Shailendra Yashwant: Greenpeace in Southeast Asia

by Bhavani Prakash

Shailendra Yashwant (Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert)

Shailendra Yashwant is Campaign Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia and founding member of the Greenpeace offices in India and Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asia office manages about 120 staff including campaigners and fund raisers.

Based in Bangkok, Yashwant currently oversees a range of campaigns including climate change, renewable energy, forests, clean water and sustainable agriculture in the Southeast Asian region. He is an award winning photojournalist, and has been involved with key environmental movements in India, Nepal and Bangladesh before he joined Greenpeace in 1998.

Greenpeace International, with offices in over 40 countries is one of the world’s leading non-governmental environmental organisations.  It takes no corporate sponsorship or government grants, with its entire funding sourced directly from the general public.

Yashwant talked to us during his visit to Singapore last month, where he had been invited as a speaker at the first ever Climate Change Summit for the Asia’s Insurance Industry.

BP:  How do you see the various faces of Greenpeace, whose activism can range from “in your face” demonstrations that often gives it an eco-terrorist image, to “pin-striped suit” negotiations with businesses and governments?

SY: Greenpeace celebrates its 40th anniversary in October 2011. Fortunately, our core value of non-violence is such a solid part of our profile for the last 4 decades that the eco-terrorist label never sticks – it’s like water off duck’s back, really .

Our campaigning has always been based on an IDEAL approach – Investigate, Document, Expose, take Action and Lobby. We are well known for our meticulous investigations and systematic scientific research.

We even we have an independent science lab based in the University of Exeter in England and in fact we are considering setting up a science unit for Southeast Asia in Singapore, if we get the permission to do so .

Lobbying is an important part of our campaigning style. In fact, we are as comfortable in our orange overalls while taking direct action as we are in pin-striped suits which we have to wear regularly to engage with executives of our targets companies, senior government officials and attend UN conferences where we have observer status.

I remember the first UN meeting I attended, when we demanded a ban on all F-gases. That’s the first intervention that Greenpeace or any international environmental organisation for that matter did on climate change. Greenpeace has even developed solutions like GreenFreeze , the world’s first CFC free refrigerator that is now a norm in the industry.

BP: How has Greenpeace evolved over the years?

SY: Our style of protests also known as direct action, has certainly changed and evolved. We still protest at the sites of environmental crime to show what is endangered or threatened , like chaining ourselves to bulldozers in forests or blocking pipes that release toxic effluents in rivers.

What has evolved in last four decades is the technology and lately we’ve begun using the power of social network to involve more people in our protests.

In 2009 we ran a hugely successful online campaign targeting Unilever. We made a spoof video of their television commercial for Dove soap, to bring attention to the fact that products like soap, shampoo, chocolates used palm oil, a product that came from forest destruction in places like Indonesia. We were demanding that multinational companies like Unilever, Nestle and others stop buying palm oil from companies that were involved in forest destruction for expanding their plantations in Indonesia.

It was amazing to see the video viral on social networks with more than 300,000 people writing to Unilever echoing our demands. The company had very little choice but to listen to the demands of their consumers.

We repeated this tactic with the Kitkat campaign targeting Nestle on the same issue with tremendous results again last year.

Our business is to communicate the environmental crisis, and to reach out to more and more people to engage on these critical issues. We think that reaching out to huge numbers is now possible.

[Click here for EWTT’s summary of the Nestle KitKat campaign.

Read also the latest success of Greenpeace’s campaign here to get palm oil conglomerate Golden Agri Resources, to commit not to clear peatlands and forests of High Conservation Value]

BP: Do you also find that the attitudes of governments and businesses have changed over the years, especially towards Greenpeace?

SY: Absolutely. This paradigm shift that everyone is talking about has already started happening. I think that governments are willing to listen because the impacts are obvious.

Industrial effluents at Vapi (Photo by Shailendra Yashwant)

For example, in the state of Gujarat in India, at what is known as the Golden Corridor that stretches from Vapi to Ankleshwar– a major hub of chemical industries , that manufactures intermediary chemical compounds for export.

