Young women, young feminists, young trans and non-binary activists are fighting for climate and environmental justice across Asia and the Pacific. Here, we share some of our stories, our joys and our challenges, our experiences and our visions for change:
Leakhena Saroeurn | Cambodia
I have a question to myself before going to the village. “Energy What A Cost?”
Cambodia is one of the developing countries in Southeast Asia. There are a lot of large-scale development projects coming to do investments. According to the Ministry of Mine and Energy, they plan to construct a huge hydropower dam for 2019 in the Mekong mainstream. Sambo Dam would be located in Sambo district, Kraite province. In October 2006, China Southern Power Grid company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Cambodian Government for the feasibility study for 2,600 MW and 465 MW. 24 villages of the 19,034 Kouy indigenous people would be impacted. In 2010 the Royal Cambodian Government announced that China Goudain Cooperation would carry out feasibility studies. The Natural Heritage Institution was the newest company who conducted the feasibility study to generate the electricity of the three options 2000 MW, 1363 MW, and 1703 MW. In January 2016, the Cambodian Government announced that no dam construction project would be built until 2020.
On October 31, 2017, a letter from the Councils of Minister agreed in principle to let the Royal Group company (Cambodian company) sign an MoU with the Mine and Energy Ministry to “thoroughly conduct” pre-feasibility, feasibility and social environmental impact studies for the Sambo hydropower in 2600 MW.
Kouy Indigenous family
Ming Sareth (Ming is Aunt) living at the Damre village in the Sambo dam reservoir. The main occupation is farming and growing organic vegetables along with the river bank and also service provider for tourists to stay at her home. When asked about the income and expense that her family earn to support daily and children go to school, she laughs and says “I do not know how much money I have spent on food in the daily life, my husband catch fish or sometimes chicken and we have vegetable on my farm, I can say that the Mekong river is as my supermarket. And income from selling the organic products I save for any urgent needs in the family and to support the children go to school.”
However, I have heard about the proposed Sambo hydropower plan in my area, and I really do not know anything. I am really worried about my life. The official government has not shared the information with the communities about the construction of the hydropower. There is much time to do a feasibility study, but the community seems to not know anything. A women farmer at Kompong Rotes village, 47-year-old, (located in the reservoir of the dam) expressed:
“I do not understand about everything, these things, it is just a story that people were talking without any specific information showing the processing of the project. Am I eligible to know the development project in my country or not?”
There is no informed, prior consultation about the project developing planning before the project moves forward. The affected community has a severe lack of information about the project.
Why not alternative energy?
Again, Ming Sareat had attended a meeting about the hydropower impacts organized by the local NGO. She analysis about the huge impact from the hydropower that should her scarify or not. She was understanding that the money will go throw to the pocket of powerful people and the communities are losing everything. There will be a loss of livelihoods, land, culture, and traditional fishing. They respect the spirit in the villagers who took care of them to live in the peace being as the Kouy indigenous people. The dam will impact the traditions which are practiced for many generations.
It is more likely that people will have to migrate if the dam leads to a decrease in food security. They might not go fishing or farming anymore when they lose their home and community.
The women will stay at home alone to take care of the family and children might not get the education, because their family cannot afford. They might migrate to other places or countries, losing their identity.
Ming Sareat asks: “Why does the government need to build a dam which has huge impacts to the people and the life in and on the river? The community can use the solar panels for daily life and does not need hydropower dams.”
If thinking about other sources of the energy like the solar panel or wind. It is really suitable in Cambodia geography and less impact to the environmental and social-culture of the people.
A new crazy thing people never know!
Being an environmental and social activist, I had been involved seriously in this field since 2015. Working in field I face many challenges, there is less encouragement, challenges with traders and powerful people, my family does not allow and encourage to do this because it is a sensitive issue especially the discrimination from the people around me, as is the case when I go to the community and ask the local people to stay and some of them reject my requests because if they accept it they might get harm because of me.
Cambodia is a developing country, where people need so much demand for their daily consumption and improvement on social and environmental issues. The purpose of development is to bring people to live better than before including living condition, infrastructure, economic, social and environmental issues as well. As we see, many investments come to our country. Yet, that development does not benefit the local people much. Talking about development we need independence to think critically and deeply analysis on this issues, and we also need to ask questions:
“Who controls that development? Who benefits? Who suffers? And after development will the living condition of local people change to be better than before?”
