EARTH Thailand

Effecting change through citizen science

Sun Star 03 November 2020 | Manny Calonzo  ECOWASTE COALITION

THE role of citizen science in preventing and reducing pollution and in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as adopted in 2015 by the world's governments, including the Philippines, will be at the heart of a four-part online regional conference starting today.

Co-organized by Nexus3 Foundation-Indonesia, Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand and the EcoWaste Coalition, the International Pollutants Elimination Network-Southeast and East Asia (IPEN-SEA) Virtual Conference will discuss citizen science as it is applied to achieve community empowerment, gender equity, and the protection of public health and the environment from toxic chemicals and wastes.

The said conference is supported by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), a non-profit research and policy organization, and IPEN, a global NGO network building a healthier world where people and the environment are no longer harmed by toxic chemicals.

Citizen science has been defined in many ways. Put simply, citizen science is the investigative research or monitoring work performed by non-professional scientists, including community residents, workers, farmers, activists, and others, often in collaboration with the academe or the civil society, to generate data and information that can shed light on community problems and the potential solutions.

"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," said Penchom Saetang, Executive Director of Earth-Thailand, stressing that "by developing their scientific knowledge, technical skills and critical abilities, pollution victims, or survivors rather, have found their voice and are able to use the results of their own studies to negotiate with polluters, defend their human rights in courts and advocate for policy reforms."

Added Yuyun Ismawati, Co-Founder of Nexus3 Foundation and a Goldman Prize recipient: "In citizen science, grassroots NGOs and community groups are the subjects 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."

One excellent example of citizen science was the air sampling conducted by Earth in Rayong Province, a major industrial hub and center of the petrochemical industry. Upon analysis, 20 different types of toxic chemicals were found in the air samples, including high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, chloroform, dichloroethane, and vinyl chloride. The publicity generated by the study, the protest actions at the pollution sites, and the negotiation meetings involving the impacted communities eventually led to efforts to control and monitor air emissions.

In Denpasar City, Indonesia, Nexus3 Foundation (formerly Balifokus) monitored mercury vapor in 10 hospitals in the city, which resulted in a policy withdrawing mercury-containing medical devices from healthcare facilities. In Penang, Malaysia, the Consumers' Association of Penang screened playground equipment for lead content, which highlighted the urgency of banning lead in paint.

In the Philippines, public interest environmental health groups had embraced citizen science to generate scientific data that were later used to push for new or strengthened policies and regulations. The EcoWaste Coalition with support from IPEN, for instance, had conducted investigations on dioxins in free-range chicken eggs, toxic metals in children's products, mercury in skin whitening cosmetics, and lead in decorative paints.

Conference speaker Rachel Pateman from SEI has this to say regarding the use of citizen science to help in realizing the SDGs: "Citizen Science can help in filling the data gaps to monitor the SDG indicators and in localizing indicator monitoring, especially in underreported 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."

There is no doubt that citizen science has immense potential as a tool for improving the people's quality of life, particularly in safeguarding human health and the ecosystems from toxic chemicals and wastes and holding polluters accountable. By all means, it should be actively pursued and supported. I, therefore, applaud the conference organizers and wish it a huge success. (Manny Calonzo)


Manny C. Calonzo is the former president of the EcoWaste Coalition and erstwhile co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network.