This article looks at conservancy issues in Pahang state (Pahang water basin project), preservation of the environment, anti-mining issues as well as the preservation of wildlife and fauna. Today’s NGOs’ are more collaborative and more proactive than before. Yasmin Rashid shares her thoughts as a founder of Eco Knights and Chairperson of Malaysian Environmental NGOs (MENGO) on what it means to mobilize ourselves as well as available resources to better tackle natural disasters. She shares with readers her game plan where everyone needs to do their part to avoid natural tragedies. Having an understanding of the potential disasters to avoid is just the beginning of understanding the mindset that is needed in Malaysia which is still at its infancy stage. Malaysians need to better understand their collective roles and responsibilities and to face the challenges of tomorrow. Yasmin looks at the challenges, problems and solutions facing environmentalists as they try to reconcile commercial business interests and environmental interests
1. Can u tell us a bit about your background and the NGO you founded called Eco Knights and your role with Malaysian Environmental NGO called MENGO?
I will share a little bit of my academic background. I’m a trained Marine Biologist. I also have an additional degree in Religion. I have a Masters in Biotech and I am still back in school. I am inclined towards the Sciences and since 1996 I have been doing quite a lot of environmental work. I think it is also very coincidental that I came back to Malaysia after graduation. We had a slight economic downturn and that basically opened up my eyes to do more work and spending time doing work with NGO’s and naturally that led me on to continue expanding my networking, knowledge and impact by working through NGO’s. Currently, I am the chairperson of Malaysian Environmental NGO called MENGO. This is my third year as the chairperson. MENGO is made up of 26 members. My role with MENGO is to work on strategic engagements with government agencies in matters relating to environmental governance and policies. I also lobby for sustainability with relevant key stakeholders such as corporate entities. I spend some amount of time on fundraising for MENGO as well. Besides my involvement with MENGO I have also founded and am the President of an NGO called Eco Knights. We basically serve the community through development-led interventions from education and awareness programs to research and public participation programs to consultation. Our partners and clients range from government agencies and communities to corporate agencies and NGOs. Two years ago I stated a social enterprise which is Agro based.
2: How is Malaysia’s Rainforest being preserved despite rapid urbanization and commercial development?
My personal opinion is that development is something a country cannot avoid especially when you are talking about us Malaysia being a developed country and we always want to catch up with other countries in terms of development goals and so forth. Fortunately many of the activities or efforts to preserve the rainforest or to re-plant or to protect the rainforest are predominantly advocated or spearheaded by NGO’s or Social Groups. At the same time, development is normally the Government’s domain. So you can see a dichotomy of who is protecting it and at the same time they are also very keen to clear it. A couple of ways in which these NGO’s or grassroots societies are working together to preserve the rainforests is through reforestation or re-planting activities. You can notice in the last 10 years or so there is quite an aggressive push towards tree planting activities and you can see all segments of society actually working on that. How effective that is? We do not have much data. However it does balance out as for every square foot of land that is cleared and there is someone out there replanting it. On the Government side, we have Government linked NGO’s that are working on delivering more green efforts on the ground. How are we preserving it? The most important part is for every acre of land that we clear we ensure that within the same acre there is also replanting efforts by green NGOs.
3. Have you thought about bringing this awareness to schools?
I think schools are quite aware now. We have been doing school programs for decades. However, bringing that awareness to schools and seeing that transition from awareness to action in the younger generation is still lacking. I’m not sure whether because we live in an era where there is too much information, or just too many things to do which lack the decidable about the impact that we do as an individual but there are many entities not just NGO’s but lot of members of society that are very keen to bring these kind of awareness to schools. I would say that I am very confident to capture this that not only Eco Knights but other NGO’s are trying to infuse this to our school system.
4. One of your aims as mentioned on your website is to act as a watchdog to ensure that the development model is sound and socially just. What kind of measures have you taken to ensure that those who do not follow this rule are brought to the eyes of the law?
We do bring this up on social media very strongly from the Bauxite Mining in two liners, to the Nuclear Plants, to the Rare Earth situation, to flooding in areas which we have predicted floods or even a couple of years back on the water crisis where we published an article in 2012 forewarning that there will be a water crisis in 2014. Only when it hits us than people took us seriously and found that these articles were already published. So we try to be bring this information at an earlier point to Malaysians. We have seen ourselves that Malaysians are non-reactive to information and if you are trying to forewarn them to be more reactive so that they would be able to face negatives in the wake of a crisis. I think that kind of mindset has to change amongst us all. So during a wake of a crisis we become more reactive instead of becoming pro-active. Another way which we can react is through Eco Knights where it is on board government panels such as environmental pack assessments partner. So lately for instances there are several massive developments going on in the Northern regions which we were called upon to provide expert advice in what we feel would be the impact of that development not just on the environment but also on society at large. So these are things we do behind the doors and we also cannot reveal too much of it because these developments are often government developments led by the state or federal government. We are also invited regularly by the government to comment on draft policies for the country for instance the National Body Policy and even the National Tourism Plan. So these are some of the areas where we advocate or share our perspectives on areas related to policy matters. At the end of day policy planning is the highest level that you can go when it comes to influencing governments.
