Gary Bencheghib initiated one of the biggest river clean ups of all time. We owe him our respect.
When you started Make a Change Bali in 2009, pollution wasn’t the hot topic it is today. What drove you to dedicate so much time and energy to a cause that wasn’t really championed?
In 2009, plastic was everywhere on the island. My brother Sam and I would paddle out on our surfboards and get plastic entangled in our arms or go for a run and have to jump over plastic on the beach. You naturally become very concerned with a problem when it’s right in front of you and affecting your own playground. Our first instinct was to clean up the beaches, so every Saturday or Sunday morning we would be on a different beach cleaning up. There were very few clean ups happening on the island at that time, so people were confused by what we were doing and even more so that teens were out with trash bags cleaning up. We were fuelled by energy, but above all a desire to protect the world that we were growing up in.
Back then there were only a handful of young people getting involved in environmental issues on Bali, but today we’re seeing a huge uptick in young eco-warriors. Why do you think Bali has become such a hotspot for youth eco-activism?
Here in Bali we’re seeing environmental issues front and centre. As a kid, when you’re learning about environmental issues in school and are exposed to the real impacts it has on your environment, you become more aware and want to be part of the solution. When we started in 2009, there were very few youth-driven movements on the island. In fact, we may have been the only ones tackling the waste problem. This was when the Green School was just getting started, and they went on to become such a pioneer in enabling kids to be sustainable leaders. This has had a snowball effect on all schools on the island becoming much more environmentally focused.
In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to get the message out about pollution and encourage people to live more sustainable lifestyles?
For us one of the best ways to reach the most people possible is through social media. Just by speaking about the cause you’re able to raise extensive awareness about an issue. I went on to study film to use the power of image as a tool for change. By combining short-form videos and social media, especially in a country like Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest population of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users, we feel we can get messages out very rapidly.
On your most recent expedition you circumnavigated Bali on a repurposed bamboo boat to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution and celebrate local communities taking action against the problem. What discoveries did you make on that journey?
We learned that there is an existing awareness and many great initiatives active around the island including the West Bali National Park in Menjangan, the Bali Darlings, a community cleaning up remote beaches in Jembrana, and Serangan Bebas Plastic, a group of young boys cleaning up the mangroves of Serangan. These people are exposed to the problem firsthand and each group is coming up with ways to tackle it from organising trash walks, trash runs, trash bike trips and dives for trash. We also did micro plastic samplings all around the island at over 30 different sites, and in each of our samples we found alarming levels of micro plastic particles. It was a stark reminder that the problem is there.
How optimistic are you about seeing real change in Bali and Indonesia when it comes to the environment?
For the first time ever, we are now seeing political leaders in Bali take action to a new level and make the environment one of their biggest priorities. For example, Denpasar Mayor, Rai Mantra, has banned single-use plastic bags in Denpasar and our Governor, Wayan Koster, has announced a ban on single-use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam on an island-wide level by the next six months.
As for Indonesia, the country really woke up to the plastic problem in 2018. Early that year, the government announced they wanted to reduce 70% of plastic ending up in the ocean by 2025. The Citarum River clean up has been a great pilot program to see how a country can utilise army force to make plastic pollution a national issue. The next steps will now be following these commitments in the long term.
What advice would you give other young people who want to get involved in eco-activism?
You’re never too young to make a difference. As young activists, we often get lost in that, but persistence really pays off when it comes to making change happen. Over the course of the last 10 years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of plastic on our beaches, but that hasn’t stopped us, it has only motivated us to go above and beyond and make it our life mission to battle this problem. Persistence involves finding new approaches to tackle a problem and never giving up.
What were some of your greatest accomplishments in 2018?
2018 was a great year for us with so many international conferences being hosted on Bali and so many eyes on the island. We started the year with a garbage emergency that named Bali a trash island and that went global. With so many shocking images coming from Bali, the world, and in turn Bali, realised that we could not look away from the problem.
Last year also marked the launch of the Citarum River clean up. Since then, over 7,000 military troops have been on a full-scale clean up to make the Citarum River’s water drinkable in the span of seven years. Since then, we’ve seen so many changes that we never would have expected including 70 factories being temporarily closed down due to wastewater dumping and villages adopting no-plastic policies.
Do you have any big projects in the works for 2019?
This is Make a Change’s 10th year, and also the year my younger brother Sam graduates from university, so he’ll be joining me full time. Our next big project is currently in prep mode for this summer. I can’t say too much about just yet, but keep an eye out on our social channels, as we launch on June 8th for World Oceans Day.