Fighting the green fight
Across Southeast Asia, there are environmental activists risking their freedom and facing violence as they fight the green fight. Here we profile four of these unsung individuals campaigning in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines
As Swedish teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg’s advocacy has echoed around the globe in the past year – culminating in the 17-year-old being named Time Magazine’s 2019 ‘Person of the Year’, as well as being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and 2020 – she has shown the world just how big an impact one young activist can have on political discourse.
In Southeast Asia, environmental activism remains a small but burgeoning field, with several lesser-known activists and organisations working tirelessly across the region in the face of a culture of entrenched seniority hierarchies, as well as the looming threat of violence and arrest by less-than tolerant authorities with much to lose.
Remaining largely unknown to the general public, these are some of the individuals and organisations fighting the green fight across Southeast Asia.
With Southeast Asia, we are still developing countries. We cannot speak about the climate crisis the same way as they do in the US or in Europe
Nanticha (Lynn) Ocharoenchai
Climate Strike Thailand founder
Lynn has been referred to as “Thailand’s Greta Thunberg”, and indeed the 22-year-old environmental journalist and grassroots activist was inspired by the Swede’s Friday for Future School Strikes when she founded the Climate Strike Thailand movement in March 2019.
“It [creating awareness or building a movement] is difficult to measure because it’s not something that you do one day and then the next day you see results,” Lynn tells the Globe. “It takes a while. It goes and spreads indirectly.”
Lynn, who has taken to writing and blogging to voice her concerns about the environment since her freshman year studying at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that she found Thunberg’s advocacy work resonating with her own frustrations, inspiring her to venture into activism.
In September last year, the Global Week for Future climate strikes – part of the Thunberg-inspired School Strike for the Climate movement – swept the world, taking place in 4,500 locations across 150 countries. Among them were a small but committed band of more than a hundred Thai youth, refusing to attend school and university, who marched into the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Bangkok.
The student strikers read letters to officials demanding the government declare a climate emergency and emphasised the urgent need for a solid response to the climate crisis. The strikers also ‘dropped dead’ in front of the ministry, laying on the ground feigning death as a symbolic act alluding to our collective fate. This defiant behaviour by young students against government officials was an especially bold act in Thailand, a society with a deeply entrenched seniority hierarchy where deferring to elders is expected.
It was this occasion, Climate Strike Thailand’s third protest in 2019, that was the most memorable and impactful one, according to Lynn.
“What happened after was that some really large companies started paying attention to us and influencers started sharing about us. More people got to know about it, and people started joining. That felt like a milestone,” she said.
But Lynn cautions against taking a Western-centric attitude to environmental activism, saying that she realises that the average person living in Southeast Asia, with the myriad of issues they experience on a daily basis, may not be in a position to adopt the same approach seen in the West.
“With Southeast Asia, we are still developing countries. We cannot speak about the climate crisis the same way as they do in the US or in Europe, because we are simply still too underdeveloped to be caring about living sustainably, which is often times very costly,” she said.
With that, Lyn emphasises the importance of communicating with grassroots communities, and using creativity to engage people in environmental work.
“We have to be communicating in a way that is more approachable and relatable, in a way that people can still live their lives normally and without putting too much stress on them having to be so environmentally friendly all the time.”
The Vietnamese government is always ready to cooperate with private companies to trade the environment for economic benefits
Cao Vinh Thinh
Green Trees, Vietnam
Cao Vinh Thinh wanted to tell the truth with her storytelling skills.
During the 31-year-old’s work as an economics reporter in Vietnam, she witnessed first-hand the harm often inflicted on the natural environment by major corporations. But while the press can play a watchdog role elsewhere, Cao came to the conclusion that the outlet she was working for was unlikely to play that role anytime soon.
“They just want the companies to pay money for the marketing”, Cao says about some media outlets. “I became a journalist in Vietnam because I want to tell true stories to the viewers, but the government does not allow us to report any [critical] news.”