5. How well has the Government support your cause and have they played an active role in this partnership with MENGO?
With MENGO, the government has been very supportive because MENGO was partially formed by the government. So you can see this very strongly that we get a lot of invitations whether it is to go to AG Chambers and talk about environmental issues and so forth. With other NGO’s I think the government are very selective in which NGO’s they want to work with. My personal experience is when the government needs your help than they will call you and it does not really work in reverse. So normally again like I said that we are more re-active than pro-active so only when the flood issue in Kelantan was a unique situation where you can see the news on social media and it was a little bit out of control that lives were affected That’s when the PM office will call us and say would you like to be in our flood rescue mission think tank. Similarly with the haze we started releasing so many press releases and our opinions about the haze, than we got invited into the API monitoring task force. So sometimes, we really need to be focal about it before the government thinks hey maybe we should get them on board to have this discussion. Either way it’s better to be onboard than not being on board so we try various pathways to make sure that we are heard either our opinions or our ideas or our suggestions are taken into consideration.
6. Which are the areas that you are currently working on?
Personally at this moment for the next six to nine months I am taking a back seat and experimenting with my young team and seeing how they are taking the challenge and leading some of the programs that we initiated. Right now I am trying to finish my thesis. The three areas that we are working are on responsible consumerism and we are doing this by merging with entrepreneurs with a green sense of business style as well as grassroots NGOs. So we have programs like the Green Market trying to encourage Malaysians or trying to set up a message to Malaysians about thinking about sustainable consumption reduction. We also have our school program which we just launched which is actually free talks and workshops for schools whenever they want they can sign up for it. We are also running the Kuala Lumpur ECO film fest. On the side we are also doing a lot of engagement with the corporate side looking at CSR and also fundraising.
7. What kind of support do you provide to the grassroots to carry out their cause and to the public?
When grassroots need assistance and support they naturally levitate to us. For instance, this evening we are already meeting a bunch of young teenage entrepreneurs who want to understand how to make a bigger social impact on enterprises, so many of them come to us and engage us directly. We don’t really go out there and reach out. I think people who want to tap on our strength or want to tap on our knowledge or get ourselves exposed to bigger eco system they would naturally come to us for support. I think it is on a case by case basis.
8. The Malaysian government has recently introduced three months moratorium of bauxite mining in Pahang. How well do you receive this? Is the moratorium a good way to reduce mining and solve environmental concerns?
I think to address this question; we must understand that the government is in two sides which is the Federal and State government. The Federal government has enforced the three months moratorium, the Federal government has spoken in the public media but the State government has not done anything so far. We are very familiar with the Malaysian Laws. Anything to do with land matter with bauxite mining lies under the State Government and water as well. So the question should be what is the State government doing about this? So we must be specific with this question. I think this is the case of bad planning. Perak has a blue print for mining and I don’t think Pahang has a plan or a document on blueprint on mining. This is the scheme called “Cepat Kaya” kind of concept. One person does it, gets rich overnight and suddenly the whole kampong also wants to do it. They will find a way to do it right from the person who is mining to the person issuing the licenses. So this is an area where the Federal government is also having severe difficulties. How do you monitor what the State is doing to its own resources because technically it is the Sultan or Menteri Besar who has direct authority on water and land. If you are aware all these matters it will generate revenue for the State and not so much for the Federal government. We have written letters to the Pahang State Government to ask for some sort of explanation or some form of clarification. Obviously Bauxite mining will continue until there is no more Bauxite. Do they have plans in place to make sure that they don’t pollute the environment? Two days ago the river is now no longer red but now it is black. New sources of pollution is entering the river systems in Pahang now. Pahang seems to have all these environmental problems. Pahang is really on our radar right now. How well are we receiving this? Not too well. I think in general we should have a plan a sustainable plan for every activity that happens in the State and Federal level. We are not anywhere close to it yet so hopefully we can fight for better State governance from now onwards.
9. How can we stop such mining? There are people who would rather go for short term financial gains to destroy their environment rather to preserve their environment for long term gains.
It’s very hard to stop mining activities. It’s not up to the Federal government but it’s up to the State government. Mining does generate revenue for the State unless there are opportunities for entrepreneurs or young individuals to look at what they can contribute to the State that does not require exploitation of resources. I think this is the part when you look at creative ways of being enterprising. For short gains I think that is the state of the environment right now. Many of us are looking at short term gains unfortunately. Financial gain is only that we are looking for. We are not looking for environmental gains. We are not looking at gaining at better quality of life. Not looking at gaining better social aspects of our life. This is a million dollar question. Is the GDP an indication of growth? This is the battle the country has fight for. How do we measure the health and quality of the people in this country without necessarily exploiting land and water and the air? So until our younger generation sees that balance, until our younger generation is educated well on these issues. I think we are far from achieving sustainability and far from balancing our social economy and environmental objectives.