In fact, all those developments did not benefit to the local people and it also affects the local people, especially women. Auntie Ketty, 56, lives in Kampong Speu Province and is a farmer. For decades, stakeholders lived in peacefully and harmony and depended on an agricultural field, raising animals for their consumption and as well as for selling. Villagers relied on the natural resource in the local forest such as non-timber products, collecting fruits, plucked resin rattan vines, cut the wood to burn for charcoal and so on.
Unfortunately, in the last six years, they faced many challenges because of the community’s land grabbing for planting sugar cane and other plantation without paying restitution money to the villagers. What stakeholders knew was that it was the community’s land grabbing without agreement from Royal Government of Cambodia and all news was closed and not allowed to report. During the reaction from the villagers, Ministry of Environment went to see directly but no solution had not been given yet. In addition, the local authorities received all the file complaints again the company, yet the positive result was not included.
All problems had been kept till the local community’s members thump print to report to the local authorities and to the provincial level, especially they demonstrated in conflictive areas for twice. No matter how this protest was going on without a solution, the local authorities replied that it was managing from the bottom that allowed the company to do that.
When this case happened women cannot go to find the Non-timber product anymore, some of them decided to migrate to Thailand and some of them turned to be unemployment, some of them be doing housework only so most of them lacking the opportunity to access the equal working in their community. In terms of decision making, they do not have any space to talk to the local people. In that conflict zone, there was a people movement. The poor living in the forest protected the forest because they understand that the forest protects them. Some cities and rich people value the materials and acknowledge the forest in less important. Then, there was tension between these two groups. Some development turned to destroy. The tribe people needed development but not destruction. The real development must be protective.
Some developments are positive if we do it very independently with critical analysis on the environmental and social impact assessment. Especially, if we motivate the local people in decision making and bring all their concerns to discuss and find solutions for them, so local people will enjoy the development and that will be what they needed. As the local women say:
“I do love the natural resources so much because it provides many benefits to our community as a daily consumption, as well as financial support to my family and also habitat. When the forest is gone, I felt that I have nothing to be with anymore.” “We do not need this such of development because we lived harmoniously already with our nature.”
Vidisha S Fadescha | India
Hansika Singh is a founder of EcoFolk, an initiative that works to build awareness around conscious consumption. She shares the work culture that led her to start EcoFolk, and some questions on sustainability:
Having grown up in a small town of Uttar Pradesh, branded clothing fascinated me, and as it wasn’t as accessible, I obsessed over it more. I wanted to work for a large fashion brand one day, so pursued my graduation at National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. I thought of large creative businesses as a means of job creation and prosperity for people and considered to start one of my own in the future. In 2009-12, while working for a large retailer, I understood the nuances of the industry better, and how these attractive clothes hide in their seams; harmful impact on the environment and exploitative labor practices. Though it’s not completely black and white either.
While working here I had many well-meaning colleagues in the ‘Sustainability’ department, genuinely trying to do honest and good work. At the end of it however, we were a business feeding a culture that thrives on perceived obsolescence leading to impulsive, conspicuous consumption. Because of the immense pressure of making huge volumes of clothing with unrealistic margins,
manufacturing has a way of moving to the poorest parts of the world where people sometimes have to choose between earning a living and enjoying basic human rights and dignity of labor.
The question of saving the environment is inherently linked to treating each other with dignity and respect and one cannot talk about true sustainability in these businesses, as long as we are only focusing on ‘green-materials’, improved efficiencies, and charity work for communities at risk.
It is when I, with some other friends started EcoFolk, a not-for-profit, that addressed the key questions of the unsustainability of our consumption and production. A new consciousness of the working classes is necessary to even begin the re-imagination our economic system. Since 2014, we have conducted workshops with over 300 children and adults on various themes in three different cities. We also started a networking event in 2016, “Sustainability Drinks Bangalore”, that provides a platform for various stakeholders— professionals, entrepreneurs, academics, activists and civil society, in Bangalore city, who are working on interdisciplinary issues in the realm of social and environmental sustainability. We have connected about 500 people over the course of 8 get-together events.
For a year in between, I also worked with two weaver clusters facilitated by a government body, and figured the complexities of the narrative of looking at ‘handlooms’ as a go-to answer for sustainability and how it serves to create a certain kind of value and price perception that serves luxury businesses more than the weaver or the maker of the product.
Our imagination of sustainability is increasingly hijacked by brands (both big and small) trying to make it a tool of brand differentiation and enhance their capital accumulation.
With these experiences, and a desire to make sense of the complex landscape of sustainability related questions, I am back at school, trying to understand the inevitable linkages between the way we look at the development of human society and sustainability— what is it that we are trying to sustain, and if it is inevitable? How culture and politics shape such debates, along with our ideas of equity and justice.