About five years ago, disillusioned with the state of the press, she focused her attention on a local Facebook group engaged in localised resistance against Hanoi city authorities as they planned to cut down 6,700 urban trees to make way for new development.
That social media group eventually blossomed into Green Trees Vietnam, today a fully-fledged social movement. In the years since it first sprouted online, the group’s members have documented environmental abuses, organised protests, music festivals and public awareness programmes, as well as generally made noise about environmental pollution and climate change in a country in which dissent is barely tolerated in any guise.
“The biggest environmental problem that Vietnam faces is that Vietnam’s environmental law is too weak, the leaders working for the government are corrupting environmental protection funds”, Cao says. “The Vietnamese government is always ready to cooperate with private companies to trade the environment for economic benefits.”
Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. While rapid economic development has helped to raise millions out of poverty in the country, it can also have unintended, sometimes severe environmental consequences, such as the 2016 spill of industrial chemicals from a steel plant owned by Formosa Plastics Group, a large Taiwan-owned industrial conglomerate. The spill from the factory in the Ky Anh district of Ha Tinh province devastated coastal areas in four central provinces of Vietnam. It took two months for leaders of the conglomerate to accept responsibility for the event.
Green Trees organised around the spill and petitioned the government to allow a bigger role for civic groups to examine Formosa’s reparation plans. But such activism comes with its own hazards, and speaking up against the government and major corporations in Vietnam usually means putting personal safety and liberty in jeopardy. In the Formosa case, several activists were arrested for criticising the government’s response to the leak.
Cao said it has become a regular occurrence for Green Trees members to be arrested by the police, or detained and questioned for hours without any apparent reason.
“I have been doing environmental work in Vietnam for five years”, she said, “And it has also been five years that the police followed me.”
In late October 2019, filmmaker and Green Trees member Thinh Nguyen was arrested on charges connected to his documentary film Don’t Be Afraid. The film was released by Green Trees and detailed the activism that rallied around the Formosa event – as well as the punishments dealt out by authorities to those who spoke up.
Cao said this kind of backlash has left others in the civil society uneasy with the approach of her her group.
“Some organisations do not want to work with us because they are scared of the police,” Cao said. But even if it means their ostracisation, the group’s members don’t intend to change their course.
“We need more organisations like Green Tree, because Vietnam is doing badly with the environment.”
I want to let other Cambodian girls know who want to be involved in environmental work to not be afraid and just start doing it
Mother Nature, Cambodia
When Lim Kimsor set out in 2013 to explore Areng Valley, one of Cambodia’s best-known regions famous for its wildlife habitat, she got far more than just a trekking trip.
Kimsor had already been involved in social work but, as she observed the potential for destruction of the valley by a proposed, hotly contested hydroelectric dam project, she recognised a new mission.
She was going to fight for environmental protection.
“We witnessed natural resources being destroyed to serve individual interests”, she tells the Globe. “If nothing is being done about it, we are the ones who are going to suffer through the consequences.”
In 2009, Kimsor’s family was part of an entire community evicted from their homes and forced to relocate from Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island, which was then a largely undeveloped stretch of sandy land jutting into a river. Now, the island is home to glitzy new constructions, a large stretch of which was built to emulate a Parisian avenue.
The eviction was a formative experience that derailed her dreams and prompted Kimsor’s father to advocate for their community. Living through the upheaval and watching her father step into leadership fuelled her passion for social work and planted in her a sympathy for uprooted communities.
“The eviction [from Diamond Island in 2009] made it very difficult for the people who were financially struggling already,” she says, “Just like myself, that event delayed my education, and I eventually missed my chance of going to university.”
For the past six years, Kimsor has worked in the field with Mother Nature Cambodia, a network of environmental advocates. The highly vocal and critical Mother Nature was officially shut down and blacklisted in 2017 by the Cambodian government, but its members remain active.
