What do the polluted rivers in Ohio and the Anti-ICERD rally in Kuala Lumpur have in common?
While these incidents might seem unrelated at a glance, upon further inspection I saw a obvious connection. The large populations of people behind this are those who believe their governments have let them down and I find this festering negative sentiment, at such a large scale, can be very destabilising.
Toxic People Breed Toxic Ideologies
We all know that it’s important for us to surround ourselves with positive people for the sake of our mental well-being. Also, exposure to prolonged negative thoughts; through the contact with other negative people; can eat away at us, causing us hypertension, depression and anger. But what if the entire community that’s living around you is toxic? Most of the times, you don’t realise that you’re surrounded by toxicity, because that’s the only thing you’ve ever known.
Poor neighbourhoods, urban and suburban poverty that lead to weakened social and financial state, often turn anti-government ideologies; not only as a way out; but mainly because they feel that they’re being sidelined by those entrusted to ensure their welfare. Left unchecked, the Suburban poor can be the breeding ground for extreme and radical ideologies. They are the people who feel left out with the development in the country.
A Broken Environment is a Sign of a Broken Community
Recently, I attended a lecture called “Toxic Art: Turning Pollutants to Paint’ by an artist, activist, environmentalist and professor; John Sabraw who was in Malaysia for ‘The 10th Distinguished Tun Abdul Razak Lecture‘. Back in his native country, USA, Ohio state has thousands of abandoned coal mining shafts; as a result of the mining industries of the 20th century. The exposed earth combined with rainwater, creates acid mine drainage.
John collaborates with Guy Riefler; a civil engineer, on a project where they turn waste pollution found in their local river into paint pigments. They elaborated on their scientific experiments and many failures, eventually John convinced paint manufacturer Gamble, to use their iron samples and produced a limited edition oil paint pigments. By remediating the toxic waste that killed their rivers into something usable, they found an effective way to return clear and safe water back to the river.
Halfway into the project, John realised that for it to really get off the ground, he needed the commitment of many stakeholders. greater community involvement. Eventually Michelle Shively came on-board and she was a well-liked community organiser; a friendly face to the local townsfolk. John fondly recalls,
“Guy and I would go into a town meeting and nobody would say anything to us but the moment Michelle steps in, she lights up the whole room. People come up to greet her, hug her. She’s a charismatic motivator and admired community leader.”
Rivers of Life
As much as John and Guy figured out the technical bits of how to convert the acid drainage to paint pigments, they were aware that for this idea to really start changing things around them, they needed to involve the people living around the immediate area. The local community needs to accept this idea too.
‘Toxic Art’ reminded me of several river rehab through art in the region. Bamboo Curtain Studio lead by Margaret Shui Plum Tree Creek project in Taipei adopted an approach that I can only describe as ‘soft power’ or ‘feminine strength’ (they termed it ‘eco-feminism’). As I try to recall Margaret’s words (I remember her energetically hopped down the bamboo forest footpath as I huffed to catch up and hear her trailing voice), BCS’s big mission was clean the river, but before they can solve the problem, they needed to understand what caused it in the first place. She and her team realised it was crucial to change the mindset of the people who live and use the creek.
They started off with a series of monthly community gatherings that revolved around food, harvest and recipe sharing. The first project was to produce a recipe book the featured the local fruits and vegetables of Plum Tree Creek. Once a social connection is established by each of the community, they were more open about sharing their woes, especially those that affected the creek. BSC discovered that the main culprit was the pig farms, that used the creek as a convenient waste disposal. BSC used their connections with the different communities and called for Townhall meeting to look for ways solve the pig farmers’ waste problem. Needless to say, their efforts worked. About 8 years after the first contact, Plum Tree Creek is now so clean and beautiful, it’s now part of the local tourist destination.
Another fave project of mine is Jogja River Project 2012. I spoke to one of the Lifepatch members (my memory’s getting fuzzier as I age, it seems) and the background story to their Microskopy project, was a lot of the village kids were drinking directly from the river without boiling it. As a result, many fell ill and needed hospital treatment which many couldn’t afford. Lifepatch decided to do a an awareness project and invited the kids to make a microscope from a webcam. By turning the lens the other way around, it becomes a magnifier glass. Kids were then asked to collect water samples from their river and to use their microscope to see what’s in there. Their discovery of microorganism, like the water bear, brought a huge awareness among the youngsters that they’ve stopped drinking from the river and stopped getting sick.
Changing Mindsets Through Art
Desi Lestari from SERANTAU, once told me in an interview, the art project where she collaborated with Malaysian artist Okui Lala, became a welcomed avenue for her advocacy. She notes that the Malaysian public finds going to an art event for approachable, rather than attend a seminar or discussion on migrant worker’s rights. Approached through art, it can have a greater ripple effect. It is soft and gentle, but a duration of time, bring change to mindsets. Much like how a river flows.
Healing the environment, begins with healing ourselves
Speaking to John after his talk, he reiterates that repairing the environment begins with empowering the communities that live there. One thing he couldn’t say on stage was that places with acid mine drainage were Trump heartland, drawing a relationship between pollution and poverty and despair of its people. There’s a line that connects poverty, lack of access to education and the resentment for the government as well as distrust for outsiders or foreigners.
Places where the communities are disconnected and disempowered are places that face some sort of environmental destruction like Lynas and plastic waste in Port Klang. With a weakened community, it is easier for outside forces to come in and take advantage of the people’s ignorance. Ignorance that can lead to condoning a corrupt local government, exploitation of resources that result in environmental disaster and social problems.
Worse still, it is in the weakened communities, often brought by poverty, that makes these areas a breeding ground extreme and radical ideologies.
In my opinion, from the 80,000 strong crowd that gathered for the rally, a majority of them came Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu states. These states are the more economically challenged Malaysian states that with a majority of the population are ethic Malay and muslims.
When state governments are poor, they make poor decisions and most often at the expense of their people. The recent child marriage case in Kelantan received a lot of flak but what’s most alarming is the response by ‘official leaders’ that child brides are a necessity!
By condoning this disgusting act, it just brings forward the dire economic situation of the Kelantan. If we can’t keep our children safe from pedophiles in Kelantan, what little chance does the environment, rainforests and people have?
The ICERD rally means a lot of things for different people. For me, a red flag of political despair; a sign of a creeping hopelessness; that Malaysia still has a lot of work in terms of equalising the economic disparities. We’re all in this big boat together, and for whatever the big picture is; if we begin with healing the people around us, healing our communities, then they will heal everything else.
More River Art Projects: