Yuyun Ismawati: Waste warrior keeps on fighting

After the past two years focusing on the completion of her master’s degree on Environmental Change and Management at Oxford University in the UK, Indonesia’s influential environmental activist, Yuyun Ismawati, now 47, can’t wait to roll up her sleeves again and get back into the world of environmental activism.

For the past at least 12 years, the founder of, and now advisor to, the Bali-based Bali Fokus has initiated various waste management programs promoting positive attitudes toward waste.

Below are excerpts of the views of the recipient of the 2009 Goldman Prize for environmental activism, as recently shared with Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti through email correspondence.

Question (Q): Since the time you founded BaliFokus in 2000, in terms of waste management in Bali, what has been improving so far and what has been getting worse? Answer (A): I’ve seen better awareness on waste management at household and community levels. I’m delighted to see a growing number of NGOs, community groups, small-medium enterprises dealing with recycling and waste management, not only in Bali but also in other cities.

The problems remain in the political will and the management at the city, regional and national levels. When the policymakers and authorities don’t have a strong vision and political will, most likely the waste-management related services will remain poor. I don’t think the waste-collection rate in Bali cities is improving. Last year, the collection rate was about 60 percent.

Q: In your activism, you encourage people to sort waste at home/right from the source. How is this practice feasible, while behavioral change is difficult?

In the community-based waste management in one of the urban poor areas of Denpasar, we held some activities ranging from waste separation, household composting to craft small businesses with micro-loans for women. It is not easy to change people’s behavior. But I learned that even the poor, if we help them maintain the momentum and keep the system up and running well, they too are willing to pay for a waste collection service. From our monitoring, about 75 percent of the community-based groups who implement this program are able to maintain the system for more than three years. Some of them expand to wider neighborhood areas, while some others expand to become social enterprises.

Q: Based on Hindu Balinese Tri Hita Karana principles, Balinese have always been regarded as having great respect for nature, as well as living beings and gods. A simple example of respecting nature is by not littering. Nonetheless, why does garbage remain a huge problem here?

Balinese still see the modern world’s waste like the old time’s waste, mostly organic. They do not realize that stuff we use and consume every day now is mostly disposable and designed for obsolescence so the manufacturing of the products and the wheels of production can still be up and running for a long time without considering the finite resources. Most of them still cannot reflect on their good relationship with gods into good relationships with the immediate environment around the temple.

Q: The toxic and hazardous waste. How to manage it? How effective is the implementation of the MoU between BaliFokus and hospitals in Denpasar?

On toxic and hazardous wastes, we were just promoting awareness in 2007 when there were some incidents of medical waste stranded on the beach and scattered in the bushes along the beach. During the monsoon season between December and April, just within half an hour I collected seven syringes and some of them still had needles. Since then, we started working with the Environment Agency, Denpasar Health Agency and Bali province. An initial survey involving 14 hospitals in Denpasar and Badung discovered most hospitals have an unclear policy and implementation of waste management and hazardous chemicals, such as mercury-containing devices.

Most of them are willing to cooperate with us to improve their performance. We started working with seven of them and later another three hospitals joined the program. The 10 pilot hospitals developed action plans to phase out mercury-containing devices, especially thermometers, sphygmomanometers, dental amalgam and to improve their waste management. We are promoting non-mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers, and introducing non-incineration medical waste treatment.

The program now is introduced to Yogyakarta and Central Java. We have received great responses from both provincial governments and hundreds of hospitals in both provinces. Soon, we will introduce this program in Jakarta and look for more political support from the Health Ministry and the Environment Ministry to change the policy in this field.

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