well I think that it’s very good to have open communications between the government and the community, there needs to be a certain partnership between both, and I see that happening very much, especially in the last 5 years where there is very much more in discussion. Whenever there is a development, we are invited to hear about what the development is about.

Members of Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) met with MOS Desmond Lee to brainstorm ideas for furthering the Ubin Project.

Members of Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) met with MOS Desmond Lee to brainstorm ideas for furthering the Ubin Project.

Perhaps a solution to this, if we could be involved upfront, a little bit more ahead of development, to be engaged more, sooner rather than later, rather than have the plan already made, then to ask our opinions. To have us involved in the making of the plans, that would be better, there is some move towards this, like Pulau Ubin, there is a quite a lot of

discussion with community and nature groups. So if we could come in the planning stage more upfront rather than at the end.  

The other solution that I believe very much in is action, if the young can be outdoors, in order to appreciate wild habitats, to enjoy a playground, go to a wild habitat to learn about wildlife and their interactions in the forest or mangrove, I think that’s very important and should be in the formal education. We see very little interaction between kids and wild habitats in Singapore, so I would say that’s the challenge. Our solution is try to know come out with some concrete evidence, that kids will be better off, or maybe academic achievements will be heightened with interaction with nature. This would inform our education ministry, some evidence to support outdoor learning, it is implemented somewhat in schools but we want to establish that there is rightful place for outdoor learning. If kids learn that wild habitats are beautiful places, for the fact that they’re home to animals and wildlife, which is part of the whole ecosystem of our planet, there is more hope for a better planet for the human population, as well as caring for the non-human animal population.

Debby Ng: Blogging the Environment

Debby Ng is the founder of the Hantu Blog and the Himalayan Mutt Project. She talks to Shermaine Wong about her work for Mallika Naguran's talk on the "Face of the Conservationist", for the  MEM Alumni Group and the Nature Society seminar.

Singapore, 12 May 2015
How did you first get involved in conservation advocacy?

Debby Ng, founder of the Hantu Blog and co-founder of the Himalayan Mutt Project. Photo credit: Debby Ng/Himalayan Mutt Project.
My first exposure to working with wildlife was with TRAFFIC (wildlife trade monitoring network; a joint programme of WWF and IUCN) in South East Asia. I started working as a researcher in illegal wildlife trade. But before that, I was passionate about animal welfare. Conservation advocacy for me was borne out of concern for animal welfare. I started volunteering at animal welfare organisations when I was ten years old. When interacting with people with different concerns about animal welfare, I learnt about conserving nature and wildlife.

What were some challenges that you faced in the past 10 or so years?

For the Hantu Blog, one of the biggest challenges was getting volunteers to participate. The first several years of the Hantu Blog was run entirely by me; if I stop doing anything, the Hantu Blog stops doing anything. But the wonderful thing now, perhaps because of greater awareness of marine life and of what we do, more divers have come forward to volunteer, and not volunteer on an ad-hoc basis. These are people who are committed in the long term.
The most experienced Hantu Blog volunteer has around eight to ten years of experience, and these are the kinds of volunteers that we want, passionate and committed, with real skills that can be shared and transferred to others. At first, the Hantu Blog was more of an outdoor sport activity. We wanted really to reach out to the larger community in Singapore, and we are still trying to develop the manpower of the team. Major challenges include the need for people to physically participate and to get the kind of committed, long-term and skilled volunteers that can help the Hantu Blog.
As for the Himalayan Mutt project, the main challenge is fund-raising. We have a very lean team but efficient. In terms of manpower, we don’t need a lot of people. We need volunteers that have very specific skills – vet or nurses, animal handlers. What we are looking for now is to get suitable accreditation that will give us some kind of financial stability. It is a public health and environmental project which was started because we want to protect wildlife and take care of the feral dog population. So we have to educate financial supporters on why is it important to give us financial support.

What nature and conservation work are you involved in at present and what are some plans for the next couple of years?

That’s an interesting question because none of these projects were planned; they were created to serve a need that was realised. What drove me for Hantu Blog was that back in 2003, Shell, which owns an oil refinery next to Pulau Hantu, was starting a land reclamation project. If no one knew about Pulau Hantu reefs, then potential damage could not be recognised. Lack of knowledge is very dangerous, to not know what was lost. So what inspired the Hantu Blog, was that people demonstrated through the diving forums – my main platform for sharing information – that they were interested. Hantu Blog was thus borne out a dire need due to time pressure, and public interest to generate momentum for such a project.
A villager looks on as vets and technicians carry our neutering procedure on a local mutt. Photo credit: Debby Ng/Himalayan Mutt Project.
The Himalayan Mutt Project was inspired because I was there and happened to learn about the attacks that the dogs made on red pandas and musk deer. Casual talking with villages made me realise that there was a need, so it was a similar situation as the Hantu Blog, people were interested in having something done. I would say one of the skills that I have is to network different people, to accomplish certain needs. So I don’t actually plan to start any specific projects but they come about in my process of experiencing the community around me. If the community is keen and motivated and if I have the capacity to address their needs, I will step in to do something.

