Some thoughts on ENGOs

For the last five years, I have been lucky enough to volunteer and work in the Australian environmental not-for-profit sector. I have had the pleasure of working with tireless, committed and passionate individuals who have spent many years fighting to protect the world. Despite some hard fought wins, the assault on the natural world continues in the presence of rampant  industrial growth and conservative political ideology. As the challenges being faced by the natural world continues on its rapid downward trajectory, I think the time has come for many ENGOs to shed their conservative approach.

Below are some of my personal observations that might help ENGOs have more impact and shift the tide towards making the world a better place to live in.

  1. Creativity

We spend a lot of time in front of computers planning, executing and reviewing campaigns. These days, creativity and execution is measured by whether or not something has gone viral on the internet. Don’t get me wrong, innovation and new ways of storytelling is fantastic yet there are days where I feel like we are not spending enough time being creative. By creativity, I mean getting a chance to spend some time pursuing a personal project or hobby. Some may argue that hobbies or projects should be pursued in one’s own personal time. I disagree. I feel like there are lessons to be learnt from tech giants such as Google, Atlassian and even Facebook. Atlassian for example has a program called ‘Ship It’, where one day each month the employees are encouraged to work on their own personal projects (with some minor rules) and all of the company’s resources are available for them to use. The true lesson here is not about a designated day or access to resources but the fostering of a work culture that embraces and encourages creativity. Maybe a personal project or hobby could lead to something that might have more positive impact on the environment than a campaign.

  1. Volunteers

ENGOs both big and small rely on volunteers for the daily operations. In fact, many of the most successful ENGOs started off as a group of passionate people who volunteered their time and expertise for a particular cause. To me volunteers are more valuable than senior management and they need to be treated accordingly. Why? Because I think that when someone chooses to volunteer for an organisation, it is a vote of confidence in what the organisation does and the values it stands for. I also think that volunteering is a deeper commitment, compared to ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ on social media or donating money to an organisation. Lots of ENGOs take on volunteers but they do not know how to manage them or what to do when a volunteer is coming to the end of his/her tenure. The most successful volunteering programs are ones that are actively invested in the growth of the volunteer, in mentoring and making them feel like an invaluable part of the organisation. In a few years time, these same volunteers might become the organisation’s greatest champion and ambassador and help influence decisions that better protect our environment.

  1. Mentoring

Mentors are invaluable and great mentors are hard to find. I see so many people who work in the ENGO sector who are not taking the opportunity to pass on their experiences, ideas and knowledge onto the next generation. The most common excuse for this is being ‘time poor’. I am not a fan of this excuse. I feel like mentoring someone is not a huge burden and even one hour a month is sufficient. It is a rich and incredibly rewarding experience. Mentors need to be generous with their time and genuinely honest in their responses. They need to challenge their ‘mentee’ to become critical thought leaders so that past mistakes are not repeated. And for someone who is seeking a mentor, I think it is important to find people from outside the profession you are interested in so that you get exposure to as many thought leaders as possible. The same goes for experienced and seasoned campaigners at an organisation.

(I want to give a special shout-out to my mentor who is generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and discuss his ideas and experiences with me. Thanks Elder!)

  1. Coalition building

As much as I hate to say it, no ENGO is going to save the world single-handedly. Even with the best staff and the biggest budget, it is simply not going to happen without people from all walks of life. There are a lot of organisations that are very good at forming coalitions and mobilising their supporter base to rally behind a particular environmental cause. Yet often at closer examination, these coalitions are ephemeral and segmented. To build a long-lasting movement for the environment, I believe we need to start talking to people from outside the ‘bubble’ (people already sympathetic to the cause) and reach out to unlikely community stakeholders and groups including people from low socio-economic backgrounds, different faith groups, traditional owners, local councils, people from non-english speaking communities and even other ENGOs.

And yes, it would be nice to see organisations share ‘unbranded’ resources with each other.

  1. Local groups

Local groups have been working to protect their local environment for a long time. They are the ones who are often poorly resourced (in terms of finance) yet have a consistent group of volunteers. Everyday I stumble across a local group that is doing something amazing in their area that is not only having a tangible and positive impact but is also shifting behaviour in the community. Whether it be litter collection, conservation of riparian zones and watersheds, transitioning towards renewables or encouraging their community to divest. Often it seems like these locally run programs are more effective than a large campaign being executed by a well-resourced ENGO. Maybe it is time for ENGOs to start working with local groups to support their programs and help build the grand coalition I mentioned above.



