What is our relationship with nature?
During the lockdown, my relationship with nature looks a little like this — figuring out the different types of trees and plants and how they change with the season, seeing fireflies light up entire trees like Christmas lights, listening to a symphony of American bullfrogs croak, finding fungi in every corner of the forest. What I realized is in the midst of great uncertainties, Mother Nature continues to provide for us.
There are a few pivotal moments that led me to this realization and my relationship with nature today:
In 2013, I worked with green startups in Egypt focusing on recycling and solid waste management. I remember one of the youths from a startup asking me, “Veronica, what are we trying to do here?”, and I answered enthusiastically about how we need to save the environment and all. He calmly replied,
“Mother Earth has been around for 6 billion years, it will survive but humans may not. We are just trying to save ourselves.” I took a huge gulp and agreed.
In 2014, I pursued a Masters in Sustainability Management thinking that the exploitation of natural resources will eventually hit companies’ bottom line and it is imperative that companies integrate sustainability in their core business model. What I learnt is nature has a right to exist on its own, not merely as a resource for humans to utilize. As I listened to my coursemates describe their relationship growing up and spending time on Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, I remember thinking what is our relationship with nature in Asia?
From 2015, I started working in sustainable agriculture in China and Colombia. Through my colleagues and the farmers we work with, I learnt the importance of understanding the language of the soil and I remember how fascinated I was when I first learnt that:
There are more microorganisms in a spoonful of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.
At the same time, I was horrified by the scale of the pollution that’s taking place, whether in metropolitan cities or remote areas. Running along a river filled with floating dead fish, oasis forming in the middle of nowhere from waste water piped from nearby factories, clouds of smoke amidst rolling hills because farmers are burning their crop waste. I wonder why do people do this? Do they not know it’s bad? But for the farmers at least, they do know what’s good and bad for the soil, their health and the environment. It’s just that industrial agriculture doesn’t allow them to do that.
In 2019, I went through a personal crisis that made me stop and reflect on what truly gives me grounding, is it the people in our lives, the work that we do or? I spent a lot of time in and being with nature — listening to the rustling of the leaves from the wind and the sound of raindrops, feeling the warmth of the sun and the uneven lines on the bark of a tree, seeing the turtles every time I run past the pond near my house — a sense of calmness and ease began to develop every time I am in nature.
However, it has become increasingly clear that as we continue to tip the balance of natural ecosystems, one day it will crash. Emerging zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are often the results of encroachment on previously untouched natural areas which provides a buffer between humans and disease.
My biggest fear is that post-COVID, we just go back to business as usual. On Jul 1st, 2020, I read an article written by the Borneo Project about how logging concessions were approved for 148,000 ha of indigenous Kenyah land in Sarawak, Malaysia without proper consultation of the local affected communities. I’ve been away from Malaysia, my home country for over a decade now but I realized the plight of indigenous people around the world, the keepers of our forest and land are not that different. The Borneo rainforest is one of the oldest forests on Earth, estimated to be around 140 million years old, twice as old as the Amazon. 80% of the rainforests in Sarawak have already been heavily impacted by logging in the last 50 years. The rainforest is the life and blood of the Kenyah, Penan, Kayan, and 200 other ethnic groups in Borneo. What is the logic of cutting down ancient, old-growth forests to make plywood and cheap furniture? The whole world is talking about a green recovery — how to build back better. Why not Malaysia?
Shocked by the approval of the concession that allows the harvesting of timber from a fragile ecosystem bordering a national park, a wildlife sanctuary, and at least four community reserved forests, communities have reached out to local advocacy organization SAVE Rivers to support their complaints. SAVE Rivers has launched a petition urging the international timber certification body PEFC to hold the Malaysian Timber Certification Council to account for their failure to obtain consent from indigenous communities, as required by their own guidelines. My dream is to one day be able to document the relationship of the indigenous people of Malaysia with nature and in turn, begin to learn from them and form our own narrative of how we relate to nature in Asia.
As Sia Ngedau, a Penan activist puts it beautifully:
“Kita akan kehilangan semua hutan. Ini bukanlah untuk keperluan orang Penan saja. Ini adalah untuk kebaikan semua orang, baik di dalam atau luar negara. Saya harap kepada semua orang supaya terus memberi sokongan kepada kami untuk terus mengekalkan alam yang indah ini untuk milik kita semua.” (All of the jungle will eventually be lost. This is not just for the needs of the Penan. This would be for the good of everyone in this country and overseas. I hope that all people both from this country and around the world would continue to support us so that we can keep preserving this beautiful land that belongs to us all.)