What troubles you still with regard to the conservation of nature and biodiversity in Singapore?

Example of how everyday citizens can spread news about the environment, engaging their friends and families through social media.One of the things that’s very encouraging in Singapore now, is that we are in a situation where we are all very technologically connected, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and following environmental blogs. There is a lot of access to information in Singapore, and we are very active on social media, so there is a large community that wouldn’t have on their own, be exposed to things about nature or the wonderful things we have in Singapore.
Advocacy is a three-part cycle, it starts with knowledge, and then caring about what you know. Finally, advocacy comes about when we start to do something about what we care about.
In Singapore, we have a lot of people who know about stuff, the environment, deforestation and so on. We have a lot of knowledge, and people are very educated. But whether we care or not, is something, as a society, that we really need to develop and social media has brought about a wonderful shift in perception. For example, people now know that otters can be found in places like Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Sungei Buloh, Pasir Ris Park. Before, if you want to see wildlife, you went to the zoo. Now you have a group of people willing to go into the wild and be open to potential disappointment. It is a special privilege to see them in the wild. Having people connecting with the environment, caring about it and being motivated to do something about it is important. I think people have to find a balance in their lives to make time to do something about the things they care about.

Finally, what do you think are some probable solutions to addressing these problems?

Connecting people with the environment, making them care about it and be motivated to do something about it, is something that is a responsibility of organisations like the Hantu Blog and individuals that care about nature. What social media has given to us, is that when we share info, we have a chance of reaching out to somebody who would care but just didn’t know about it.
While the Hantu Blog is an education and awareness organisation, in their personal capacity, people who have a passion for wildlife, photographers, birdwatchers or hikers, people who already have an appreciation of nature, can also share with those around them about the environment in Singapore. I think these steps will lead to people connecting with nature, and then out of these people, there will be some who will be motivated to integrate into their lives the responsibility and stewardship of being responsible for our environment and the nature that is within it.

Sustainability : or just Sustainababble?

What exactly is sustainability? Author and scientist Haydn Washington asks if it has become such and overused word as to become meaningless, rather than a key concept of the age.

Haydn Washington argues the term 'sustainable development' reflects a society in denial

Haydn Washington argues the term 'sustainable development' reflects a society in denial

Sydney, Australia, April 2015- Consider some key facts: 60% of ecosystem services are degrading; we have exceeded three ‘planetary limits’ (extinction, climate, nitrate pollution); the Earth’s ecological footprint is more than 1.5 Earths and the Living Planet Index has dropped by 52 percent. Meanwhile, extinction is at least 1,000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record. In 2009, Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and colleagues pointed out that if we continue as we are, by 2100 two thirds of all life on Earth may be extinct.

But in 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) made the terms 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' famous. Despite that, we have become hugely more unsustainable in the last 38 years.

So we have a major problem; our society is fundamentally unsustainable. But what are the key drivers of this? First is overpopulation, there are too many people on Earth, consuming at too high a level. Various authors put the ecologically sustainable human population at around two to three billion, yet it is now 7.3 billion and may reach 10.9 billion by 2050.

Given that we know we have exceeded ecological limits, it would seem obvious that population increase is a driver for environmental degradation. However, ‘overpopulation’ as a key driver of unsustainability is still commonly ignored by most or even angrily denied.

Then comes over-consumption. As economist Paul Ekins has noted, a sustainable ‘consumer’ society is actually a contradiction in terms. Since 1960, population has grown by a factor of 2.2, while consumption has gone up sixfold. If the entire world were to adopt American or Australian lifestyles, we would need at least four more planets to supply them. This can’t happen.

We need to confront the ‘Endless Growth’ myth. This is the mantra of neoliberalism and most governments and business. Proponents seek always to ‘bake a bigger cake’ rather than share the cake we have more equitably. Those who question this are castigated in both the media and academia.

Many academics now regularly talk about ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’. However, no physical growth today is either ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ (except perhaps growth in renewable energy that replaces something worse).