The Eternal Frontier – A short book review

Have you ever wondered what North America looked like sixty-five million years ago? Or how life on the continent recovered after the cataclysmic Chicxulub struck the landmass? These are the questions Tim Flannery – a prominent, Australian ecologist and environmentalist – seeks to answer in his book The Eternal Frontier (first published in 2001).

Flannery’s narrative begins when the asteroid Chicxulub collides with the Earth. Its destructive power annihilates the dinosaurs and virtually wipes the North American continental slate clean.  From here, he beings to introduce a range of cast and characters. First came the plants, the pioneers that colonised the continent. Then, over time came the giant sloths, direwolves, one tonne lions, mammoths, bisons and mastodons. While the North American continent takes centre-stage, Eurasia, South America, Europe and even Australia played a supporting role in the evolution of its biodiversity. We learn for example, that many species of birds that are currently found in North America are of South American origin, while many of its mammals originated in Eurasia.

After charting the ebb and flow of life on the North American continent, Flannery turns his attention to the arrival of the first nations people into North America. Their arrival (some fourteen thousand years ago), is the start of the ‘blitzkrieg extinction’ period – one where the large megafauna began to disappear due to hunting and the changes in land-use and vegetation structure. A similar phenomena took place in Australia, where the megafauna disappearance coincides with the arrival of the Aboriginal people. The North American ecological balance finally tips with the arrival of French, Spanish and European settlers. Today, mass consumerism has become “an economic machine that is eating the life of the continent” (Benjamin Franklin in The Eternal Frontier, pg. 351).

The Eternal Frontier Book Cover
The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery

With his deeply imaginative writing coupled with forensic scientific examination, Flannery weaves a compelling and dramatic story. He punctuates the reader’s journey into this fascinating and deadly landscape with open ended questions, analyses competing theories and uses excerpts from journals and letters. He also provides a short summary of key ideas and developments at the end of each chapter help to keep readers on track. By the end of the book, readers will come to look at North America in a new light.

While Flannery takes his readers on a grand adventure, I think he is over ambitious in seeking to cover the ecological and evolutionary history of a continent that spans over sixty-five million years. I think that Flannery should have kept the focus on a specific time frame or chosen a particular event such as a conclusion to the story. This would have paved the way for a second volume, giving him more scope for a detailed examination. The continued introduction of new species of plants and animals also makes it confusing at times for the reader to keep up with the narrative and here, I think a collection of images or artist impressions would have been useful.

While the book is interesting, informative and imaginative, I think that some North American readers will not enjoy it as much, particularly, when Flannery forays into the impacts of humans on ecology and biodiversity. I think that his broad brush-strokes, perhaps justifiably, end up painting many of the human colonists of North America in a bad light.

Overall though, Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier is a worthy addition for anyone interested in the evolutionary history of the North American continent – and, indeed, the planet.

My green goals for 2018

It is the start of a new year and like most of us it is a time for reflection and for setting some goals for 2018. Below are some of my ‘green’ goals that I hope will have a small but positive impact on the world.

  1. Spend more time in nature

This is my a top priority for me for 2018. I want to spend more time outdoors with loved ones going on hikes, kayaking, camping and snorkelling. Australia has so many natural wonders that I want to explore. And I miss field work and being stuck in an office, even though I work for an ENGO seems like a great irony to me. My top three for this year are completing the Royal National Park hike, climbing to the top of Mount Kosciuszko and visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

2. Eat less meat

This is something I have spent the last twelve months thinking about and I am going to try it out. The consumption of meat has an enormous environmental footprint and eating less meat is considered a simple, yet impactful approach. Coming from a religious family which does not eat beef or pork, I feel as if my meat related footprint is low but I think I can do better. I do concede that this will be the hardest goal for me to stick to as I do not know how it will affect my post training recovery.

3. Pick up litter

We all know that we produce too much waste in our daily lives. We consume and we discard without a moment’s thought. It is so bad that I believe that there are no longer any pristine, natural places left in the world. So instead of feeling sad and angry, I have decided that everyday I will do my absolute best to pick up one item of rubbish (plastic preferably) off the street and throw it in the appropriate bin. And on days where I have more time, I will pick up more.

