20 September 2013 –”We must remember how important our roles are, no matter how small.” says 21 year old Quek Yew Aun a Malaysian university student.
Quek’s words sums up the essence of the inaugural programme by the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme (AYVP) at AsiaEngage, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia as it draws to a close. He is among the ASEAN Youth Eco-Leaders selected from across ASEAN to be part of the intensive 5 week event that will in turn produce environmental leaders when they return to their communities. The programme is made possible thanks to the support and partnership with the Malaysian Ministry of Youth and Sports, the ASEAN Secretariat and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The volunteers, or Eco-Leaders, come from diverse backgrounds and sectors. While some are university students, eager to learn more about environmental conservation, others are working professionals looking at implementing environmental policies that can alleviate real-world environmental problems that they face back home. All of them are passionate about bringing positive environmental change in the ASEAN region. With ages spanning between 18 and 30, the youths are the kind of energetic force needed in the region, at a time where most remain cynical about environmental transformation.
Recruitment for the Eco-Leaders began early April 2013, and the youths were carefully selected based on their expertise and passion towards the environment. The programme commenced on the 15th of August 2013, with their first week spent on the UKM Bangi campus getting to know each other and equipping themselves with knowledge as well as personal and professional skills. This is necessary, as the Eco-Leaders were then divided into four groups, and assigned to four bio-diversity sites in Malaysia where they would work with local communities and implement environmental education and other sustainable initiatives.
The four bio-diversity sites were Mersing, Johor, Kampung Dew, Perak, Setiu, Terengganu and Kuala Selangor Nature Park, Selangor.
Eco-Leaders assigned to Mersing, Johor launched a coastal community recycling program at 3 different villages, i.e. Kampung Penyabong, Kampung Tanjung Resang and Kampung Air Papan. They pioneered an environmental audit of the touristic beach, which became basis for awareness campaigns directed at the locals, especially school children. Among the sustainable initiatives they put in place were community-based buy-back centres which they constructed from scratch, as well as methods of arts and crafts that turn “trash into cash.”
In Kampung Dew, Perak, Eco-Leaders supported existing community livelihood in the form of eco-tourism, coupled with forest firefly habitat conservation. Unique to this group is their level of immersion with the locals, while they stayed in the homes of foster families during their entire volunteerism stint. They worked collaboratively in 2 groups in hopes of enhancing the natural surroundings of the jetty area, training local tour guides with basic language lessons and producing information, education and communication (IEC) materials such as pamphlets and websites.
In Setiu, Terengganu, Eco-Leaders worked towards rehabilitation of the original conditions of its eco-system. They documented the rich biodiversity found in the river, engaged in tree planting initiatives and organised clean-ups by the beach shore, river banks and in the mangrove nursery. Together with the local community, they also partook in knowledge-sharing with micro-entrepreneurs of Pengusaha Wanita Setiu (PEWANIS) who taught them how to make traditional lekar (craft) and kerepek pisang (banana chips), as well as students of the Universiti Malaysia Terangganu in a collaborative event known as Program Mari Berbudaya di Setiu, or the Setiu Culture Day.
At the Kuala Selangor Nature Park (KSNP), Eco-Leaders experienced first-hand how the park is managed by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). The Eco-Leaders attended several study visits and exhibits which focused on wetlands conservation in the region, and worldwide. These aided them in organising a public event on the Ramsar Convention as well as several Environmental Education (EE) activities with park visitors which, in turn, empowered locals to share in the responsibility of sustaining the environment. Among the other activities they engaged in were the rehabilitation and planting of mangrove trees, water birds sensoring, and cockle harvesting.
Each bio-diversity site gave the Eco-Leaders a unique experience that they can apply back at their own community. Tram Hee, from Vietnam and a journalist by trade, exclaims that the experience gained during the programme has been immense. “AYVP gave me a lot of new experiences. If I didn’t join the Programme, I wouldn’t have a chance to do them.”
After 3 weeks away, they came together for a week of sharing of knowledge and experiences gained at the biodiversity sites. The volunteers processed the different experiences and learning they had at the sites to work on their project reports which showcased these experiences and its impact on the volunteers and the communities. The culmination of the five weeks is the Grand Celebration that brings together the volunteers with partners and other stakeholders to showcase the learning, the culture, the song and dances of various countries and communities across ASEAN.
According to Prof. Dato’ Dr. Saran Kaur Gill, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for UKM’s Industry & Community Partnerships office and Executive Director of [email protected], knowledge-driven Community Engaged projects that are being championed by AYVP provides invaluable opportunities for volunteers to make relevant and apply theoretical knowledge to meet real world needs. “This journey requires the volunteers to expand upon multi-disciplinary knowledge, be organised, disciplined and committed, to work in teams, understand the needs of others and respect different cultures, and empower communities as well as learn from them.”
Even though the Eco-Leaders already back to their home countries, but the close bond formed among them is evident, and they plan to continue their friendship even when they have been separated by land and sea especially being the internet-savvy generation that they are. The entire group now peruses the AYVPUKM Facebook page to keep in touch with each other, and to keep their new found friends updated on the environmental initiatives that they plan to execute back home.