December 18, 2020
Photo by: Caroline Chia | Words by: Audrey Leong and Justin Lim
(Photo above) Mr Benjamin Tay, executive director for PM Haze, said that within the past year, because of the pandemic, the organisation has had to give up their physical office and are completely working from home.
While 2020 began with a promising focus on environmental conservation, Covid-19 halted key activities of groups committed to fundraising and conducting research work overseas.
For organisations such as the Centre for a Responsible Future (CRF), donations dropped by more than 50 per cent, raising concerns about funding for their work next year. Meanwhile, for the People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), travel restrictions forced research work in the Indonesian Peatlands into remote-control mode. PM Haze has faced a 15 per cent drop in independent donors in the past year.
PM Haze and CRF are two of the 38 beneficiaries among smaller charities, which The Giving Week Fund aims to support.
The fundraising effort by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) ran from December 1 to 7, aims to help sustain lesser-known social-impact communities and causes in Singapore. Though less visible than the work of larger agencies, their collective impact is strong, in areas such as social causes, healthcare, animal welfare, as well as arts and heritage.
How the virus rocked the environment
PM Haze’s mission of advocacy, research and education may not be immediately visible, but it has a long-term, multiplier effect on the communities it reaches.
Established in 2014, the nonprofit organisation focuses on outreach, research and advocacy on Asia’s transboundary haze crisis, which affects many parts of the Southern Asean region as well as some areas in the Northern Asean. Made up of 11 staff members, four of which sit on the organisation’s governing board, the team comes from all walks of life.
In 2019, environmental conservation efforts seemed to have progressed with the Paris Climate Agreement, which committed 189 nations to make sure that the global temperature increase in this century caps out at 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing means to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees. In tandem with that agreement, technological advancements were reducing the cost of clean and sustainable energy, while the world began to question whether plant-based alternatives could substantially put a pause on the current damage on the environment.
But this year, PM Haze’s executive director Mr Benjamin Tay pointed out: “People’s views have shifted. In previous years, because of the prevalence of the haze, more people were willing to place their money with PM Haze to see something being done.”
Then there was the matter of being grounded. PM Haze had to cancel two outreach expeditions to Air Hitam Forest Reserve in Southern Peninsula Malaysia because of travel restrictions.
The first expedition was planned for a group of 15 students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) while the second was for members of the public. With the forest reserve being the last standing peat forest swamp in the southern peninsula Malaysia, the support from environmental groups like PM Haze is crucial to its survival.
Also, it had partnered with the University of New Castle to collect and study samples from a few peatlands in Indonesia this year, but due to travel restrictions, they could not physically be there to collect and examine these.
They adapted — and swiftly.
They worked with locals in the Riau Province of Indonesia to collect and examine samples from the peatlands there.
Working with villagers with little previous experience in scientific data collection made this process tough. In Indonesia, they had to measure the water level of the peatlands, as well as the height and the diameters of the trees, which reveal the level of restoration within the peatlands.
“PM Haze works on restoring these peatlands, which helps to store up to three times more carbon than all the plants and forests in the world combined. So it is crucial that these environments are conserved.”
Mr Benjamin Tay, executive director, PM Haze
All the data is then sent to PM Haze’s researchers in Singapore via email, and Mr Tay conducts periodic virtual meetings to check in with the community there.
This remote research chain is only possible because the organisation had already begun groundwork the year before.
In June of 2019, the organisation began a project to invest in the local community by building their capacity, teaching them the various scientific means and methods of studying the samples from their peatlands. They even went as far as to invite a botanist down to the village to allow the community leaders to understand more about their natural environment.
That effort paid off.
“PM Haze works on restoring these peatlands, which helps to store up to three times more carbon than all the plants and forests in the world combined. So it is crucial that these environments are conserved,” said Mr Tay.
On the bright side, collecting data virtually has allowed PM Haze to save money in airfare. Nonetheless, studies conducted in this manner could also be less accurate. “There is a lot of room for misinterpretation so we have to be very clear about what we’re asking from them,” said Mr Tay.
