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MARCH 10, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 9 The Eco-Warriors Eight men and women who were fighting for the environment long before it became fashionable Click below to read about these remarkable people: Saving the mermaid's song Conservationist Counsel Japan's dioxin-buster Subversive to patriot Blue skies over Beijing A nun with a mission Hero in a suit Explorer and savior Kemal Jufri for Asiaweek TANYA MARINKA ALWI Saving the mermaid's song Tanya Marinka Alwi's love affair with the environment began early. When she was a child, her nanny regaled her with stories about mermaids and other sea creatures. At night, as they listened to waves crashing against the rocks, the nanny told her: "It is music played by the mermaid." Alwi recalls going to the beach after school to pick up the garbage because, according to the nanny, "the mermaids won't play their music anymore if the sea is dirty." Now 38, Alwi has made a career out of encouraging mermaids to make music. For the past 15 years, she has been working privately to protect ocean resources around her native Maluku province in Indonesia. Her father, the sultan of the Bandas (a small island chain in the south of the Malukus), was initially opposed to his daughter's work. "I sent you overseas for your schooling, but I don't see you making any significant progress in the way you are living," he told her. But Alwi was convinced that conservation was a sufficiently important "way of living." Her decision to dedicate her life to the cause came when she was diving in the Banda Sea. She discovered that the coral reef had been damaged; fishermen, working on behalf of a group of businessmen, were bombing the reef as a quick way to harvest valuable decorative fish. "It brings us a good income," the fishermen told her. Neither her father nor local government officials proved sympathetic to the plight of the reef, so Alwi flew directly to Jakarta to lobby the relevant ministers. Several months later, the fishing licenses of those responsible were revoked by the Department of Agriculture. Alwi had won Round One, but she also realized that there was a need to diversify the local economy. With international prices for nutmeg high, she encouraged locals to plant the spice: "The people needed income, so if I was going to be successful in stopping them from bombing the reef, they had to have an alternative way of making money." After more than a decade of work, she has enjoyed some success. She has established the conservationist Banda Foundation and attracted big names to its board. She also managed to convince UNESCO to sponsor an international marine workshop in the Bandas. The scientists who attended recommended that the islands be nominated as an international heritage site. Her father's position has helped her work. His connections mean that she has access to influential people who otherwise would not speak to her. "In this case I have to use my 'power,'" she says. Her constant lobbying in Jakarta has made her a familiar face in the corridors of government. But she has had her share of difficulties and frustrations too. No matter who her father is, approaching corporate groups for sponsorship is always a thankless task. Many of her peers do not remain in the conservationist movement for long, but use their experience as a springboard to move into business. Relations with other NGOs have often been less than friendly; they are, she thinks, jealous of her success. Still, she has no regrets about her career choice. What makes her most happy is that her father is no longer upset over her supposed lack of success. "Success is not always translated by financial convenience," she says. The burden of responsibility doesn't get any lighter, though. The past year's religious strife in the Malukus has given her a new line of work: fund-raising to help the victims. She says sadly of the situation: "Now you cannot go fishing on the same boat as people from the opposite religion." An activist's work, it seems, is never finished. By Dewi Loveard/Jakarta Rakesh Sahai for Asiaweek MAHESH CHANDRA MEHTA Conservationist Counsel During one of his earliest environmental battles, New Delhi lawyer Mahesh Chandra Mehta presented a bottle of brackish water to an attorney representing five offending factories and asked him to drink the contents. The attorney refused. Mehta then turned to the panel of Supreme Court judges, waving the sample of dark, acid-laden liquid from a 40-meter-deep well in India's western desert state of Rajasthan. "This is the water thousands of villagers are drinking," Mehta told the bench. "Why can't he [the defense counsel] drink it?" Evidently seeing the point the activist-lawyer was trying to make, the judges ordered the five factories closed. Since that court victory a decade ago, Mehta has won some 40 cases of environmental litigation, earning the epithet "Mr. Clean." The shelves of his makeshift office in New Delhi are overflowing with trophies and citations, including the prestigious 1997 Ramon Magsaysay award for public service and the 1993 United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 award. In the midst of the prizes, however, a single plaque stands out. It captures the essence of Mehta's ecological activism - and, indeed, that of numerous others of his persuasion - with these words: "Clean environment starts with me." Mehta's best-known crusade is his rescuing of the famous Taj Mahal from slow death in the early 1990s. Industrial air pollution from the city of Agra, where the Taj is located, was ruining the white marble of the 17th-century monument. In response to Mehta's petition, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of as many as 230 factories in Agra. Some 300 local industries were forced to install pollution-control equipment. Another of Mehta's petitions has helped reverse the colossal damage done on a daily basis to the Ganges, India's largest and holiest river; the municipalities of 250 filth-spewing towns near the river have now installed sewage plants. ALSO IN ASIAWEEK Cover: Internet money goes shopping in Hong Kong and what PCCW-HKT means for old-economy firms in Asia • Players: The deal, the winners and the losers • Interview: Richard Li on bagging the region's biggest buy • SingTel: What now for Singapore Telecom? • Chart: Comparing PCCW and Cable & Wireless HKT • No. 1: The Lis are definitely Asia's top business family Editorial: Taiwan should respond to China's peace feeler - hidden in a war threat Editorial: India's RSS must curb its chauvinism Philippines: Amid terrorist attacks in Mindanao, President Joseph Estrada plays tough with MILF insurgents Brunei: The sultanate sues Prince Jefri Singapore: Behind Ong Teng Cheong's maverick presidency • Extended Interview: Ong does not regret riling his former colleagues Nepal: Why the Maoists are resurgent Green Stakes: Why Asia has to clean up - fast • Snapshots: Where countries stand on the environment • Eco-warriors: Fighting to save the planet • By Design: Ideas that can make a difference Exhibitions: The art world - a proxy cross-straits battlefield Newsmakers: India's pointman for defense Real Estate: Building up Indonesia's multimedia dreams MyWeb: As this Malaysian Internet company proves, a U.S. listing is not an automatic road to riches Investing: Don't use yesterday's rules to value tomorrow's hottest telecommunications companies Business Buzz: CLOB gets resolved Viewpoint: Political reform is inevitable in China Trying to clean up India's water and air has been an uphill battle for Mehta. The authorities, he says, are "lethargic" and offer little or no help to ecological activists. Partly as a result of government indifference - and not infrequent collusion with offenders - Mehta has been up against a powerful industrial mafia that he says is "running the country." His life has been in danger on several occasions. Once, when the Supreme Court was hearing one of his petitions against illegal quarrying, thugs showed up at his house. Mehta was threatened with dire consequences if he continued with his activism. But the lawyer was unstoppable. He went on to win a case that led to the relocation of 1,300 industrial units from the heart of the capital to the outskirts. Days later, while Mehta was delivering a lecture in a New Delhi auditorium, a group of ruffians accosted him. He was saved only by the timely intervention of the audience. Beside being a fierce litigant, Mehta is an avid campaigner who regularly undertakes "green marches." Accompanied by his activist wife Radha and their 15-year-old daughter Tarini, he has covered more than 2,000 kilometers and supervised the planting of some 750,000 saplings. "More than court battles," says Mehta, "it is grassroots work that is more important." In a poor and populous country like India, he explains, people's participation is crucial for the success of an ecological campaign. That is how he plans to tackle two upcoming - and daunting - projects: cleaning up all the 14 major rivers of India and saving the Himalaya mountain range from what seems to be slow but sure environmental degradation. By Ritu Sarin/New Delhi Matthias Ley for Asiaweek MIYATA HIDEAKI Japan's dioxin-buster As pure as mother's milk is not a phrase one is likely to hear from Miyata Hideaki. The respected scientist long suspected that the milk from many mothers' breasts might be contaminated with the controversial chemical pollutant dioxin - something confirmed by tests he subsequently carried out. If it were up to him, most mothers would breast-feed their babies for only the first three months before switching to formula. "I can't help but believe it is safer to keep our babies away from mother's milk," he says. In recent years, dioxin pollution has become a national obsession in Japan. One reason: it is closely linked to the burning of trash. Dioxin is often released when plastics and other wastes containing chlorine-based chemicals are burned. More than three-quarters of Japan's garbage is consumed at about 3,840 government-approved incinerators. Until recently, few if any controls on dioxin release existed. When Miyata, now 55, first read about dioxin in a U.S. government research paper in the early 1970s, the chemical's dangers were not well known. Most Japanese and others would remain ignorant until the adverse effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide that the Americans used in the Vietnam War to defoliate forests, became more widely known. Indeed, it was only about four or five years ago that Japanese really awakened to the dioxin pollution surrounding them. Although trained as a veterinarian, Miyata cut his teeth as an environmental scientist researching another toxic chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), at the Osaka Prefecture Institute of Public Health. Working on Japan's worst instance of PCB poisoning, the Kanemi Rice Oil Case that killed 126 people in 1968, he and his colleagues isolated two additional toxins in the PCB-tainted oil, both of which the World Health Organization included in its list of carcinogens in 1998. In the 1980s, Miyata joined Setsunan University near Kyoto. His team turned its attention to dioxin contamination from garbage incinerators. He didn't have to look far. Excessive amounts of dioxin were found in the ashes of all three municipal incinerators in Osaka. More disturbingly, he found the chemical to be present in mother's milk, an indication that the carcinogen was being passed on to the next generation. But the issue did not really hit home until the mid-1990s, when the plight of Tokorozawa, a city north of Tokyo, became news. Because of the presence of numerous industrial waste incinerators in the area, some operating illegally, residents were assaulted by foul odors, while pine trees were blackened and moss was dying. Many people suffered from persistent coughing and sore eyes. Faced with official indifference to their problem, residents turned to Miyata. He analyzed the soil and found high doses of dioxin. His detailed - and widely publicized - report finally drove the city fathers to action. In 1997, Tokorozawa became the first Japanese city with its own code for regulating dioxin release. Soon, requests for soil analysis were flooding into Miyata's office from all over Japan. The Japanese government has generally been slow to acknowledge the dangers of dioxin. It has lagged behind other developed countries in setting standards for daily intake. But