I am currently working on a research project on the linkages between institutional arrangements, government budget allocations and the sustainability of Bengaluru’s mobility. Bengaluru has seen a systematic neglect of public transport system, especially buses in the last decade. Buses can be promoted as a decentralized, affordable, equitable and sustainable means of mobility. This neglect has led to a drastic vehicular growth and inevitable increase in road congestion, traffic and air pollution. Being a member of the “Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike” (a bus commuters rights group, that works for the right of safe, comfortable and affordable mobility) lets me explore environmental concerns as they affect everyday life of the common citizen of a city like Bangalore.
Sally Souraya | Lebanon
In 2015, Maggie Sun, a Chinese expert in the disability field, started to dive. Soon after discovering the wonders of the underwater world, the adventure became a passion and a whole new path was awaiting her: A path that goes beyond diving … connecting it to an acknowledgment and awareness of her social and environmental responsibility.
“As a diver, I started to see how beautiful the under water world is. Then, I realised that this whole new experience is transformative by all means. I started to be more aware and to pay more attention to what is happening to the ocean. When you see sharks, turtles and other fishes, you feel that you don’t want them to be hurt. You want them to live freely in the ocean. You feel that you have got to do something to save them and save the ocean”.
This is when Maggie responded to this transformative inner voice by volunteering in advocacy campaigns to reduce the use of plastic in China and sharing her story of adopting a life style with the minimum plastic use possible. Then, Maggie joined a Chinese organisation called “Divers for a Better Ocean”, which organise events in different cities to raise awareness and shed the light on the situation of the plastics’ crisis in the ocean and the harm it brings not only to marine life but also to human beings.
Maggie’s interest lies in understanding and addressing the cleavage between our modern urban life and the ocean. A reality that is unfortunately led by our daily life’s attitudes and behaviours.
Maggie reflects on how we act as if the ocean is just in another separate world. Thus, “we give ourselves the excuse that we do not need to care and so, we do not care! We carry on using plastics as if it does not matter”.
After visiting some islands in Malaysia earlier this year, the images of the big piles of garbage floating with the waves were haunting Maggie’s memory as flashbacks. A strong drive to address this environmental issue was calling her, so she found herself willing to dive deeper into this field. She made the decision to resign from her job and start her own initiatives to protect the ocean. Hence, she went back to the Malaysian islands to better understand the situation and brainstorm ideas on how to bring sustainable solutions to such areas. Maggie is determined to utilize her expertise in the field of development to understand how both the needs of the people and those of the ocean can be sustainably addressed.
To take environmental activism forward and make a difference, Maggie thinks that we do need more than just support. We need actions! “I see most people are supporting but not acting yet. They agree with the ideas but not everyone is doing what they need to do. They don’t take actions and change their behaviours.” Following on that, Maggie adds: “If we want to impact change, we should focus more on empowering women especially in rural areas. I believe that women are stronger and more united. They are more active and responsible than men in tackling social and environmental issues. They also care more about creating a better place for their children”.
Maggie believes that being a diver should not only be limited to the luxury of the experience lived under water. There is a much more important role to play as activists to inform others on how to protect the ocean. While contemplating the extent of this responsibility, Maggie is interested in joining forces with other people with relevant experience in the environment sector and perhaps establishing a new organisation with a focus on sustainable protection of the ocean.
In her shift from working on disability rights to protecting the environment, there is definitely continuity, in the commitment and responsibility that Maggie has taken as a woman to be actively involved in issues that matter and would drive change in the society. Maggie did not turn the page; she just opened a new one that she believes: “It is just the start!” As she is now taking a gap year from work, Maggie is going to unite her efforts to fill a gap in protecting the ocean. Her contribution might just be “a drop in the ocean”. But, well each single drop counts! Maggie is aware that this commitment requires an investment. Thus, she is ready to give it the time it needs to develop and grow. While funding is a challenge, Maggie decided that she would not wait until she gets funds to act. This year, she started to put away 5% of her income to support environmental initiatives, which she aims to continue on doing when she starts a new job in the future.
In her journey, Maggie talks about certain preconceptions that she faces as a Chinese activist.
“People always joke that Chinese people eat sharks fins and do not have awareness about their seafood consumption behaviours and how damaging they are for the sea life. I just want to change this perception and let people know that not all Chinese are the same. They are also Chinese who are trying to do something to protect the ocean”.
Maggie is definitely one of them and her story is yet to be continued …