Imagine this. You’re at a gathering at the beach with your friends, you guys have got a barbeque pit going. You walk over to the pit to talk with this friend of yours who was keeping the fire going. As you are about to speak to him about the latest news you’ve received, the wind changes and sends the barbeque smoke up your throat and into your lungs as you take the first breath of that conversation. You choke, cough a little, get embarrassed a little, your eyes tear a little. You turn away from the smoke to breathe a little before you stand at another position to continue the conversation.
Now multiply that incident by the hours we have in a day and minus the ability to turn to a space with clean air. That’s what many villagers, especially the children and the elderly have to face when the Indonesia forests enter their seasons of burning. Many fall ill and die from respiratory issues.
Why are they still burning the forests if there are such dire consequences? One of the major reasons is because of the corporate demand for palm oil. That reasoning did not stack up well for 19-year old Regina Veronica Vanda (Yale-NUS College) at all. So together with her friend Gauri Shukla (UWCSEA), they formed a petition, and these two youths within a period of 4 months, got large corporation Old Chang Kee to switch to a more responsible source of oil. However, it was not as straightforward as it sounds, because mere petitioning online would only fall flat. Besides, it wouldn’t make them any different from being a regular internet troll and keyboard warrior. So we decided to ask her a few questions, dig a little into the wisdom that made the campaign successful, and here’s her story.
- You’re an Indonesian, but living in Singapore for the past 9 years. You’ve had your fair share of the haze. So what got you to do this?
I was volunteering with People’s Movement to Stop Haze during my gap semester before college and I learnt a lot about the complex issues behind the haze in Singapore. This topic of haze is special to me because I can empathise very well with both the Singapore and Indonesia side of the story. For Indonesians, this is not about inconvenient weather or having to wear masks to work, this is a matter of life and death. There are many people fighting for the lives of their sick children and protesting for the survival of their community in Indonesia, and yet in Singapore it might be easy to blame all of them as though they were all one group responsible for this vague thing we know as slash and burn.
- What were some of the considerations/concerns you had when you started this?
One of the solutions to this is shifting the demand of agriculture (especially palm oil) away from peat swamp forests, which are carbon rich and flammable when dry. That would mean moving entire industries away from a practice that is very entrenched (palm oil is found even in shampoo and detergent) in conveniently using palm oil. The food industry stands out in particular because the use of palm oil is generally well known to consumers, and it is significantly large in quantity as well.
- Did you consider any other ways of creating change here? If so, what were they and why didn’t you choose those?
We reached out to the companies we suspected were using palm oil and tried engaging them in a discussion about the problems of unsustainable palm oil. Some ignored us, some were very reluctant to engage and none that responded were willing to change their oil. That’s when we reached the point of realising that this ‘diplomatic’, behind the scene engagement will not be enough.
- What were some concerns that came up for you during this period? Did you expect this result?
When we chose to do a petition, it wasn’t straightforward either. PM.Haze took many months to get to 800 signatures in their attempt to do target food companies. And we are two students, both very occupied with school and only having the stamina to realistically sustain the petition campaign for 1-2 months maximum. So no, I didn’t expect this level of success although I hope for it because otherwise I wouldn’t have pushed it through to the end.
- Only two in this team that pushed for the petition? That’s a really small number for a huge feat like this. What worked for you and your team then?
The two of us took the whole thing through, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help from other friends for e.g. with the logo. I think what worked for us was sheer persistence and our willingness to bear our identities out to the public so that the petition comes out like a personal story instead of an anonymous demand. We contacted as many people and organisations as we can to get the word out and to request for a time of sharing our story. I’d say we were really shameless in asking for support and that was admittedly uncomfortable for me. But through that what I find most amazing is that people actually rise up to the occasion and even supported us without being requested to.
- It sounds like that took plenty of courage and vulnerability to put your identities on the line. What was your greatest learning in this whole process?
People have a lot to say, constructive and powerful things. But they don’t say these things because it is out of the ordinary and anyway who would listen? And yet they did! Of course this doesn’t mean that all the problems are solved, we are merely talking about one company here and the sustainability certification (RSPO) is not perfect either. In fact we received a few backlash on this, people were saying that this is pointless because RSPO is not a perfect indicator of sustainable practices anyway. But it to my knowledge the best one we have at present, which most effectively reduces the problem of haze. And the larger point is symbolic. Companies are not unmovable, they can care and they can make good choices. On our part, it is time to break out of the assumption that environmental advocacy doesn’t work in Singapore or is too small-scaled to matter.
- If there was one message you could bring across to anyone reading this, what would it be?
If I have only one message, it would be that, it is not wrong to hope.
Fortunately for us, we had the opportunity of experiencing Regina in our lives personally as a past participant of our core programmes – Inside Out and Level Up, and as a friend now. We hope that this article gives you a glimpse into the possibility of the change she sees that you are capable of making for the world around you too.