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In conversation with accidental environmentalist Saurabh Gupta

In conversation with accidental environmentalist Saurabh Gupta

In 2012, Saurabh Gupta was caught up in the corporate rat race of Mumbai, the beating heart of India’s finance and commerce sector. He was working hard, drinking harder and living for the weekend. A photo of him – pitcher in hand and a faraway look in his eyes – punched up on the screen behind him as he delivers a TEDx talk in Paris, attests to this.

By Amy Bryant

Sunday 8 September 2019, 10:00AM

The Saurabh in front of the screen, however, bears almost no resemblance. Some seven years later, he’s the vibrant and athletic head of Earth5R, one of the world’s largest citizen-led sustainability movements. Over 35,000 volunteers in 25 countries are using the movement’s Action, Collaboration and Transforma­tion (ACT) model – built on the five Rs of Respect, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Restore – to lift entire communities out of poverty and repair degraded and damaged ecosystems, to great success.

The Asia Pacific Environmental Network Thailand/Australia (APEN) is enlisting Saurabh’s and Earth5R’s help to build a sustainable Phuket, starting with Koh Siray, the poorest area of the island. Ahead of APEN’s strategic plan­ning forum on September 4, Saurabh took the time to speak to The Phuket News about his journey from desk jockey to eco-warrior and his visions for our island’s green future.

Tell us how you became, in your words, an “accidental environmentalist”

“I think everyone becomes an acci­dental environmentalist at some point. If you don’t think so, it’s just because you haven’t had that moment yet! For me, it was after I quit my corporate job in 2012 and started cycling. I cycled over 50,000 kilometres in two years across Africa, Europe and Asia, and my health and mindset changed completely.

“I reconnected with my time growing up in the Himalayas. It was a real com­munity and we lived in harmony with nature. Fishermen traded fish for fruit and so on, and no one bought anything. But I lost that connection when I moved to the city. I realised I wanted to live meaningfully and work with and for the Earth, so I set up Earth5R in 2014.”

How did you build up Earth5R?

“The founding idea has always been very simple: every citizen must take care of three kilometres around their house (which is the size of my home village). You don’t have to give your life up or go out of the way. You just have to look after your area. It’s a personal, civil responsibility. It’s our waste and we can’t just blame the government because we pay taxes.

“We started with Mumbai where we created zero-waste slums. We help build formal waste management systems and teach families to use their food waste as compost to grow plants on their rooftops which we then buy from them. We also collect offcuts from garment factories so they can make clothes and items to sell. These people are artists and entrepre­neurs, and they’ve created livelihoods by using what’s around them.

“From steps like these, entire social change started to happen.”

What has been your career highlight?

“Earth 5R was one of five environ­mental projects selected from across the world to present at the Paris Peace Forum 2018. We met Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Em­manuel Macron, Carlos Alvarado… It was an out-of-this-world experience. President Carlos Alvarado invited us to Costa Rica afterwards and now we’re running a project there.”

You’ve been working with a lot of is­lands too. Ibiza, Malta, Hawaii, Fiji...

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“We have a special focus on islands – or countries with island-like biodiver­sity – and we realise that they need to be treated differently to the mainland. They’re fragile ecosystems that come under enormous pressure from tourism and demand for their resources.

“We see more species arriving that don’t belong to that ecosystem, we see more species lost that do belong and we see more topsoil erosion, meaning the ground cannot support tree growth. On the mainland, it’s easier to mitigate these risks, but because of the smaller land area on islands, the chain of na­ture is more closely connected, and even tiny changes can have a big impact.”

What are your impressions of Phuket?

“I’m impressed by its biodiversity. Community engagement is good too, with a lot of people eating at local, in­dependent restaurants. I saw beautiful things that the residents of Koh Siray are doing already. They’re catching and conserving rainwater for cleaning, showering and so on, and it was great to see the local school composting. It sets a great example.

“But I can see that Phuket has a very challenging situation. There’s an insane amount of plastic, compostable waste is going to landfill when it needs to go back to the soil, recyclable waste is being incinerated, the jungle is being cleared for building… The demands of tourism to have everything quickly means the balanced and interdependent ecosystem is breaking down.

“A major shift towards ecotourism is essential for long-term change. It would be interesting to look at solar energy on the island too.”

What will Earth5R’s ACT Phuket project do to tackle these issues?

“Continue to improve waste manage­ment so that food waste returns to the soil as compost, and recyclable waste is, well, recycled. We want to look at green jobs and entrepreneurship from waste. Even the shells on the ground [on Koh Siray] I see as coins thrown away. They could be processed by industry for their calcium and phosphorous.

“Social integration is one of the major focuses of ACT so we can learn from each other and preserve culture. We’ll be working with residents and lo­cal partners APEN, SEEK Phuket, the government of Thailand, Phuket Hotels Association and Prince of Songkla University. We’ll host hackathons with local businesses to brainstorm sustain­able solutions to systemic problems. These have been hugely successful in the past and real-world solutions have been implemented from them.

“I come from India so I don’t intend to be a permanent part of a project that’s in Thailand. [Earth5R] will be a spark. I want the local people to run it, otherwise it’s someone else’s pro­gramme. They must own it.”

For more information, visit Sau­rabh's TEDx talks are available here and here.

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