4. Harvest more

Like most people my age, I dream of having enough space to grow my own fruits and vegetables and live a truly, organic farm life. And like most people my age, I know that this life is hard to afford given how expensive the Sydney housing market has become. My work around is to harvest as much produce as I can from my small balcony. We already grow chillies, mint, taro and spinach. We have also grown tumeric, garlic and potatoes in previous years and my plan is to continue doing this for the rest of the year (strawberries and tomatoes remain elusive). Nothing beats fresh produce, particularly ones that you have grown yourself.

5. Join a local bushcare group

This ties in with my goal to spend more time outdoors. I spend a lot of time at work looking at local green groups who have put in the hard work to rehabilitate and revitalise a local creek, riverbed or park. I find this hands-on approach that has a positive impact on the local environment and community really appealing and want to be a part of it. Plus, I think it will help me brush up on my local flora and fauna identification skills.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a highly productive crop that is cheap and easy to cultivate. It is thought to be ten times more productive than soy and five times more than rapeseed. Due to its versatility and long shelf-life, it has found its way into many everyday supermarket products. In fact, we consume it on a daily basis – in the form of chocolate, chips, butter, body lotions, lipsticks, shampoo, toothpaste and even bio-fuels (to name a few) – without ever realising it.

Currently, 90% of palm oil used around the world comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. With future demand for the product set to increase, other countries in Africa and South America have started growing palm oil trees.

Many locals work in palm oil plantations. Image credit: World Resource Institute

Despite its ubiquity, many of us are still unaware of the palm oil industry and its practices. Indonesia and Malaysia are the epicentres of an ecological and humanitarian crisis that has plagued the palm oil industry for many years. Vast tracts of lush, vibrant and thick vegetation have now become endless expanse of palm oil plantations. The deforestation crisis is so bad that an area the size of three hundred football fields are cleared every hour for palm oil plantations.

In places such as peat marshes where tree clearing was thought to be difficult,  illegal fires by rogue operators have become common practice. Together, the loss of trees and peat fires increase the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere – so much so that a small country like Indonesia now ranks as one of the highest global carbon emitters.

The deforestation and fires also put many unique animals such as orangutans, tigers, clouded leopards and rhinos at risk. It is estimated that 80% of orangutan habitats have been lost in the last two decades alone. This is a sad statistic considering that a third species of this great ape – the Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) – has recently been discovered in the jungles of Sumatra. So far, their population size is only estimated to be 800. The last time a new species of great ape was described was over a hundred years ago.

Newly discovered species of Orangutans. Image credit: Maxime Aliaga

The loss of habitat also brings these animals into direct conflict with humans. Many are killed by plantation workers who want to protect their crops and some are captured to fuel the illegal wildlife trade.

Unique, endangered animals are not the only ones to suffer from the expansion of the palm oil industry. Allegations have been made of local people being forced off the land by palm oil plantation owners without proper consultation or compensation. The locals also have to live with the fire, smoke and haze created by the burning of peat bogs, causing respiratory problems in the vulnerable and damaging property. In 2015, the Indonesian fires were so bad that the haze reached Singapore and other neighbouring countries. Researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities estimated that one hundred thousand people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore died due to these fires. 

Forest fires were so significant that the haze from Indonesia reached neighbouring countries. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory

In light of this, what can we do to address the ecological and humanitarian crisis in Indonesia and Malaysia?  

Encouraging people to vote with their dollar comes to mind.

However, when it comes to the palm oil industry, this may not be as easy as one would hope. The labelling of supermarket items that contain palm oil is not mandatory and often those that do contain palm oil are misleadingly labelled as containing ‘vegetable oil’ instead.

Secondly, a complex supply chain operating in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia is difficult for big name multinationals to govern. The governance process is further complicated by the processing of both sustainably and unsustainably sourced palm oil trees in the same factories.

Persistent advocacy from green groups has helped consumer awareness and as a result, big name brands have made pledged to source their palm oil responsibly. In 2004, the ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) was established in order to create  environmental and social standards when it comes to the palm oil industry. Stakeholders that meet the RSPO’s standards are issued Certified Sustainable Palm Oil certificates to show their compliance. RSPO members are audited by a third-party and any breaches result in the Certificates being revoked.