Most critically, they lose a personal connection to a regional community in Indonesia. “We want to participate in their events — sometimes if they have weddings, we’ll get to join in as well. These are all stunted within a virtual setting.”
Despite so much riding on the conservation of peatland forests, PM Haze still saw a 15 per cent drop in independent donations this year.
Mr Tay explained that because this year has been particularly rainy, there isn’t much transboundary haze, so people don’t notice it.
Buoyed by grant funding awarded in the previous year, PM Haze has reserves. But this year’s shortfall spells trouble for the projects planned for 2021.
PM Haze is financially supported by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and donations from private individuals. According to their annual report in 2019, its largest source of income is from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which accounts for 75 per cent of its funding. The remaining 25 per cent comes from individual donations. The team needs at least $56,000 per year to run its operations.
Earthfest goes digital
While PM Haze is focused on sustainable farming, the Centre for a Responsible Future (CRF) believes that an individual’s impact on the environment cannot be negated — every bit counts.
It organises festivals, events and panel-based talks to introduce businesses to the idea of supporting a plant-based ecosystem, to inspire and support people and organisations in Singapore to make more humane, healthy, and sustainable choices through advocacy, education and engagement.
In particular, the charity focuses on advocating sustainable plant-based diets for the environment, health and animals through its outreach events, including Earthfest, a two-day festival that encourages veganism among the general public.
Yet the organisation is struggling to come back from the blows of Covid-19, which caused a 50 per cent drop in its funding this year. Its current funds come from individual and corporate sponsors and donations in cash, which made up 50 per cent of their income in 2019. It is also struggling to find sponsors for the new year.
“We’re trying, but so far there has been no concrete result,” said Mr Heng Guan Hou, its vice president, who stressed the need to reflect on past events and reimagine the future of CRF and environmental advocacy in Singapore.
“Internally, we are restructuring and strengthening our capacity to prepare for the future, especially one that has evolved from the Covid pandemic.”
“The pandemic is a catalyst for positive change. [Adopting a plant based diet] would allow us to reduce greenhouse gases, amount of land needed for animal feeds and levels of deforestation, among other things.”
Mr Heng Guan Hou, vice president, Centre for a Responsible Future
It has a team of 12 staff and exco members, and is supported by 650 individual and corporate members. This year alone, its Veganuary campaign was a resounding success, with a 70 per cent increase in participants compared to the 2019 campaign, and 19 restaurant and retail partners. Since the event first started in 2018, the number of participants has tripled.
He believes there is a pressing need for individuals to switch to a plant-based diet. According to CRF, the average Singaporean produces nine tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year. Animal agriculture further accounts for 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the combined exhaust from all transportation in the world. By encouraging more to reduce their meat intake, the hope is to minimise the impact that the individual’s life has on the climate.
Despite the financial challenges facing CRF, it is pushing ahead with organising Veganuary 2021 in January, hoping to get people to adopt a plant-based diet for a month.
“The pandemic is a catalyst for positive change. [Adopting a plant based diet] would allow us to reduce greenhouse gases, amount of land needed for animal feeds and levels of deforestation, among other things,” he added.
While the pandemic has halted many opportunities for the organisation to engage physically with their members, all is not lost. Instead, CRF’s flagship festival, EarthFest and other events went virtual, forcing the organisers to think out of the box for new ways to engage with the general public.
This birthed the collaboration with Swapaholic, a local e-commerce fashion swapping website to conduct 21 workshops over the span of two days, with the theme #Swap4Earth. The event sought to help people transform their daily living habits to be more sustainable.
“It’s important that we constantly devote time to rethink how we can better serve the community and continue to grow the plant-based business community in Singapore,” Mr Heng said.
CRF and PM Haze are part of NVPC’s SG Cares Giving Week Fund, which was set up to help charities (with an annual gross income of less than $500,000) sustain themselves with the needed financial resources so that their good work for the communities they serve can continue.