So is sustainability the same as sustainable development? This is a key question rarely asked. WCED assumed growth was the only way to reach sustainability. But the reality is that endless growth is actually the cause of unsustainability.

If the term ‘growth’ comes from ‘development’ in ‘sustainable development’, then this cannot be the same as any meaningful ‘sustainability’. Sustainable growth is really a sleight-of-hand that has been used to justify continuing our unsustainable ‘business-as-usual’ path. Sadly, humanity has a key problem – denial. Particularly about 'sustainable development'. We have a long history of denying things we don’t like.

Robert Engelman was the originator of the description 'sustainababble'

Robert Engelman was the originator of the description 'sustainababble'

However, the denial dam can be broken. We need to ask what ‘sustainability’ cannot be. It cannot be what Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute has christened ‘sustainababble’ – it cannot mean all things to all people. Neither can it be a denial of reality, we must accept our problems and solve them.

It cannot ignore the ecological limits of the Earth, and cannot be about endless physical growth on a finite planet. It cannot be about the substitution of money for ecosystem services. And it cannot be ethics-free, or based on a ‘human supremacy’ approach, where humanity always seeks to be the ‘master’.

Meaningful sustainability must be used to help solve our environmental crisis, and the entwined social and economic crises.

The key task is to break the denial dam and accept the reality; we have problems, we need to accept and solve them. It won’t be easy but it is still possible, although urgent.

What task could be as challenging – but also as necessary, ethical and exciting?

This article was first published in the RGS magazine, Geographical.

Haydn Washington is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW, Australia.

For more info on Haydn, go to: https://theconversation.com/profiles/haydn-washington-127130

Neoliberal Nightmare: Can geography help sustain the world?

The concentration of current political thinking on development and “progress” is not the best way to care for our planet, argues professor Mark Maslin of University College London.

London, 1 February 2015. I was recently asked by a colleague why I was working in a Geography department. I answered that geography was the study of ‘the who, the where, and the how, of the past, present and future’. I followed this up suggesting our subject has a profound role to play in both understanding and solving the great challenges of the 21st century. Of which I would suggest global inequality, global poverty, global security, environmental degradation and climate change are the most pressing.

I hope this gave them a new appreciation of geography because in my opinion, by combining natural and social sciences, geographers are building a body of work that suggests the rules governing our society are not fit for purpose and new governance systems are required to deal with these immense challenges.

First, let us investigate the state of our planet, starting with human health. Every year, seven million children die due to preventable disease and starvation. 700 million people go to bed every night feeling hungry and one billion people still do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. This is despite the fact that we have enough food and water for all seven billion people, but our political-economic system means that many people simply cannot afford them.

If we look at the Earth’s major bio-geo-chemical cycles, all have been profoundly altered by humanity. For example, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process allowing the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia for use as fertiliser has altered the global nitrogen cycle so radically that the nearest suggested geological comparison was around 2.5 billion years ago. Human actions have increased atmospheric CO2 by 40% to a level not seen for at least 800,000 years, and may have even delayed the next ice age. This has increased the acidity of the ocean faster than anytime in the last 50 million years.

Human action also impacts on non-human life. Global productivity appears relatively constant; however, the appropriation of a third of it for human use reduces that availability for millions of other species. Land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions 100 to 1,000 times higher than background rates, and likely constitutes the beginning of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. We have also moved crops and domesticated animals and pathogens around the world, leading to a unique global homogenisation of Earth’s biota.

Considering the huge influence humanity is having on the planet, it would be reasonable to assume that there should be some attempt to manage and distribute fairly the Earth’s resources. However this contradicts the dominant geopolitical and economic philosophy of the West, namely neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism encapsulates a set of beliefs which include: the need for markets to be free, state intervention being as small as possible, strong private property rights, low taxation, and individualism. Underlying neoliberalism is the seductive view that it provides market-based solutions to all our ills, and enables everyone to become more wealthy. This trickle down effect has been the central mantra of neoliberals for the last 35 years. Currently there are 3.5 billion people who live on less than $3.25 per day. In fact, according to Oxfam, the 85 richest people in the world currently own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. If we want to eradicate extreme poverty and bring the very poorest people in the world up to $1.25 per day, at current rates of trickle down it would require global GDP to increase by 15 times, taking over 100 years. Under the current economic system, this would require a huge increase in consumption levels. So the neoliberal nightmare is that to lift people out of poverty, we need to make and consume more stuff. This all requires cheap energy, which will mainly come from fossil fuels, which accelerates climate change driving deforestation and environmental degradation, making those poorest of people more vulnerable.