We began investigating by first documenting impacts, by taking pictures of red cows and blue dogs, and farmers and fishermen suffering from skin diseases. Later we tested water in the rivers to discover high toxic content due to direct release of effluents from the chemical factories. We released the results of our investigations, including the pictures and then took direct action by blocking pipes that were discharging in the rivers. Nothing happened. We were pushed back from Gujarat.

A few years later, the number of women suffering from miscarriages increased dramatically and an alarming rise in health disorders were reported. That got people worried. Now they were calling for the reports that were released 10 years earlier about the harmful effects of dyes and chemicals released in the rivers. The local Pollution Control Board is actually now on our side. The first 5 years, they were against me. So you see these little shifts. They are not tectonic but they are happening. We are not anywhere near saving the planet yet of course.

[Vapi appeared in 2006 & 2007 in the Blacksmith’s Institute‘s List of Top 10 of Worst Polluted Places and also cited by Mother News Network in 2011 as one of the 15 most toxic places in the world to live]

BP: How is your current campaign against deforestation in Indonesia shaping up in the context of REDD-plus?  What kind of legal or market frameworks would you like to see in place?

SY: First of all, we want all stakeholders to be involved. We can’t just have governments and businesses sitting down together without the indigenous peoples and communities, local government and civil society. These people have to be involved for any decision making. Don’t jump into the carbon markets and make promises, but involve all stakeholders. Don’t give any more new concessions till such a joint discussion takes place. Also, don’t allow the existing concessions to be cleared. Before anything else, we need to reassess what is really left, what can be protected, put a value to the forests especially when it is reduced to this size. These three are key: stakeholder involvement, a moratorium that allows a full assessment, and in many parts of the world we don’t want the REDD or post Cancun money that is coming in to become an excuse for developed countries to continue emitting.

In fact, we’re saying only those countries which have shown a track record of reducing their carbon emissions should be allowed to participate in these schemes.
Nothing much happened in Cancun, by the way. We’re focussing now on the bilateral deals, for example, the Norway-Indonesia deal and the Australia-Indonesia deal only because you have to show the Indonesian government and the local governments and players that there is a value to standing forests. You can actually make money from a standing forest. It’s unfortunately all about money.

[Click here for the joint Friends of the Earth FOE and Greenpeace’s document, “REDD: The realities in black and white”]

BP: You’re also campaigning for increasing the uptake of renewable energies in the region. Where would you like to see change?

SY: We’d like to see governments revisiting their GDP projections, this growth-linked fossil fuel use projections. What are your real energy requirements, where are they going to come from? Stop thinking grid.

Netherlands is the best example of how each building or community has its own little energy production centre. They are therefore responsible for how it is run, whether it is polluting or not, whether it is green or not.

We want to see existing technology, not rocket science. Our Energy [R]evolution document shows there are existing technologies whether wind, solar, biomass, microhydro – all these alternative energy production systems that can meet our requirements.

[Click here to read more about Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution campaign]

BP: What is the main impediment to the shift to renewables?

SY: It is government subsidies to fossil fuel. And you can see that in many countries – the coal industry is practically running the governments, for example in Indonesia. After a lot of campaigning in India, they’ve declared ‘no go’ zones in Indian forests.  The Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh’s latest statement that we will protect Indian forests from coal mining in forests, which is very good. However, Indian companies such as the state owned Coal India and Tata Power in the private sector are now buying coal mines in Indonesia.

BP: Because you’re in charge of the Greenpeace Southeast Asia, you’re able to see what’s happening at a regional level more clearly!

SY: Absolutely. The biggest impediment to renewables is the clout of these industries.

BP: What are you thoughts on the Nuclear Liability Bill in India which seeks to limit the maximum liability in case of a nuclear accident?

SY: Everyone who is worried about this bill is genuinely worried. This is not only about hazards associated with nuclear waste and accidents, it’s also about public finance. Whose money are you spending?