However, this does not mean that the RSPO is the silver bullet for limiting the impacts of the palm oil industry on the environment. Because of its large membership base, RSPO has been criticised for its slow decision making process (while deforestation continues at a rapid rate). Further, due to the large and complicated supply chain, full RSPO compliance by a new member can take a few years to implement. Another limitation for the RSPO (and similar certification schemes) is that it attracts a premium, a cost that is often passed on to consumers like you and me. With many families struggling with the high cost of living, ethical choices often give way to stretching the grocery bills as far as possible.

So much for voting with your dollar, especially considering that it is so hard to tell which items in the supermarket contain palm oil or not.

For me, my plan is to buy less chocolate from big name brands that are known to use palm oil.

Hallgrimskirkja: The sentinel of Reykjavik

Sitting sentinel upon on the tallest hill in Reykjavik, the seventy meter high silhouette of Hallgrimskirkja appears to resemble a sword that has been buried deep to its hilt. Surrounded by snow capped mountains, frozen lakes, eerie graveyards, Hallgrimskirkja (the Church of Hallgrimur) adds to the magic and mystery of Iceland and it’s capital city, Reykjavik. Due to its height and location, the church is always visible from anywhere in Reykjavik.

Hallgrimskirkja - Reykjavik
Sitting atop the hill in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja casts a beautiful and imposing figure. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand

The best way to appreciate Hallgrimskirkja is by walking up to the hill and passing through the main shopping street of Reykjavik. When you stand before the church, you cannot help but marvel at the unique beauty and architectural complexity of the church. Designed by Guꝺjón Samuel in 1937 to resemble the lava flows and lava fields of Iceland, the church took nearly forty years to complete (construction started in 1945 and finished in 1986).

Walking through the large wooden doors, you immediately notice that the thick, stoney exterior was designed to withstand the Icelandic winter. When the large wooden doors are closed behind, the noise created by the winter blizzards are silenced and a sense of calm pervades. By contrast to the unique exterior, the interior of the church appears to resemble most other traditional gothic designs. The most outstanding feature inside though is the pipe organ, which weighs twenty five tons and is composed of over five thousand pipes.

No pilgrimage to Hallgrimskirkja is complete without ascending to the lookout at the top of the church’s steeple. On a clear day, panoramic views of Reykjavik are available. In winter, the views are even more incredible, with the brightly coloured roofs and christmas lights, punctuating the snow-blanketed canvass. After descending from the lookout, the final stop on the way to downtown Reykjavik is the statue of Leifur Eiriksson. According to records, he was the first European to visit America, beating Christopher Columbus by about half a century. Recognising Leifur’s achievements, the US government commissioned the statue, which was completed in 1932. An interesting detail that may be lost is that if one follows Eiriksson’s gaze, he is looking west, in the direction of America.

Leifur Eiriksson
Statue of Leifur Eiriksson at the entrance of the Church. He gazes west, in the direction of America.

Getting to the bottom of the hill, it will be difficult to resist looking back at the church one last time. Hallgrimskirkja took nearly forty years to complete and now stands sentinel above the city of Reykjavik. It’s location, imposing height and the sword-hilt like silhouette adds to the magic and mystery of Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja is a definite must see for any traveller to Iceland.

Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik as seen from the top of Hallgrimskirkja. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand


This article was originally published on the travel blog Taleprint. I am republishing it here because it’s one of my favourite place to visit.

How did we get into this mess? A short book review

George Monbiot’s collection How Did We Get Into This Mess? covers a wide range of topics, including re-wilding, land-ownership, abortion, population control and even whale poo. Though these subjects are diverse, the actors that feature in them remain constant. They are the institutions such as governments and corporations whose systems continue to degrade our society. According to Monbiot, we live in the ‘Age of Loneliness’: an age in which connections to each other and to nature are being severed.

George Monbiot’s book – How did we get into this mess? Published in 2016

Monbiot’s frustrations are evident in each chapter and these frustrations are keenly felt by his readers. Throughout the book he challenges certain popular beliefs such as the notion that population growth is linked to environmental degradation. Eminent personalities such as Sir David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Charles Darwin and even the author himself cannot escape scrutiny. Indeed, Monbiot invites his readers to criticise his own actions when he discusses collecting, butchering and eating roadkill in front of a group of children, or his contentious support for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Monbiot’s book is simple to read and understand. His language and writing becomes more emotive in chapters where he talks about nature and wildlife. In these chapters, he also introduces words such as ‘landscape pornography’, ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘kleptorenumeration’ to convey the level of environmental destruction he is experiencing around him. Overall though, some readers will find the book a little jarring because he jumps from one topic to another which prevents continuity and rhythm.

