Credit: EARTH/ Karnt Thassanaphak

“Citizen Science” boosted to empower locals against hazardous waste challenges in Southeast and East Asia

The knowledge has been applied in various cases in the regions and increasingly promoted among local communities as well as grassroot organisations campaigning against the waste problems

Some 70 practitioners and advocates from the two regions have met recently online to update progress of the so-called “Citizen Science” they have been exploring at home, and learned a number of successful cases in adopting such the knowledge in their local fights.

Under the body of knowledge, locals or grassroot organisations working against hazardous waste problems have been trained with scientific knowledge, technical skills, and critical abilities so they can use the results of their studies to negotiate with polluters, defend their human rights in courts, and advocate for policy reforms.

The science has become a strategic tool, enabling communities impacted by chemical and waste problems to empower themselves with data and information that can be used to assert their rights to a healthy and safe environment.

“Through the years, the citizen science has developed into a practical and potent tool for helpless victims who often suffer in silence from the destructive pollution caused by powerful commercial and industrial interests,” noted Penchom Saetang, Executive Director of EARTH and a citizen science practitioner for over 20 years.

Ms Penchom shares her information online during the conference.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network-Southeast and East Asia (IPEN-SEA) Virtual Conference was jointly organized by Indonesia based Nexus3 Foundation-Indonesia, EcoWaste Coalition in the Philippines and the Ecological Alert and Recovery in Thailand, with the support from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and IPEN.

The participants agreed that the participation of non-professional scientists in scientific research or monitoring efforts can empower grassroots organizations and movements into advancing a sustainable and toxics-free future for all.

Yuyun Ismawati, Co-Founder and Senior Adviser of Nexus3 Foundation said with the citizen science, grassroot organisations and community groups become the subject and the actors of the investigation, not a subject of a research project.

In many cases, the results of citizen science advocacy works contribute to policy changes at the local and national level, he added.

As showcased during the conference, local communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have managed to find the way to make their voices heard with the science.

In Indonesia, the locals monitored mercury concentrations in air in several healthcare facilities in Denpasar City in Bali. This eventually led to the issuance of a government policy withdrawing mercury-containing medical devices. In Malaysia, the communities conducted the screening of playground equipment for lead content in Penang, which further drew attention to the urgency of adopting a regulation banning lead in paint.

An in Thailand, the air sampling in Rayong Province was monitored and excessive levels of air pollutants were detected, including cancer-causing benzene and vinyl chloride. This prompted the government to issue a notification on the annual standard level of volatile organic compounds in ambient air for nine highly toxic chemical compounds, the conference was told.

Rachel Pateman, a researcher at SEI, University of York, said the potential of the citizen science in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is growing in momentum.

The SDGs, which member states of the United Nations adopted in 2015, seek to end poverty and other deprivations, improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth, all while tackling climate change and preserving marine and terrestrial biodiversity.

“Citizen Science can help in filling the data gaps to monitor the SDG indicators and in localizing indicator monitoring, especially in under-reported areas.

“It can help to bring to the fore issues of importance or concern to local communities that may have been missed in higher level discussions. And it can also be a way to bring together different stakeholders, including citizens, to build a shared understanding of and co-develop solutions to sustainability challenges,” said Ms Pateman.

Ms Pateman said there are lots of potential for the citizen science to be used to monitor, localize, define and implement the SDGs. But there are also some critical challenges that need to be addressed in order for this potential to be realized, she said.