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A Toxics-Free Future

International Women’s Day: IPEN Mining/ASGM Lead, Yuyun Ismawati, in Landscape News

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, Landscapes News is publishing a series of stories honoring women with a laurel for their dedication to improving the landscape. In this profile, Landscapes News contributor Alexandra Popescu writes about Yuyun Ismawati. Check Viewpoint all week for more laurel recipients.

A lifelong environmental activist working to improve livelihoods across Southeast Asia, a Goldman Environmental Prize laureate for grassroots activism and most recently an entrepreneur, Yuyun Ismawati is a tireless campaigner for greener, healthier landscapes.

“I have always been curious and wondered what I could do to make things better,” says Ismawati, who is currently working to clean mercury-contaminated soils using renewable energy while earning a doctoral degree focused on the impact of mercury on child health at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.

Yuyun, originally from Indonesia, started working in the environment sector more or less by chance, first studying sanitary engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology and later switching her educational focus to environmental concerns.

After a few years working on water supply and waste treatment projects across the country, she moved to the Indonesian island of Bali in 1996 and co-founded the BaliFokus Foundation, a non-governmental organization aiming to benefit livelihoods by improving environmental conditions.

“Some of our early projects at BaliFokus, especially sanitation for urban poor and waste management, were adopted as national programs, while our hotels’ waste management project set the new standard for waste collection and management in Bali as part of a sustainable tourism program,” Ismawati said.

The waste-recycling project involved recruiting livestock farmers in Bali who had traditionally paid for food waste from hotels to feed their pigs. BaliFokus encouraged the pig farmers to participate in an official waste collection business, providing them with training to improve garbage disposal practices, getting hotels to pay for waste collection services instead. This work led to an Ashoka Fellowship for Ismawati, awarded to leaders in social entrepreneurship.

Through BaliFokus, she contributed to improving urban sanitation in poor communities by putting her technical and engineering expertise to work designing proper toilet facilities. The communal ablution block she conceived – used as a toilet, for washing and water collection – was replicated nationwide, and since 2006, her community driven sanitation projects have been adopted throughout Indonesia, Southeast Asia, India and southern Africa.

But for years, the main focus of her concern has been mercury contamination caused by artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), its impact on the landscape and health consequences for children.

In 2016, Indonesia, became one of the largest mercury producers and exporters in the world and mercury pollution from gold mining generates almost 60 percent of the country’s mercury emissions, with dire effects on human health, according to data from BaliFokus.

Mercury accumulates in the body, and increased exposure permanently affects the brain, kidneys and fetal development. Mercury has been identified as a cause for so-called hotspots of “uncommon diseases,” causing deformation and seizures in children and adults and often permanently incapacitating individuals.

“In 2008, I went to Sulawesi for a project and came across an area where mercury was used uncontrollably and many people suffered from mercury poisoning,” Ismawati said, describing her visit to the Indonesian island.

“I also saw the environmental degradation and abandoned land that affected livelihoods, with nobody caring, so I started to work on toxic substances,” she explained.

Through her work she addresses issues arising throughout its value chain. Ismawati frequently takes part in global negotiations related to chemicals and is a delegate member of the International POPs (persistent organic pollutants) Elimination Network and of Women Engage for Common Future, a network of women’s and civil society organizations working on sustainable development issues.

The BaliFokus report, Mercury trade and supply in Indonesia (June, 2017) has helped regulate mercury trade in Indonesia, which banned its use in mining in 2017.

“Currently, we are working with several mercury contaminated communities in Indonesia and Kenya, to help them switch from gold mining to more sustainable livelihoods, introducing them to organic farming as one of the main alternatives,” Ismawati said.

Recently she also co-founded Terra Power Ltd collaborating with several universities and research institutions across Australia, the UK and Indonesia to find the best ways to use renewable energy interventions to clean mercury-contaminated soils.

The U.N. Minamata Convention on Mercury comes into force in August 2017. The convention, named for the city in Japan where mercury related Minamata disease was discovered, aims to cut mercury use and trade due to its negative health consequences. However, in some Asian and Latin American countries, mercury extraction has increased, resulting in exposure with severe results, according to a 2017 report in The Lancet medical journal.