Goldman Winner, Sanitation Crusader, Single Mother Yuyun Yunia Ismawati Talks to TH: "We Need Better Design Upstream"


Indonesia's Yuyun Yunia Ismawati, 45, one of six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize (the "green Nobel"), was driven to action by the waste-management problems that have long plagued the popular tourist island of Bali. She helped start community-run projects that more properly dispose of waste, and empowered low-income people to turn a health nuisance into a money-maker.

After receiving her award in Washington, DC, in April, she spoke to TreeHugger about the importance of better packaging, how she managed to stay dedicated even while raising two children as a single mother, and why being targeted by the government may have helped her.TreeHugger: You work heavily on the grassroots level. What's your message for the policy makers in Indonesia and elsewhere?

If these poor people can be empowered, why can't we of higher class or higher education do it as well? We get swallowed by all of these carbon credits and things, but it's kind of a distraction for the local governments. They hope to get these credits for years. They create false solutions and false hope. Because the job of government is to improve and provide a proper waste management system. We have to always remind them that this is their main job.

TH: If you had one wish that could be fulfilled, what would it be?

All of our problems are due to our lifestyles, our high consumption lifestyle. So I always wish that we have brighter and smarter designers who can make things with less packaging, things that are easier to recycle and reuse. All of these things come from consumption. Once you create in the market things that save from the beginning, it will be a lot easier to handle things downstream. It's an issue of design, along with consumption, lifestyle. We don't do good things upstream. I really wish that we had had genius scientists after World War II, because that's when modern economies and industrialization really started to pick up.

TH: How did you find the strength to do what you been doing. Were there times you wanted to give up?

Oh yeah! I'm a single parent, I divorced in 2003. My ex-husband took everything, the house and everything. I have two daughters who are 19 and 14. But when I worked with these people in urban slumbs, poor settlements, I always saw that they have this spirit of life, despite all the bad things they have. They keep helping each other and doing good for the community. I thought, if they have that strength, why can't I?

In December 2007 I got arrested for protesting the waste-to-energy plant in Bandung [during the UN Conference on Climate Change in 2007]. One of my colleageus got deported -- someone else who is a member of GAIA -- and I fell under pressure and scrutiny.

But I think we just had to look at the bright side of that. I take the government's treatment as a victory in a way, because on the other hand, the media tried to find out why we got arrested, why my colleague got deported. It was because we we're trying to spread the message about the dioxins from proposed waste-to-energy plants, about the harms and all of the potential for harm of the toxics from these incinerators. Then people started to ask what a dioxin is. So for us, for me, in every side of every event in our lives there will be a bright side. It's like recycling.

More on Ismawati from the Goldman Prize website.

Back in April, Jaymi spoke to three of the other winners in San Francisco. Watch mini-documentaries about each of the winners here.

2009 Goldman Prize Honors Environmental Leaders
Goldman Environmental Winners Take the Stage in San Francisco
Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Yu Xiaogang on Hydropower and Community in China

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