So the geographic understanding of the world’s current and future social and environmental challenges suggests the very economic theories that have dominated global economics for the last 35 years are not fit for purpose. What is required is proactive and aggressive redistribution of wealth, both within and between countries. This could be via provisioning of free essential services, such as access to clean water, health care and education. Progressive taxation is essential to rebalance inequalities and this in turn reduces costs, as it has been shown that small social divisions within a country lower the health care costs and raise longevity. Outdated institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation, need to be dismantled and governance structures fit for the 21st century created to accelerate sustainable development.

This is where ‘geography’ can make a difference by envisioning new political systems of governance, enabling collective action and with more equal distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities.

Mark Maslin is Professor of Physical Geography at University College London and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

m.maslin AT ucl.ac.uk

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Remembering Munir: Indonesia’s Human Rights Activist

 

The struggle for Indonesian human rights begun by the nation’s most famous activist, Munir Said Thalib, lives on. To remember him, there's now a museum. By I Gede Robi Supriyanto.

Denpasar, 21 December 2013. It has been nine years since Munir was murdered on an international flight to Amsterdam. While the ‘case’ of Munir is not completely resolved his family have recently opened a Museum honoring his life, his life’s work and the work that continues today: to keep the people of the country free from civil and human rights abuses.

Munir came from humble beginnings. Born Munir Said Thalib in Malang, East Java on December 8th, 1965, he was known for his principles of non-violence, even toward the perpetrators of violence. His colleagues and friends say Munir was strongly influenced by the teachings of Gandhi and practiced his insistent  “hate the sin and not the sinner”.

His work gained global attention and received prestigious awards, including the Swedish Right Livelihood Award in 2000, for his dedication in the improvement of human rights and civil control of the military.

“I believe a regime that uses violence is a corrupt regime… So, when our country uses violence, it proves itself to be a corrupt regime.” – Munir, July 1998

 

 

Killed by poison

Munir’s assassination case has still not seen true justice. The only perpetrator brought to trial was the pilot on the flight, Pollycarpus. He was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison, now reduced to fourteen. As the only person charged with the death of Munir by poisoning with arsenic, Pollycarpus is believed to be the fall-man, while the real perpetrators behind Munir’s assassination are still free.

Munir’s death was the final conclusion to a series of attacks and a concerted effort to terrorise him throughout his time as director of Kontras (Komisi untuk Orang Hilang dan Korban Tindak Kekerasan – Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence), a non-governmental organisation for missing persons, those who have been “disappeared”, and victims of political violence. During his time at Kontras Munir was repeatedly terrorised but it left him unperturbed and more dedicated to the cause - and his dedication to the cause never wavered. 

“Broken computers and glass do not in any way compromise the mandate that Kontras follows: to investigate human rights crimes in this country. We will continue to work as usual,” Munir told Kompas on March 14th 2002. “There will always be a reaction towards human rights advocacy. That is our challenge. You need not hold too much anger against the people who attacked Kontras. We must educate this nation to not only react with violence, because in violence our nation will never be great,” he added.

Munir was a small man in stature, but his bravery could be measured in mountains. Today he is the inspiration of many Indonesian human rights advocates who are following in his footsteps. He is a hero to those seeking justice for their people and their land, demanding worker’s rights and protesting over development and the destruction of the forests.

With Mandela

In his hometown of Malang, a small university town in the hills of East Java, Munir’s widow Suciwati oversaw the opening of the Omah Munir (House of Munir) dedicated to her husband’s memory on the day of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

“Today heaven is busy receiving Nelson Mandela,” she said while tending the gravestone.  “I’m sure Munir is happy there, hanging out with Mandela,” she added. In this case, the saying ‘behind every great man, there is a great woman’ is never more true. Suciwati, better known as M’bak Suci, with her two children, continues to fight for justice for Munir.

She was originally an activist for farmer and peasants’ rights, and now continues her husband’s cause. Together they started a grass roots campaign “Menolak Lupa” (Refuse to Forget) which has gained wide support from youth and popular culture in Indonesia.

Munir made choice to live a simple life: “This is a life choice. I avoid a life of irony, where people are still in poverty, but I live a life of luxury. Or if my colleagues at Kontras, or other organizations, live simple lives and face high risks, I must not live a different way than them. That would destroy what we are fighting for, which is a more fair process for the lives of our people,” he said.   

With the opening of the museum and the recent documentation of Munir’s life in film and song the hope of many Indonesians lies in his words as Indonesians cast their votes for their next Presidental leader:

“What we must fear most is fear itself, because fear distorts our judgment.”

