MALAYSIANSKINI | Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar is never going to forget September 2019, the month when she helped organised a 1,000-strong crowd to rally Malaysians and the government on the climate crisis.
The demonstration took place during the annual haze, five months before the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed and the coronavirus pandemic which made headlines across the globe.
Nadiah's pressure group, Klima Action Malaysia (Kamy), was only conceived four months before the demonstration kicked off, but its impact and reach grew surprisingly fast.
The project started when she was pursuing her undergraduate studies in environmental science at the Nottingham University in Semenyih in 2019 and after she discussed the matter with her friends.
"There was a lot of traction with regards to the global climate strike. From the emergence of pressure groups led by young people such as the Sunrise Movement, its influence quickly grew in the United Kingdom and many countries in Europe.
Founded in the United States in 2017, the Sunrise Movement is a youth-led environmental pressure group that carries out protests and engages with political candidates to get them to commit to environmental reforms.
“I saw the global traction in climate action over the last 3-4 years and believe it’s now or never to get vulnerable communities empowered in Malaysia. To add to the urgency, climate injustice is getting worse in Malaysia.
"We thought why not try to move a similar agenda here in Malaysia because we don't want to lose that momentum," Nadiah (above) told Malaysiakini.
Since then, Kamy has organised many activities that culminated with the big rally in 2019, which she said managed to catch the media's attention.
The momentum, however, was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic which affected the ability of grassroots campaigners to reach their audience.
"The media must help to disseminate more information about climate change. Most Malaysians don't understand how the climate crisis is impacting their lives.
"They can't see the connection, they cannot make the link.
"Young people especially should know more about this since they are going to inherit the country," said the 33-year old who hails from Kajang, Selangor.
One can sense the passion and deep concern in her voice when she talked about the climate crisis. Nadiah can go on and on talking about it like how music enthusiasts explain music.
"Climate change has always been there for millions of years.
"But what we see right now is anthropogenic. The emission of carbon-base gas has brought up the temperature of the Earth. Our human activities have tremendously affected the planet.
"When we shave the forest, a huge amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere. The more carbon being released, the hotter our planet becomes," she briefly explained.
Global warming and climate change encompass not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events including record cold winters, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, shrinking ice sheets, rising seas, ozone depletion and a range of other impacts.
Long way to go
Despite numerous awareness events and the big rally, it still feels like the message fell on deaf ears when it came to the politicians.
The mission to educate Malaysians and the politicians about the climate crisis is one long, winding and arduous journey for Nadiah.
Last year’s plan to degazette the Kuala Langat (North) Forest Reserve in Selangor proved how the politicians don't bat an eye about the climate crisis, she said.
For the record, Menteri Besar Selangor Incorporated (MBI) is the developer for the proposed mixed-development project at the forest reserve which would span across 930.93ha or 97.1 percent of the swamp forest reserve.
The plan angered and upset Orang Asli villagers and numerous environmental NGOs. Nadiah stressed the importance of the release of carbon dioxide should the project continue.
"The development of the Kuala Langat (North) Forest Reserve will release 5.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
"The Orang Asli know about this fact. We don't want to wound the Earth with such activities. Malaysia has a lot of unique forests, and many parts are gone.
"Do you know what's the effect of destroying the forests? Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods at other times.
"By not having forests, what are we going to do when there's a monsoon or heavy rains? Where does the water go?" she asked.
The problems, she said, bring about a chain of events including affecting the paddy crops.
"It's very worrying. We are paying millions in damages. It will become much worse. We are seeing a pattern of change in the weather every year. Floods, haze, everyone knows it, but nothing is done.
"My concern is that we cannot adapt to climate change when the reality hits us," she said.
Politicians need to be accountable
There's a frustrated tone in Nadiah's voice when she talks about politicians who, according to her, are a group that should be taking the lead in championing climate issues.
"They (politicians) just don't have the political will to debate about the climate crisis in Parliament.
"We spend more money on the government's propaganda arm Jasa than on our future. This is the kind of priority the government is having. It's worrying," she said.
She said so far, Kamy and other NGOs have been pushing the politicians and the government to play an active part in raising awareness on the climate crisis.
"We spoke to the select committee, we did our own lobbying, but it all comes back to political will.
“Many say they can't do anything before they get permission from their party. They have to think about their political masters but ironically, they can ignore all that when they defect from the party!
“So their actions are very contradictory," she said.
However, Nadiah and her group have tried a rather clever initiative to make the politicians accountable.
In October last year, to grab the attention of assemblypersons and MPs in Selangor about the deforestation at the Kuala Langat forest reserve, she spearheaded a campaign to get all 71 of them to sign petition letters opposing the destruction.
Kamy, joined by other NGOs, sent the letters to their offices and gave them a deadline to respond which was before the next state assembly sitting convened.
To keep the pledge public, there was a scorecard posted on Greenpeace Malaysia's website to show which politician supported, rejected or totally ignored the issue.
The result was astonishing, said Nadiah.
"The state reps were quite shocked when they saw this. So when Motion 26 (on the deforestation) was tabled during the state assembly sitting, they agreed to it unanimously because it's shameful for them to be on the scorecard.
"This is how an initiative is supposed to be done in Malaysia," she noted.
Some young people are currently gravitating towards former Harapan minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s Muda movement despite attempts to slow down its registration as a political party. Nadiah keeps an open mind on working with such groups.
"To be clear, although we are an environmental movement, it doesn't mean that we are apolitical. Environmental issues are public interest issues; therefore, our actions must be politically conscious.
“We kept saying that what this country lacks is political will, so maybe it’s time to have green movements transitioning into political powers like what we see in Germany, New Zealand, in the US and the UK,” she said.
In opposing mega-projects that are destroying precious green lungs, there's another group that Nadiah said she and her comrades have to face - political cybertroopers.
"We received backlash when we raised questions which hold the government accountable. For instance, if we talk about a particular project in Kelantan, the paid cybertroopers come in to attack us.
“They harassed us by manipulating and spreading our photos. So we reported the attacks to the MCMC.”
"But such is the way things are on social media. People can just attack you anonymously," she said.
She admitted that despite knowing their objectives and modus operandi, the cybertroopers did in some way demotivate the team. After all, it is hard to imagine that people will take money to attack those trying to save the environment for future generations.
"Of course, as a human being, I feel demotivated. But what I taught my members is how we can better manage this problem with our expectations and how we react when being attacked.
"Sometimes, they feel depressed and suicidal. They give up. When someone is feeling down, we don't ignore them. We are always there to support each other," said Nadiah.
Recognising the need to step away from the activist battleground from time to time, she is passionate about playing musical instruments, solo travelling and taking care of her edible garden.
Kamy has also pushed ahead with online activities such as webinars and workshops during the movement control order. Nadiah said she's hoping to campaign aggressively to reach the people "outside the Twitter bubble" once the pandemic subsides.
"We can't remain idle despite the movement restriction, so we shift our activities online. Unfortunately, as we speak, machinery is hard at work out there destroying the forest.
"All is in the name of development," she lamented.
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