|ET: According to Kumi Naidoo, Head of Greenpeace International, ‘We are winning the battle but losing the planet’ – what makes Greenpeace so special in a world where environmentalist movements now have voice?
VH: It is true that environmental awareness globally is now at an all-time high. This is a testament to the sustained efforts and campaigning by environmental groups to give the environment its proper place in our current order of priorities. Sadly, it is also a reflection of the immensity and complexity of the ecological dilemmas that we now face. Only quite recently, the International Meteorological Association reported that global temperatures were rising faster than previously anticipated and that polar ice are now going through accelerating rates of melting. These are signs that we are nearing a climate threshold that could lead to far-reaching and irreversible changes to life on the planet as we know it. In this climate change era, a single anomalous event is enough to nudge vulnerable countries and communities into even greater poverty.
In other words, the environment has become a survival issue for millions of people worldwide. And despite the seeming convergence of various and interlinked ecological threats – including the anticipated water and food shortages whose outbreaks could lead to greater conflict and social instability, most governments and corporations around the world are still operating on a business-as-usual basis. We are still sleepwalking into disaster, destroying and consuming this planet as if we have another planet to go to. The window for effective action to prevent runaway climate change from occurring is narrowing down pretty fast. Yet the still predominant drive of governments to develop at all costs, their continuing reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy, and their failure to agree and commit to a fair, ambitious and legally binding climate treaty – stand as proof that we are losing the planet.
Together with other environmental groups and communities, Greenpeace is committed to help ensure that the fundamental changes that need to happen now do materialize. The fact that Greenpeace does not accept funding from governments or corporations, and the fact that we are not tied or affiliated with any partisan political interests, give our campaigns credibility and power to push for real changes.
ET: What are the major initiatives of Greenpeace South East Asia?
VH: Southeast Asia is one of the key regions of the world where Greenpeace believes it is important to make a difference. Stemming the rate of deforestation in Indonesia alone, for example, will have significant global effects in reducing greenhouse emissions, protecting habitats of endangered species, and restoring important life support functions. Southeast Asia also stands among the most vulnerable yet least prepared regions in the world when we talk about climate impacts. Some of the major interests associated with overfishing and destruction of marine resources also have a Southeast Asian connection.
So in this region, Greenpeace runs almost all the vital issue campaigns. We are campaigning to stop deforestation in Indonesia. Our climate and energy campaign in Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia has been consistently focused on promoting clean, renewable energy in place of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power plants. We are also launching our Oceans work this year, intended to highlight the crisis confronting our oceans across the region. We also have an aggressive campaign to protect iconic fresh water resources in the region against toxic pollution. On the food and agriculture front, we are committed to promote and enable the shifting of resources away from chemical intensive farming and towards ecological agriculture.
Taken together, these campaign initiatives are intended to sway the rising economies of Southeast Asia to adopt and follow a development pathway that is not predicated on the mindless and irreversible destruction of the natural environment. We do not need to repeat the mistakes and tragedies associated with industrialisation in the West, but rather we need to learn from those errors and leapfrog into developing clean and safer alternatives.
ET: The rise of the new economies (China, India, Brazil, South East Asian nations, etc.) has lifted millions out of poverty. However, some industrialists have viewed environmentalists as major roadblocks in the path to national prosperity. What is your message to them?
VH: Development need not be equated with environmental destruction. This was the rallying cry of the Earth Summit more than 20 years ago when the concept of sustainable development started taking root. Viewing the defence of the environment as anathema to progress, especially in this time and age, is therefore regressive, myopic and self-serving. It is precisely this kind of short-sighted thinking that is bringing the planet to the brink of an impending climate catastrophe.
When millions of people are pushed to even greater poverty as a consequence of a single, extreme weather event, is that progress? When children, consumers and communities are exposed to toxic, life-threatening chemicals and pollution, is that progress? When flash floods and landslides induced by deforestation continue to decimate entire villages, is that progress?
Perhaps the best answer to those who still have this terrible sense of deficiency about what progress ultimately means is captured in a proverb which counsels that “when the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish caught, only then will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
ET: What are the biggest challenges faced in undertaking Greenpeace initiatives?
VH: The biggest challenge is still the predominant mindset in our societies which views environmental defence as obstructionist and anti-development. This thinking has spawned and reinforced the irresponsible, reactionary stereotype of environmental activists as economic saboteurs or even worse, as terrorists, especially in places where the spaces for legitimate protest and democratic participation are absent if not shrinking.
Our activists and campaigners are often at the receiving end of hostile threats coming from campaign adversaries or those who are made uncomfortable by our actions. We do recognize that this comes with the territory. Having said that, we are always mindful of the risks and we accept that at times, our commitment would require us to operate in harsh, risky environmental settings.
Another big challenge is public indifference to the real issues and trends that are now shaping our future. People are continually distracted by the latest craze, or the new gadgets out there, or the fleeting consolation accorded by our comfortable lifestyles – that we begin to lose sight of the vision to pursue the real needs and challenges of our times.
ET: Could you please share with us some of the significant successes of Greenpeace South East Asia in its campaigns?
VH: All is not grim, and the reason I remain optimistic about the future comes from the many successes that our campaigns have had in Southeast Asia over the last decade. Our campaigns have already resulted in a number of key local and national victories – which involve not only stopping a polluting waste incinerator, a coal energy plant or a nuclear power proposal, but also mainstreaming safer alternatives such as in the areas of renewable energy and zero waste. Our initiatives have likewise catalysed and resulted in landmark policy victories in the countries where we operate (e.g. Philippine Ecological Waste Management Act, Renewable Energy law, a moratorium on forest clearance in Indonesia, GMO-free rice policy in Thailand, etc.). But perhaps more importantly, we are making progress in revising the climate of opinion on many of the issues we are working on, and to me that makes for real and lasting change.
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