A young age does not get in the way of environmental protection. Enter Aeshnina Azzahra, a 9th grader from Gresik State Junior High School 12. The 14-year old is walking the talk.
When Azzahra was in elementary school, she wrote a letter to the Gresik district head about the environmental condition surrounding her school. Nina — the name she goes by — also wrote to leaders whose country exports waste to Indonesia.
Her bold actions at such a young age received attention. One of them was from ECOTON, a wetland conservation and a biology study program that was established in 1996.
In November of 2021 Nina was asked to speak at the biggest and most important climate conference the UNFCC COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. She was also one of the youngest speakers at the second Plastic Health Summit 2021 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, held in October.
Nina is determined to continue to take action to protect the environment. To her, everyone, including children, has the right to a clean and healthy environment.
The Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) sat down with Nina on 7 December 2021, where she talked briefly about her passion in environmental protection.
How did you first become interested in environmental issues?
My parents are wetland protection activists, so I have been educated about the threats of plastic and the importance of environmental protection since I was little. I also had the opportunity to participate in a research with my parents and in real action to protect the environment.
For the first time, I wrote a letter to the Gresik district head when I was in 5th grade. I wrote about environmental pollution that was happening around the school and what needed to change. At the end, I was asked to represent the school to meet with the district head.
In my opinion, making a change is easy, as long as you have the will. You can start from the simplest things, like writing a letter.
At such a young age, why?
I understand that environmental issues are crucial and need to be quickly solved. If we allow the environment to continuously get polluted, the condition will worsen. I have to take part in an action that will make a difference because I am part of the generation that will face the impact in the future.
What environmental issues are you facing today?
My house is near a paper factory, they purchase waste from abroad. The plastic waste is smuggled in, when in fact that is illegal. Then there is environmental issues in the Brantas River, a source for drinking water for residences in Surabaya, Mojokerto, all the way to Sidoarjo.
Currently, I am studying a lot about microplastics, air, and rivers. The danger of microplastics looms when it pollutes the river as it will absorb pollutants in the water body. From liquid waste to detergent that are disposed of will stick to microplastics, which then eaten by fishes, that will be consumed by us. You can be certain there’s many microplastics that made their way into the human body.
That will be detrimental to health, including triggering inflammation and early menstruation. Without realising it, we have consumed microplastics.
You wrote letters to the American, Canadian, German, and Australian embassies among others to convey your aspirations about environmental issues. Why did you do that?
To me, writing letters is easy. Everyone can write and send letters to anyone. The letters I wrote contain facts that I see. In 2019, I wrote a letter to President Donald Trump. I also wrote a letters to the government of the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Australia, inclding the current president of the United States, Joe Biden.
What do your letters say?
I wrote to them to stop dumping their waste to Indonesia and be able to manage their own waste. Don’t burden developing countries like Indonesia, with their waste.
I told them about my village that has become a landfill for countries in Europe and United States that is causing pollution in our environment. In fact from that waste, there is a finding of chicken eggs containing dioxins because the waste was burned. The water used to recycle waste was dumped into rivers, causing the formation of microplastics.
When I had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, I observed the plastic recycling at the only processing facility in the country. As a developed country equipped with sophisticated technology, the Netherlands is only able to recycle 60 percent of its plastic waste, the rest is burned. What about Indonesia that does not yet have a good waste processing technology?
What have been the leaders’ reactions?
One responded by promising to comply with the regulation. Another one responded by creating a regulation to reduce waste. On the other hand, I also received less positive response. For example, blaming the Indonesian government for receiving waste from another country.
You were one of the youngest speakers at the 2021 Plastic Health Summit. How did you get invited?
Actually I was invited because the event organiser had worked with ECOTON in the past. The forum discussed the many threats of plastic and its relations with human health. I had the opportunity to meet with great researchers who studies the impacts of plastic waste in blood, feces, and food. I also met with many young activists. It’s great to meet people with the same mission.
What message did you convey?
I spoke about imported plastic (waste). Many in the audience were surprised because the were not aware that the waste they produce is dumped in Indonesia. All this time, their government only informed them of the waste management through recycling, but stop short to inform them that the recycling process is taking place in Indonesia.
You were also invited to attend the UNFCC COP26. What was your agenda in Glasgow?
Actually I attended the CIP26 for the screening of the “Girl for Future” film. A filmmaker from Germany was interested to document my activities and made a documentary to be screened in Glasgow. Many audience was inspired by the film.
At the COP26, I also had the opportunity to give a speech. My message was simple, conveying the facts on environmental conditions in Indonesia.
What do you want to do after COP26?
I want to push the Indonesian government to make environmental issue a priority. As an initial step, I want to write a letter to President Jokowi. I am currently gathering information and facts that I would like to convey in my letter.
Not many youth are involved in environmental protection movements. How do you get them to participate?
We can start with what they like. The young people are interested in social media, like YouTube and Instagram. The campaigns can be carried out through the media platforms they use, for example through the colourful display on TikTok, so they are intrigued to learn more about environmental issues.
At school, I organised a plastic waste import exhibition by displaying photos and creating a petition. Many of my school friends were interested and they wanted to learn more about the plastic waste issue. Not only that, I also joined the River Warrior team, that aims to build public and children’s awareness about the environment.
You are still in school. Do your school activities get interrupted by your environmental activities?
At first, yes. When I was in the Netherlands, I have to take leave from school for a month. I am thankful for the support from many parties, my parents, teachers and friends. My parents helped a lot in my scheduling. They set aside time to rest after studying and there is time for environmental campaign. Education and environmental work can go hand in hand.
How long will you campaign for environmental protection?
Until the public understands and the Indonesian government prioritise this issue. I hope that all of us, and generations to come, can enjoy a clean environment, drinking water, and air. Everyone has the right to clean life. Change has to start with yourself. I must not be afraid, I have to be brave to speak up for my rights.