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'Environmental diplomacy is very important'

January 6, 2021

Dr. Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu at a tree planting event
Photo courtesy of Dr. Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu

Dr. Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu is Malaysia’s Operational Focal Point to the GEF and Deputy Secretary-General in the Ministry of Environment and Water. In an interview, he reflected on why both international cooperation and individual action are needed to confront plastic waste and protect endangered species, from pollinators to apex predators.

What are the most pressing environmental concerns in Malaysia?

Malaysia is a fast-developing country and there is a need to balance development with environmental concerns. As with many other developing countries, this is a very fragile balance.

As a mega-biodiverse country, we need to conserve our natural heritage while promoting the wise use of it. Malaysia is home to some of the most iconic, majestic species found in this planet, such as the Malayan tiger, the Malayan tapir, and the orangutan. About 18 percent of our flora is endemic to Malaysia. Just like elsewhere, we are witnessing the numbers of these megafauna going down in the wild. This is a real concern. Because even a small little insect or a micro-organism in the forest plays a huge role in the functioning of our ecosystem.

Another issue is climate change, although we are a small emitter. Malaysia's greenhouse gas emissions are only 0.7 percent of the global total. But climate change impacts across borders, so we are impacted by climate change as well. As a country with a lot of biodiversity, a lot of forests, Malaysia has huge potential to scale up nature-based solutions, including adaptation measures to minimize the impact of climate change. We are also working to prioritize green and low-carbon growth.

Plastic pollution is also a growing concern. Ever since China closed its doors to importing plastics, we have seen much of this waste end up in our country. We have zero tolerance for plastic waste entering our country illegally and, as I speak to you, we have sent back 248 containers to more than 20 countries, and the bulk are to developed countries. It may require international cooperation, including from various stakeholders and the industry, to address this issue holistically.

A final concern is that, while there is a growing awareness of the need to protect our environment and live in harmony with nature, it has not really gone into the DNA of each and every person. This is something that I think we will need to work on for a very long time to come.

How can we make progress on these issues?

I am a strong advocate of the power of one - the power of the individual to make change. And for individual change, sometimes we need to internalize an environmental concern.

When I give a talk on marine plastic pollution, people sometimes feel very distant from the issue until I tell them that plastics are breaking up into micro-plastics, and if you're still eating sea salt and seafood, you're probably consuming a credit card-sized amount of plastic every week. When people learn that this plastic in the food chain is causing potential health problems, they then tend to be concerned.

Another example is durian, a very popular fruit. China buys a lot from us. But I keep telling people, as you enjoy this rich, succulent, aromatic durian fruit, please remember that for that durian to grow, you needed a flying fox or a bat to pollinate durian trees. And the bat or the flying fox needs the mangrove forest. It’s all connected. That's why I say conservation is also development – when you conserve, the priceless service nature does for us in terms of regulating climate, in terms of providing clean air, water catchment, pollination, is just huge.

Ten years ago, the world adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. To create awareness in Malaysia, we came up with this tagline: My Biodiversity, using Malaysia’s short acronym of “My.” This campaign, which stated “My biodiversity, My life, My heritage, My future,” showed how biodiversity provides so many essential services and is the foundation of our society. We hope it helped make people think more about why nature and biodiversity are so important.

To adequately address large-scale environmental issues, we need a whole-society, whole-government, whole-industry approach. We need to start looking at this whole concept of planetary health. What happens to the planet eventually affects our individual health. For instance, the Southeast Asia region has this problem with haze. If we are reckless with the environment, when the planetary health goes down, we get affected directly due to respiratory illness. This is why we need to depart from using the economy as a sole measurement of progress. We need better indexes that take into account environmental and social pillars. It should not just be GDP.

Dr. Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu bird watching
Photo courtesy of Dr. Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

I always believe that with challenges, there are opportunities. Of course, I miss connecting face-to-face with people. But I take this COVID pandemic as an opportunity in that it provides us a chance to take one step back and to really think, what kind of future do we want? A little tiny microorganism has made us all stay at home – it's a very powerful nudge, and it’s nudging us to rethink development.

In Malaysia, we are really thinking very carefully and looking at a green recovery pathway to build back better. I think we need to put in very strong, concrete elements that safeguard nature. We need to live in harmony with nature. Development needs to be done with the environment – biodiversity and also climate resilience – built in or mainstreamed.

Is there a GEF-supported project that is closest to your heart?

We have benefited from about 30 national projects and 32 regional projects supported by the GEF, with more than $90 million in grants. I have had the opportunity to be involved in developing many of them and many are close to my heart.

One project that really stands out, as it made an impact on the Malaysian landscape, was a biosafety project on genetically modified organisms. This project relates to the development and implementation of Malaysia's national biosafety framework. It helped us build a legal and institutional framework to regulate GMOs. The project’s impact was huge because it got us running the Cartagena Protocol quite quickly, and now Malaysia is one of the few countries in the region with a law regulating the entry of GMOs. I was very happy because I was involved in designing and implementing the project. So this is a project I always use as an example of how the GEF has made positive and very good changes in our country's landscape. We have also benefited greatly from the GEF Small Grants Progamme, which provides assistance to communities for extremely powerful and impactful work.

How did you get into this field?

My first degree was in microbiology, and I was always amazed by these creatures that naked eyes can’t see – how amazing they are and their interaction with nature. When I joined the civil service, I joined the diplomatic and administrative service of the Government of Malaysia. I’ve been lucky in that to a huge extent of my career, I’ve been doing environmental work. I feel this work is very important and, at times, due to so many priorities such as education and health care, it doesn’t get the needed attention from all stakeholders. I think COVID, unfortunately, has been a very strong wake-up call. Now people are being more open, being more sensitive on how they treat the environment and nature.

What keeps me going is the passionate belief that we need to have a healthy environment to ensure a healthy country with healthy people. I've also been very excited about environmental diplomacy – about how the global North and South interact, to try to move towards a common cause. It’s not easy. But how nations prioritize environmental actions and environmental diplomacy is very important. We need global actions to ensure that, collectively, we hand over a vibrant, healthy planet to future generations.

What change in the world would you like to see before you retire?

Before I retire – or before I leave this planet – I think it would be great if we could see the whole of society living in harmony with nature. There are some countries in the world where people have really taken huge steps towards living in harmony with nature. In Malaysia, there’s a lot of room for us to work on this. I hope COVID will really give a strong nudge for people to change their behavior.

I also hope that we can ensure Malayan tigers continue to roam freely. Malaysia is a very important habitat for the Malayan tiger, which is an apex predator. If there are still tigers in our landscape, it's a good indicator that we still have good biodiversity and our nature is still well-kept. The Malayan tiger is especially important to me as it is our national animal and tiger folklore is part of our culture. We all grew up listening to stories about tigers. If it is wiped out from our landscape, an important thread of the fabric of our culture goes with it. We need to save this majestic species.