JAKARTA: Born and bred on Pramuka Island, part of the now touristic Thousand Islands archipelago north of Jakarta, Ms Swietenia Puspa Lestari is no stranger to the ocean.
The 24-year-old executive director of Jakarta-based Divers Clean Action (DCA) has been an avid diver since she was in elementary school, swimming with the fishes in the sea every chance she gets.
Over the years, she saw for herself how the waters changed. Things took a turn for the worse after 2007, when the local tourism sector experienced a 300 per cent growth.
“The ocean was so beautiful back then, with many fishes and Nemo (clownfish), but after 2007, it has changed. I couldn’t see the seabed because it’s covered by marine debris,” she told CNA.
Her love for the ocean eventually led her to pursue environmental engineering at one of Indonesia’s top universities, the Bandung Institute of Technology.
When she was in her third year of studies in 2015, she was eager to find a non-governmental organisation dedicated to maritime issues on the Thousand Islands.
Her search was futile, so she and her friends Ms Nesha Ichida and Mr Adi Seption founded a community of about 100 divers to clear marine debris.
“It was formed out of fear because divers nowadays see a lot more trash than fishes,” she said.
Following her graduation in 2017, the community expanded to become a foundation, now officially called the DCA.
Today, it has 1,500 registered volunteers across Indonesia and several hundred more from Southeast Asia focusing on combating marine debris and empowering coastal communities.
Its main tasks include clean-ups every month and segregating the waste to determine the type of trash typically found underwater and in coastal areas.
With the data gathered, they engage the government and create campaigns to educate people about the importance of waste management.
Ms Lestari’s work has gained recognition not just in Indonesia and abroad. Last month, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women for 2019, along with global sensation and Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Based on its four years of work, DCA concluded that marine debris in the Thousand Islands originated from three sources: locals, tourists, and material from foreign countries brought in by ocean currents.
The lack of integrated waste management system on the Thousand Islands led the inhabitants to burn their waste, or discard them into the ocean.
Elsewhere in Indonesia, similar problem is also faced by the local communities.
Single-use plastics such as straws end up in the ocean, causing Indonesia to be the world’s second-largest ocean polluter after China.
About 93 million straws are used in Indonesia a day, DCA’s data showed.
“We’re trying to develop an integrated solid waste management system that can be applied in small islands across Indonesia and Southeast Asian countries,” Ms Lesteri said.
“We are also focusing on building the recycling capacity of the islands, where we teach communities to separate their waste and send the trash to the waste banks we have incubated.
“This way, the recyclables goes to the recycling industry instead of the landfill, and hopefully the amount of trash polluting the ocean can be reduced to zero,” she added.
DCA has also collaborated with international institutions and represented Indonesia on the global stage such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in 2017, where Ms Lestari spoke about youth involvement in marine issues.
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DCA is a staunch believer in the power of youth.
It hosts yearly workshops for youths aged between 18 and 25 and provides fellowships and grants for them to kick-start similar efforts in their respective communities.
“Youths are full of spirit, and they don’t have hidden agendas. It’s easier for them to knock on the governments’ doors and approach the private sectors with concrete data,” Ms Lestari said.
In 2017, Ms Lestari and her teammates successfully convinced fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken to join the #nostrawmoment.
Since then, close to 90 per cent of some 700 KFC outlets in Indonesia have stopped offering straws.
“It was hard, actually. And it’s still hard. Because sometimes people see you as a young person who doesn’t have enough experiences, or even knowledge.
“But when I go to them with valid data – since DCA is heavily focused on collecting data – they will believe us because the data cannot lie,” Ms Lestari shared.
She said data is very useful when it comes to convincing the local governments on the reality on the ground, especially when the governments have not invested in research.
“The biggest challenge to me is that if we talk about waste, there are a lot of other issues we need to tackle as well … economy, health and politics.
“It’s hard to decide what we should do first because the problems are so different in every province. Therefore, collaboration (with governments and private companies) is really important.”
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DARE TO DREAM
Ms Lestari making one of BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women for 2019 came as a surprise for her and the DCA team.
“I still can’t believe it. We know our activities might have an impact on the environment, but we didn’t expect to be acknowledged by anyone, let alone those from other countries,” she gushed.
Ms Lestari said more people are now reaching out to her to express appreciation for her work, telling her that NGOs like DCA are not common in their countries.
“It has given us a boost.
“From constantly wondering if we are doing the right thing, we now feel like we are on the right path,” she said.
Ms Lestari urged youths to pursue their dreams, regardless of the challenges they may face.
“Don’t be afraid to have a dream. As long as you know it is right and how to achieve it, do it. And expand your network.
“Everybody can do something, and collaboration is key,” she said.