 

Omah Munir: The museum is located at Jl. Bukit Berbunga No. 2, Kota Batu, Malang, East Java, and is made up of four main rooms which display the history of Munir and his work. It documents the history of crimes against human rights since the New Order Regime in Indonesia began, cases of human rights violations and missing people, as well as what Munir left behind, including some physical items, and also his ideology. The museum was founded to provide information and documentation regarding advocacy for human rights and justice in Indonesia. Besides a place to remember Munir as an icon of Human Rights activism in Indonesia, the museum also hopes to serve as an alternative place of learning for future human rights activists, students and the general public.

 

 

Mallika Naguran in Voices Today Television Show

Singapore, 3 October 2013. Mallika Naguran, founder of Gaia Discovery and a sustainability consultant, was part of a panelist invited by Singapore's major news medium Today to comment on the topic of happiness. Apparently, Singaporeans are an unhappy lot despite economic progress, low unemployment rate and rising affluence. The half hour show Voices Today was broadcast live today, with a repeat edited full hour version screened two days later. 

In the episode, Mallika Naguran gave her views on a way forward to secure happiness, that is by building on internal and external resilience. "Resilience is the ability to bounce back from hardships while continuing to function.  Individuals who are resilient will be able to withstand hardships. Cities that are resilient will help to provide for each other and give each other a helping hand."

Mallika, who was born in Singapore, provided an example of city resilience. "Community gardening, for instance, can help people who are poor or who have just lost their jobs. They can still fend for themselves as they can draw food from the garden. That's one way of people in a community coming together to provide resources for everyone to draw from."

A firm believer of sustainability, Mallika finds the phrase "sustainable development" an oxymoron. Happiness is an important aspect for consideration in the pursuit of development as Singapore seeks to increase its economic growth through means such as drawing in foreign workers and transforming nature areas for development. "Sustainable development will have to bear people's happiness in mind as at the end of the day, growth is not just a digit hike - it is meant to improve people's quality of life," she says.

Mallika Naguran, Gaia Discovery Founder, Quoted in BBC

Singapore, 21 October 2013. A BBC feature on Singapore's search for its identity sought views from socio-environmental commentator Mallika Naguran who is also the founder of Gaia Discovery. Mallika, born in Singapore and a keen environmentalist, has written commentaries and articles for various publications and newspapers. In this article, Mallika commented on the need for greater involvement of civic groups in Singapore's nation building. "I see that the government is changing. They are becoming more transparent, more approachable, taking definite steps towards sustainability. Yet this could still improve. There could be more openness in policy-making, more access for civic groups to become stakeholders in nation-building".

Here's the extract of the BBC article concerned written by Jonathon Head.

"When I was living in Singapore 13 years ago, the government was debating a decision that in other countries might have seemed rather trivial: whether or not to permit a version of Speakers' Corner, the spot in London's Hyde Park where individuals vent their opinions on whatever topic they choose to whoever wants to listen.

The year before, the then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had worried that his country was not ready for such an innovation. But in September 2000 a location was finally approved, in Hong Lim Park, near the city centre.

Being Singapore, this "free speech forum" was a regulated one. Speakers needed police permission before they could use the space.

Like so many other aspects of Singapore's "disciplinarian" state, their Speakers' Corner provoked plenty of wry comment by foreign journalists. Few people turned out to hear the first anodyne speeches. The common assumption was that Singaporeans were not interested in risking trouble with their government by listening to speeches. They would rather go shopping.

But guess what? Speakers' Corner has become the venue for a number of quite lively demonstrations recently, over an issue which has provoked more debate than at any time since the country's tumultuous birth 48 years ago - immigration.

Those demonstrations, though, are still subject to regulations. They cannot say or do anything that might stir up racial tension or disturb public order.

Read the full article directly at the BBC Website, "Singapore's mid-life crisis as citizens find their voice".

Tom Schmidt: Eco Spin in Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series

Mallika Naguran speaks to Thomas Schmidt of the Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series to find out what motivates the award winning author to write, draw and self-publish what could possibly be the most regionally significant and environmentally pertinent graphic novel series.

Faizal Jamal: Environmental Impacts of Singapore's Future Population and Land Use Proposal

Singapore Nominated MP Faizal Jamal gives her take on possible environmental impacts with the proposed Singapore government policies spelt out in the 2013 White Paper on Population and the Land Use Plan. This is the transcript of her speech delivered at a Singapore Parliamentary Debate.