Kimsor’s work includes advocating for indigenous community rights at Areng Valley, confronting major sand dredging projects in mangrove-adjacent Koh Kong and serving as construction watchdog in coastal Sihanoukville, where a runaway building boom has transformed the city. Everywhere she’s gone, Kimsor has tried to prevent rapid development from inflicting undue harm on local communities and the environment they depend on.
“I want the government and the people to start thinking about natural resources, and try to maintain it,” she says.
From 2013 to 2015, she successfully supported the communities in Areng Valley to stop a dam project, which if built would have flooded thousands of hectares of forest and land belonging to the indigenous people. She also worked with local communities affected by sand mining, using the media to advocate against it as part of a movement that led the Cambodian government to ban sand exports in July 2017.
If the problems of today seem great, Kimsor warns what could happen to Cambodia in a future warped by climate change. The Kingdom was labelled in a 2015 UN report as being the world’s ninth-most vulnerable country to the effects of a shifting, hotter global climate.
“If we don’t start thinking about [environmental issues] now, there will be serious problems brought by climate change in Cambodia in the very near future,” she says.
Persisting through Cambodia’s challenging cultural environment and mindset that traditionally discourages women from doing dangerous tasks, Kimsor says she is happy with the often risky role she takes in protecting the natural resources.
“If they really love it, I want to let other Cambodian girls know who want to be involved in environmental work to not be afraid and just start doing it.”
The marine environment can provide a livelihood for communities and fisheries. If we destroy what it provides us, what will happen to the future generation?
Project Manager at Save Philippines Sea
Bryan Madera was working in the wedding business when he noticed something was going wrong in the crystal-clear waters around Boracay island, a premier resort destination in the Philippines.
The 31-year-old Madera arrived on the island in 2009 and spent seven years there, falling in love with the rich marine environment while observing the effects of mass tourism on Boracay’s beaches and marine life.
Such was the concern around the environmental degradation of Boracay, that in April 2018 the island was closed to tourists for six months, with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte labelling it a “cesspool”.
In that time, Madera realised the tourism industry could be a double-edged blade, sustaining the local economy while compromising the natural bounty that drew visitors in the first place.
“The marine environment can provide a livelihood for communities and fisheries”, says Madera, who is now a project manager with civil society group Save Philippines Seas (SPS). “If we destroy what it provides us, what will happen to the future generation?”
The Philippines is a nation of the sea, a massive archipelago of some 7,100 islands. Many Filipinos are dependent on the rich waters in one way or another, but conservation of these resources has been lacking.
Often, poachers and foreign fishermen have picked the sea clean at the expense of millions of ordinary Filipinos.
The total decimation of reef areas in the West Philippines Sea, some twice the size of Manila, has enraged those on land. Meanwhile, jurisdictional arguments with China have led institutions to file official statements of protest, such as when the major University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute last year urged the national government to protect sovereign waters and the rights of local fishermen.
In the face of major environmental issues, Madera was ready to do his part to protect the environment he’d come to love.
“There were many questions on my mind about how to intervene, but I wanted to be part of the solution,” he says.
“Youth can actually do more and should see how they can actually be part of the change.”
He joined SPS first as an intern, using the group’s platform to reach out to others and educate them on the major risks facing the surrounding waters.
Initially started in 2011 as an online activism campaign in response to a large-scale illegal marine wildlife trade, in 2013 SPS established themselves as a non-profit and community-based initiative on Malapascua Island in Cebu province.
Now, the group fights for the consistent enforcement of environmental laws written to protect marine biodiversity. A big part of Madera’s work is in providing young Filipino adults with environmental education, encouraging them to start their own sustainable community projects such as in waste management and shark conservation.
“You can actually be part of the change,” Madera says. “We in the Philippines always say that the youth, the young ones, are the future of our community. If we can provide encouragement and a proper platform for them to develop their potential, then they can lead their community towards better development.”