(This piece was published in Hong Kong Discovery Magazine, vol.77, p.16-24)
Some travel to admire the scenery, I travel to lose and find myself again. I was lost for months and one day I realized that I should go and explore the world to get some insights. I decided to free myself from the routine and just get out there. The further I go, the better it seems. Without thorough consideration, I chose Mauritius and went there alone for a six-week internship on a project called ‘Save Our Seas’. Frankly speaking, at that time, I had no idea what Mauritius was like apart from the tranquil beaches on tour brochures. All I wanted was to explore and contribute whatever I can to the environment in another part of the world.
Everyday in Mauritius is a story. Let me begin with the moment I got onto the plane. The man sitting next to me was a Mauritian, a local clinical scientist. He passionately introduced Mauritius to me and even shared with me some lessons he learned in life. Somehow I was amazed by his enthusiasm, and later I realized that the biggest asset of Mauritius is the relaxed charm of its warm and welcoming people. Yet, his reflection on climate change was not what I expected in a casual conversation. He mentioned how Mauritius has been plagued by climate change over the past five years, for instance, increasingly frequent and intense floods which claimed lives. Being a student majoring in Environmental Management and Technology, I always hear about the negative impacts brought by climate change in different countries but have neither experienced it nor heard the victims talking about it. Therefore, this piece of sharing was a mental bombshell to me, and prompted me to investigate more during my stay. On this long flight from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, I was determined to make some changes in a community new to me.
My project ‘Save Our Seas’ is an awareness campaign aiming at generating awareness among members of the public on the issue of marine conservation, and putting a stop to the progressing deterioration of the marine ecosystem in Mauritius. My job was basically divided into two parts. First, I had to focus on increasing people’s awareness through communication and second, work with the local environmental non-government organizations (NGO).
During the awareness and survey days, we talked to over 600 people. I went to beaches and supermarkets with other interns to interview both the locals and the visitors, to know more about how they view the change in the marine ecosystem and on awareness campaigns. Of the 600 people surveyed, more than a half (66%) noticed a change in the state of the beaches and lagoons, namely erosion, more waste on the coasts and decline in the amount of living corals. Over a half (56%) claimed they usually see people throwing wastes into the sea or along the coast whereas the majority (75%) thought they are not aware or merely aware about marine life and what causes harm to them. The vast majority (88%) thinks people are unaware that the sea is in danger. Based on the statistics, we could infer that the problem in marine ecosystem in Mauritius is attributable to the lack of knowledge on protecting marine life. So the antidote to tackling the root of the problem is to educate the public. In view of this, my peers and I went in groups to hit the beaches and delivered messages to people on what to do and not do in their daily life, while partaking in recreational activities like snorkeling and diving.
The biggest surprise for me was, unlike people in Hong Kong, the Mauritians were eager to learn how to protect their seas by paying attention to what I told them and returning me a genuine smile. Some encouraged me to persist in the effort in spreading the messages. One of them even posted up our memo on how to save marine ecosystem on his ice-cream van, which operated everyday near the beaches. This was really encouraging as people revealed that they were willing and ready to change. Our findings also showed that the majority (82.3%) thought there should be more awareness campaigns in Mauritius. It proved worthwhile for me going out, talking with the others and spreading green messages, however hard it was.
After meeting the man on the plane and the locals during awareness days, I pondered why the attitude of the Mauritian and HongKongers differ so much when it comes to acquiring knowledge on environmental protection and practicing it. Here are some possibilities: first, Mauritians are proud of having such an amazing natural environment in their country, and they are attached to the beauty of it.
If you lie on any beaches in Mauritius, try to feel the warmth and vibrancy of the sun; listen to the splash of the seawater; gaze at the crystal clear water and look at the people relaxing and sunbathing near the coconut trees – you will probably be amazed by this tropical atmosphere and say “life’s so good”. You will probably feel refresh and energetic and want to seize the moment badly. It is such a pleasure to inhabit such a lovely island with great natural beauty. No wonder why the Mauritians are willing to protect it.