thanks in part to the efforts of Miyata, these standards have been progressively tightened. The latest regulation, which went into effect in January, aims by 2002 to cut dioxin release by 90% from 1997 levels. "Dioxin is a symbol of our contemporary life of mass consumption based on mass production," says Miyata. This mass culture exacts a price, and people are paid back for what they do - or don't do - to the environment. If people continue to live indifferently, warns Miyata, it will be like "strangling ourselves." By Murakami Mutsuko/Tokyo Seokyong Lee/Black Star for Asiaweek CHOI YUL Subversive to patriot Like the activism of many South Korean students in the 1970s and 1980s, Choi Yul's was ignited by a hatred of the repressive governments of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. In fact, he can thank those despots for his decision to go green. It was 1975, and Choi was doing his first stint of jail time for antigovernment activities. To pass the time, he turned to books. "I read voraciously about the environment in Korean, English and Japanese," he says. "In 1976, I decided to dedicate my life to saving Korea's environment." Six years and another jail term later, he founded the country's first antipollution group, which consisted of three members and operated out of an office the size of a small bathroom. Chun's government, not noted for its tolerance of activism, no matter how innocuous, started to harass the members. The secret police shadowed the activists and tapped their telephones. "They spread lies that we were trying to overthrow the government," says Choi. Despite the intimidation, Choi continued with his crusade, finding airtime on a local radio station to publicize high disease levels at industrial towns. Ulsan, on the southeastern coast, was a case in point. "Orchards there used to produce huge, juicy pears," says Choi. "But the pollution shrank them to the size of a fist and made their skin hard." Residents of Ulsan and nearby Onsan suffered from pollution-induced ailments. Choi notes: "Of 10,000 people in Onsan, 700 had bone disease." With the advent of the democratic era, marked by Roh Tae Woo's election as president in 1987, Choi used his newfound freedom to combine disparate green groups into the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. KFEM made national headlines in 1989 when it succeeded in stopping the construction of a nuclear power plant. It has also protested against France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific and opposed the construction of golf courses, which in Korea can mean the bulldozing of entire mountains. Last year, the group staged a 33-day sit-in to draw attention to plans to dam a river. Choi, above, has gone from subversive to patriot. Magazines have voted him Korea's most influential person. He won the Goldman Environmental Award in 1995, the first Korean to receive the coveted prize. His new credibility has won over even his old enemies: A few years ago, Korea's intelligence agency, whose agents had beaten Choi two decades earlier, asked him to lecture at its headquarters. But Choi refuses to rest. Charging that the government is paying lip service to conservation, he continues to crisscross the country to raise awareness. Korea, he says, must tackle the environmental crisis brought on by its profligate consumption of fossil fuels. In the longer term, mankind must rediscover its oneness with nature. Twenty years ago, this was the stuff of heresy. Today, it is fast becoming gospel. By John Larkin/Seoul Niu Guang for Asiaweek XIE ZHENHUA Blue skies over Beijing On Oct. 1 last year - China's National Day - Beijingers marveled at the blue sky they had not seen for years. Because the occasion marked the golden anniversary of the People's Republic, smoke-belching factories around the city had been closed down temporarily prior to the big day. "By the end of the year 2002," declares Xie Zhenhua, the tall and portly environment minister, "we hopefully will have blue skies [over Beijing] every day." He says the government is spending about $5.7 billion to meet that goal. Xie, 50, became head of the State Environmental Protection Administration seven years ago. In 1998, the government boosted SEPA's profile - and its powers - when the agency was given the status of a ministry. "Before, we were mostly educating the people," says Xie. "Now, we try to implement the law. Environmental protection is a national objective." China has had an environmental code on its books since 1978, but this was hardly enforced over two decades of rapid economic growth. Xie aims to change that: "Pollution is no longer going unpunished. We are even meting out prison sentences." To be sure, Xie, below, is aware of the obstacles he faces. For one, not everybody in the government has come aboard the green bandwagon. With the National People's Congress and state committees meeting in Beijing this month, Xie will be busy briefing lawmakers and officials on green issues. But he concedes: "Many are concerned mostly with developing the economies of their regions without giving much thought to the environment." Despite stepping up its campaign to improve air and water quality in recent years, the government still faces a major clean-up. In the city of Chongqing alone, the World Bank estimates that 940,000 lives will be lost by 2020 because of pollution-related health problems. The air in a typical big city in China may have 10 times the particulate count of an equivalent urban area in the U.S. "China needs to learn from industrialized countries," says Xie. It took generations for green consciousness to take hold in the West, so China - and Xie - has a long battle ahead. By Anne Meijdam/Beijing Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek AIDA VELASQUEZ A nun with a mission In 1981, when diarrhea persisted among residents of the remote coastal village of Botilao in the central Philippines, they sought help from a Catholic nun. They were not asking for divine intervention, but looking for a rational explanation, which they believed Sister Aida Velasquez could provide. She did. Laboratory analysis of the waters of Calancan Bay showed large concentrations of heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc, le