No new nuclear power plant in the last 15 years has been built within the projected costs or within the projected time.    Despite this, the massive public protest for the biggest nuclear power plant proposed in Jaitapur, India for 10,000MW is being suppressed.

BP: What are your ecological agriculture campaigns in Thailand and Phillipines?

Ifugao GMO free Rice Terraces in Phillipines

SY: While campaigning against GMOs, we’re working with a number of farmers in Thailand and the Philippines. On the rice terraces in Ifugao, Phillipines, we got the local government to announce it to be GM free. The area is a UN World Heritage site. The region has the best organic farmers for centuries.

Unfortunately, there are industries in the area waiting to sell their chemical fertilisers and pesticides, but we have blocked them. Right now our sustainable agriculture work is in blocking GMOs and spreading awareness about the effects of chemical fertilisers, not only on food, but also on water.

The biggest threat to water in Indonesia in fact, is the agriculture runoffs. So we’re still developing a larger campaign where we go beyond saying no to GMOs and talk about what organic and ecological agriculture really means, what sustainability actually means when applied practically.

[Click here to read more about Greenpeace Phillipines’ anti-GMO campaign]

BP: What are your plans for the region?

SY: In Southeast Asia, we currently have offices in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. In fact, Greenpeace Southeast Asia marked its 10 years of campaigning in the region in 2010. In the near future, we are looking into setting up offices in Singapore and Malaysia. We also have offices in India, East Asia which include China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

BP: Could you tell us about the Mitra Foundation that you are personally involved with?

SY: Mitra Foundation is my pet project back home in India, where together with my wife and a few friends who call ourselves Mitras, have been helping educational campuses raise ‘energy conscience’ amongst their students by implementing energy efficiency measures while phasing in the use of renewable energy to meet the energy needs.

We have had modest success as at least 3 campuses in Bangalore and Pune, of the five that we have been working at. They have not only improved energy efficiency but also installed solar and micro wind energy systems.

We are very excited about setting up ‘solar libraries’ at Adivasi (indigenous people) schools of Dahanu in Maharashtra , who have no access to books or electricity. You can find out more about our work at www.mitrafoundation.org

BP: What gives you hope for the future?

SY: Personally, I get my energy from meeting young people around the world. It’s their dynamism, enthusiasm and excitement for a better tomorrow that keep me going.

You will agree that we have far more people alive today, due to better education and exposure to a variety of new ideas, techniques and methods. I believe that we have far more creative potential than ever before, which gives me hope that we can find whole new ways of living on the planet sustainably.

Links to follow:

Website:  Greenpeace Southeast Asia
FacebookGreenpeace Southeast Asia (Thailand), Greenpeace IndiaGreenpeace IndonesiaGreenpeace Phillipines, Greenpeace International

Connect with Shailendra Yashwant through his blog and on Twitter


About the interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com. She is passionate about the role of individuals and communities in bringing about the much needed change we need to see in the world. She was an economist in her previous avatar, and is now an environmental and social justice activist using social media as well as offline community participation in her advocacy of a greener, fairer and happier planet. She writes and conducts talks and workshops on sustainability and can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube

Further links you may be interested in:

1.        Environmental Justice – A Photo Essay by Shailendra Yashwant

Scribd link here

2. Breakfast Grille Podcast with Shailendra Yashwant , “ Saving the World Step by Step, Inch by Inch”

Shailendra Yashwant talks on this Podcast about Green Peace’s campaigns, strategies and some of its ‘wins’

3. Articles by Shailendra Yashwant:
The Nation: Indonesia’s bold attempt to prevent deforestation

InfoChange India News Toxic Tours – II: Alang: Death zone (Hazards of Ship Breaking)

4. BBC: Orangutan survival and the shopping trolley “Shailendra Yashwant, Greenpeace director for Southeast Asia, said this illegal logging is widespread and includes major suppliers to the UK’s food and household product market. ”We want the Indonesian government to immediately announce a moratorium on further deforestation…beginning with peat lands.”


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Posted by on Feb 10 2011. Filed under Climate Change, Communities and Governance, Sustainable Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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