Second, people there seldom take natural resources for granted. In face of low precipitation, the Central Water Authority imposes water cuts. The affected regions vary, depending on climatic and topographic factors. With such natural limitation, people learn to treasure what they have. During my stay, I often experienced water cut even in the middle of the shower, and I realized how lucky I was to be born in an affluent society that provides me with more than the resources I need to satisfy my basic needs.
Third, the warm and welcoming character of the Mauritian people make it easier to give advice. They are more receptive to changes: more open-minded to adopt new ideas on conserving their natural assets. The biggest difference between Hong Kong and Mauritius is that the vast majority of people in the latter would listen to us and consider what we’ve told them instead of brushing off others’ suggestions.
Open-mindedness is not enough to mitigate the environmental problems; having initiators is also critical. Luckily, there are people dedicated to protecting the environment in Mauritius. I worked with them and learnt from them. We had field visit with Environmental Protection and Conservation Organisation (EPCO) and beach and lagoon cleaning with Roches Noire Eco-Marine. These experiences really stirred up my emotion.
Picture this: tens of boats speeding up towards the dolphins at high speed, and a group of people wearing masks and snorkels swimming to the same direction as quickly as possible. Isn’t it cruel to the dolphins? Sadly, This is exactly what I saw during the field visit to have a closer look on the dolphin watching industry. It’s really heartbreaking to see dolphins being deprived of the right to live freely without any human disturbance. It is intolerable on both environmental and humanitarian points of view. Sometimes people may think “I’m not an environmentalist so why should I care?” or “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim with the adorable dolphins in the open sea.” You may think it is a rare opportunity to swim with the dolphins. But is it really an enjoyment when you are squandering the dolphin’s freedom? If people step back and rethink, they will know how barbarous it is to the dolphins. I truly wish that people realize this problem early and stop acting ruthlessly.
Another vivid picture: beach cleaning and lagoon cleaning. We helped cleaned the shore of Roches Noire at the northeastern part of Mauritius. To my surprise, quite a huge amount of waste including plastics, beer cans, broken glass and even a lady’s handbag were collected from the sea. I’ve never imagined that pollution is happening in this paradise island, which is renowned for its amazing seas and beaches. Useless it may seem for a foreigner to travel thousands of miles to clean up the beach, but seeing how the garbage ended up let me reflect on the luxurious living style that most of us are having. It is luxurious in the sense that every day we use natural resources profligately, and rarely do we think of its consequences. We are not required to pay anything for our constant damaging to the environment. Are we going to conserve our resources only if using it involves a cost? Though it may also achieve the aim of conservation, is imposing monetary cost in line with the idea of helping people nurture a passion towards nature?
The journey comes to an end but the story goes on. One single reason to continue devoting myself to protecting the environment is what I got from these 600 people I met in 42 stories in these 6 weeks. It is the reason that guides my way. Though I felt really sorry when I witnessed the environmental problems in Mauritius, people’s attitude and NGO’s work energize me to contribute more on solving the problems. In their eyes I saw reassurance. In their words I saw passion: they are a group of people who welcome changes to protect their motherland. It is precious to have discovered that there are many people sharing your dream of conserving the environment and actualizing it in another part of the world. Best wishes to Mauritius and thanks to those who are devoting themselves to environmental conservation. Your effort will pay off. And you’re never alone. Never ever give up!
When I was writing this article, a torrential rain struck Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, taking a toll of more than ten deaths. This is a wake-up call to the Mauritians. It is high time that they should both mitigate the effect of climate change and adapt to it. Best wishes to Mauritius and all my friends there. To those lucky ones who are safely living in other parts of the world reading this article: Do you need to wait till the occurrence of extreme climate events in your country or city to realize that you should have done something in response to climate change? Take action before it’s too late.