This book is not for everyone. Simply put, it is a collection of fifty short articles that have already been published as opinion pieces in The Guardian. By and large, the chapters focus on the UK which may not resonate with the wider audience. If you are new to Monbiot, then I would recommend that you start with some of his other work such as Feral. However, if you are already familiar with his writings then feel free to add this to your library, particularly if you live in the UK.

The South Pacific’s Hidden Gem

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is renowned for its natural beauty and wonder. Featured in many of Australia’s tourism campaigns, the reef represents one of the archetypal images of Australia. Australians have a special connection to the Great Barrier Reef regardless of whether or not they have personally witnessed its grandeur.

So imagine my surprise when I found that there was another great barrier reef located in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some refer to it as the ‘hidden gem’ of the South Pacific. For many, it is known as the Great Sea Reef.

At 200 km long the Great Sea Reef (GSR) is the third largest continuous barrier reef system in the world. It straddles the Northern boundary of Vanua Levu, one of the two largest islands in Fiji – the country of my birth.

A rare satellite image of the Great Sea Reef located located along Northern Vanua Levu. Image credit NASA Earth Observatory 2011.

The GSR has been part of Fiji for many millions of years and has helped sustain the livelihoods of the locals since they first settled on the islands. With 80% of the population living within 5km of the ocean, the GSR and other marine ecosystems are a vital resource for Fijians. In recent years, fish has become the number one domestic export commodity and tourism remains a substantial contributor to the Fijian economy. The sea and its bounty are ingrained in indigenous and non-indigenous traditional and cultural practices.  

Kia Island nestled inside the Great Reef Sea. Image credit Jurgen Freund 2013.

As with many coastal nations, the health and productivity of the marine ecosystem in Fiji has been declining. This has been due to  a combination of factors such as an increase in severe storms, coral bleaching, agricultural runoff, urban development, unsustainable tourism, illegal poaching and unsustainable fishing practices. This has affected the livelihoods of the locals as the number of fish and other resources has decreased.

According to Tarusila, a representative of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network, more time is now required to catch enough fish to feed families and sell at markets.

“Our great grandfather and mothers used to go out to the sea and within a short period they came back with plenty of fish. Nowadays people go out for almost the day with little catch – they come back with nothing”

As the climate changes and development in Northern Vanua Levu continues, the GSR – just like the Great Barrier Reef – will become ever more vulnerable. This is particularly concerning considering that we have only just begun to study the reef. In 2004, the first ever comprehensive scientific study of the GSR was conducted. Over twelve days, 23 sites across six major habitats were surveyed with the help of the local communities, non-government organisations and government members. During the survey, the team discovered 43 new species of hard corals and 12 species on the IUCN Red List such as the green sea turtle and spinner dolphins.

Nacula Island in the Yasawa Group which is part of the Great Reef Sea. Image credit Jurgen Freund 2013.

To protect this treasure trove, the late Paramount Chief of Macuata Province – Ratu Aisea Katonivere, brought community leaders, environmental organisations and government bodies together in order to develop and implement a management program.

“The challenge is to ensure that we conserve some resources for our children and their children. We should take action now, and I am proud that we have been given the challenge to manage the third longest reef in the world.”

Conservation of the GSR was built on connecting existing ‘qoliqoli’ – a specific area set aside for each village along the GSR to create a network of marine areas. To protect the fish and marine resources, the locals implemented ‘waitui tabu’ – or areas in which fishing is prohibited.  

By establishing no-take areas, the marine ecosystem is protected and stock in adjacent areas is replenished. As fish and other marine fauna populations within the no-take areas increase, it spills-over into non-protected areas which helps to maintain food security and sustain the tourism industry.

Today there are over 400 communities working together in Fiji to establish a network of Locally Managed Marine Areas with 135 qoliqoli and 465 no-take areas. This puts Fiji on track to meet its commitment to have 30% of the marine environment protected by 2020 under the Convention of Biological Diversity.

I feel very lucky that the third largest barrier reef in the world is located in Fiji. Even more so considering that I now live in Australia where the largest (and more famous) Great Barrier Reef is located. Given that the Great Sea Reef still remains relatively unknown to science, I feel like there are many more secrets that will be revealed in the future.

Until then, I think the Great Sea Reef should be at the top of everyone’s bucket-list, including mine.

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