No passion for plastic
It’s the universal way adults squash kids considered too smart for their own good: ‘You’ll understand better when you grow up.’
That’s not a line recommended for anyone planning to mollify, patronize or divert Melati and Isabel Wijsen from their goal to rid Bali of plastic bags.
The cynical oldies are right. Age weakens; the fire in the belly gets quenched by downpours of reality. Yet the barely-teens already understand this dampening of dreams.
“With our friends we’ve been running Bye-bye Plastic Bags since 2013 and it’s true that it has become tiring,” said Melati. “There have been disappointments. However we got encouragement after the TED talk went global this year attracting many people.”
The sisters’ flawless 11-minute presentation in London was delivered without autocues and loaded on the Internet. It’s had about a million hits.
The talks are based on the themes of Technology Entertainment and Design with the slogan ‘Ideas worth spreading’.
The pair originally launched their crusade at the Green School near Ubud where conservation and social-change initiatives are mainstream rather than optional extras.
Bali’s economy depends heavily on overseas tourists lured by the island’s lush beauty. Yet many locals and visitors drop their rubbish with minimal thought to the consequences, but maximum damage to the environment.
That hardly mattered when food wraps were banana leaves and drinks came in coconut shells. Toss the leftovers in bush or brook and keep conscience intact. Organic discards rot, plastic persists.
Indonesia is reported to be the second worst polluter of the world’s oceans, bested only by China.
The Wijsens and their schoolmates consulted Professor Google and found this and other alarming facts about plastic longevity. Science suggests survival for centuries.
Five per cent of Bali’s plastic bags are reportedly recycled, but only the desperately poor find scavenging pays. Black smoke and the caustic odors of cremated trash rise with the sun over Bali beaches.
Elsewhere the rubbish is buried. You and I will biodegrade long before our shopping bags – unless other materials are used to lug groceries from market to pantry.
“We are paying women in mountain villages to make bags from old newspapers,” said Isabel, 13, though she looks older than her sibling. “We also distribute ones made from cotton; what we really want is plastic bags declared illegal by 2018.”
The story of their eventual meeting with Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has been well told in the TED talk.
Like many yesterday politicians Pastika made the error of ignoring a couple too young to vote and carrying no plans for more malls. Instead, as the former police chief soon discovered, the petitioners had a more potent tool - social media.
The girls staged a pseudo hunger strike, garnered enough free publicity to make a candidate for public office weep, and set out to muster one million signatures urging change.
The police called. Something sinister must be afoot. But two bubbly adolescents can’t be tarred with the Marxist brush or hints of being manipulated by ‘dark forces’ – the standard smears to destroy opponents.
Eventually Melati and Isabel got to meet the big man, who promised to back their crusade. There you are young ladies, a quick pose for pix and now run home to Mommy.
Another school assignment ticked off? Not quite.
“We understand that getting a law passed doesn’t mean it will be implemented,” said sage Melati, 15, watching helmetless motorcyclists pass by. “Had we been boys this activism would not have worked. In any case they mature slower. Nor would it have been successful if we weren’t Indonesians. As foreigners we’d have been deported.”
The girls know how bureaucratic inertia and caution erodes promises. At one stage they got inside Ngurah Rai Airport to seek signatures; permission has now been rescinded by nervous officials.
The sisters were born in Bali. Mom, originally from the Netherlands, runs a villa booking agency. Dad, from Surabaya, builds joglos, the traditional Javanese houses.
When they turn 18 they’ll have to choose sides – Indonesia or Holland. The latter will provide a widely welcomed passport – the former credibility in the clean-up campaign. Then there’s further education; Isabel favors the creative arts, her sister social science.
Melati has already received what she calls “reach outs” regarding a scholarship to Harvard. “I now attend school for three days a week because the other two are taken up with responding to requests for advice and speeches.
“We have to keep going; our friends are supportive. So are our parents.”
The family speaks US English at home and trots the globe. In India they learned of Mahatma Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience. They imported his example.
Apart from overtaxing the adjective “cool” the teens impress by spooling through arguments for action, dropping facts like their elders, who are clearly not their betters, litter the landscape.
The BBPB crew has produced a booklet in Indonesian which explains the issues, and a logo designed to be internationally adaptable.
The candi bentar (split gates) found in Bali temples can buttress the Eiffel Tower for French campaigners or the Statue of Liberty for Americans.
They’ve had a ‘small grant’ from the Internet ‘campaigning community’ Avaaz. Associating with an organization that has stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia on its lists could be risky; the girls are careful to qualify their activism as ‘positive’.
Their advice to others whose idealism still flares? “Work as a team. Define your goals. Walk the talk.”
When a photo shoot alongside a gutter ended, the lens capped and notebook closed, the girls continued to collect trash though they had other pressing needs. They do get down and dirty.
Metaphorically? Kids can start anything, as the siblings say. The test is maintaining the ideal when they graduate to the school of hard knocks where the grubby deals get done.
Find the TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/melati_and_isabel_wijsen_our_campaign_to_ban_plastic_bags_in_bali?language=en
(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 June 2016