Lee-Ann Ford

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am

FOUNDATION I was living in Taiwan in 2002, running a bushiban [a cram college]. The municipal government was going to line these tetrapods, or storm blockers, all along the beach. It brought up a whole bunch of issues, especially for a nearby fishing village, and I followed it closely. We did some research, went to the public meeting, stood up and offered some alternatives that they hadn't considered, but the local government got upset with us and threw us out. I guess Linc [Linking Individuals for Nature Conservation] started there.

I think human psychology has been left out of the equation; with the environment we've made it all too dire and desperate. On any given day you open the paper to food shortages, water shortages and so on but where does it leave the public other than cornered? Stress causes people to block things out, so one of our major things over the years has been not to present a problem unless there's a solution within reach.

MOTIVATION I studied education and psycholinguistics, and I've had to learn everything ecological through doing it. People say, 'But you're a teacher.' I say, yeah, but I understand why your students - the public - aren't getting the message: your curriculum's too hard. The first environmental abstract I wrote and presented was for a report to the US Congress on marine noise. I was such an oddball when I look back; I didn't know what you were supposed to and not supposed to say ... Now I kind of get it. I understand the boxes people work within.

In 2006 I went on holiday with friends to Boracay Island [in the Philippines]. You read all the ads for Boracay and think, 'Oh fantastic', but we found it actually wasn't fantastic at all. Storm drains full of nutrients and garbage were piping directly onto beaches. The reefs were destroyed - coral is 1,000 times more sensitive to nutrients than people - and the big fish had gone. [The islanders] were having to rely on relatively new scuba divers, who were content with smaller fish, because long-term divers were coming and were disappointed with what they could see: just small fish taking shelter wherever they could.

So I went around and told people in the community we needed to have a project meeting. They said, 'Woah! Who's this weird environmentalist girl knocking on our doors' - but they came. They were all aware of the problems.

SOLUTION It's not that people aren't willing to act - there doesn't have to be good guys and bad guys - but they just don't know what to do. They think, well I need to run my business and support my family, so what can I do about all this green sludge running out of my restaurant? So we talked to them about help, about getting nutrient management and restoring the coral reefs. We flew over some experts and the government of the island took us on as their environmental consultants.

We get the community in the water. The coastguards are very supportive: they take us around and protect us while we're diving. The fishermen who are losing their livelihoods, we encourage them to stay away from dynamite fishing and poaching, and have started to train them as environmental liaisons. There's a plague of coral predators because of the overfishing of large fish, so they, along with volunteers - tourists, shareholders, restaurant workers - help remove the snails, and we pay by the kilo.

TRANSITION We'll soon be starting Project Start Your Part in Hong Kong. We've designed a few easy-access programmes for those who want to get involved, such as a calendar that gives tips month by month, so that in a year you've converted to a green lifestyle. It all takes time. For Hong Kong, I really want to look at water quality and water treatment and avoid 'greenwashing'. This is when something 'green' becomes a trend and there's a lot of hoohah, but when the trend ends nothing has changed or things are worse.

Linc has become bigger than me and we're going to start taking on corporate partners. Many corporations decide in advance what to fund though. For example, they'll choose solar panel and wind turbine projects, but they may not be the best solutions for the community. It is hard and people should recognise that. But if you just choose one thing, such as recycling, that helps. If everybody did the simple things we wouldn't be in the mess we are in now.