Clean Green Story #3: Sophal Sea, a Khmer eco-warrior

Welcome to our Clean Green Story #3! This month, we met with Sophal Sea, one of the main figures of environmental advocacy in Siem Reap. Besides owning a cafe downtown, Sophal is an education activist empowering young girls with its NGO2 BambuShoot Foundation​. He is also an environmentalist working with organizations such as Pssbl, Clean Green Cambodia and others to raise environmental awareness. We are delighted to share with you his interview. Hope it inspires you to take actions!

Sophal Sea with the eco-warriors cambodia
Sophal Sea (red shirt) with few eco-warriors during a clean-up

Hi Sophal, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

I am Sophal Sea, an education activist and an environmentalist born and raised in Siem Reap. In 2010, I founded the charitable organisation NGO2 BambooShoot foundation, acronym for “Nongovernmental Organization for the Next Generation Organization”. It aims to empower girls in rural communities and help them gain access to higher education. During their free time, the students benefiting from this program are raising environmental awareness to other fellow students and adults. The girls, that we call “Eco-warriors” are passionate about the environment and its protection, and lead workshops to share their knowledge with others. The workshops mainly focus on plastic waste and the dangers it represents for the environment and ourselves.

With the girls, we also go to the communities around the Tonle Sap lake and organize environmental workshops and clean-ups. For instance, in mid-June, we organised with Pssbl and Ocean Recovery Alliance the Water Rising Festival around the Tonle Sap lake to raise awareness about plastic waste.

Eco warriors delivering a workshop about plastic waste
Eco warriors delivering a workshop about plastic waste to communities around Tonle Sap Lake

What made you realize the impact of plastic? What made you “change”?

This is an interesting story. Before working for NGO2, I was working in an advertising agency and as a freelance tour guide. But it was only two years ago that I became passionate about protecting our environment, and especially about plastic pollution around Tonle Sap lake.

In 2017, I was on a family trip to see the birds at Prek Toal, near Battambang. It was the dry season, and on our way to get there our boat got stuck by plastic waste. It took the boat driver 20 minutes just to cut all the plastic from the propellers. After this episode, I started to notice how polluted by plastic waste the water was. From the distance, I could see many floating trash, and many were in the trees. Before, I didn’t really see it because I was so used to it. But after that, it really struck me.

Then, during the whole day at the Bird Sanctuary, I was not happy. I could see the birds, but they were living surrounded by plastic. And I knew from a documentary I saw that they could die from it. When we came back in Siem Reap, all I could notice was the plastic on the streets. That is when I realized that things needed to change, and that I needed to do something about it.

Plastic hanging from the tree at the Tonle Sap Lake
Plastic hanging from the tree at the Tonle Sap Lake. Source: Cambodia News English

What do you think about clean-ups? Do you think it can change people’s mindset?

Some clean-ups do not change the perception of the population at all. The main problem with those clean ups is the lack of communication with the local communities that do not necessarily know about waste management. That is why it is critical to educate about the issues of trash and plastic along with clean-ups.

That is what we do with our campaign. We try to educate people, we tell them that burning plastic creates toxic fumes and that plastic lasts for hundreds, thousands of years. We still end up cleaning-up because it illustrates what we just told, and it makes the place look more beautiful. But it can’t work if people don’t understand why it is necessary to clean up. Education is the best tool we have. This way, after our workshops, people understand why it is harmful to throw plastic away.

It is also important to empower people and remove the negative perception that they have on waste pickers and cleaners. For instance, the way we call them is helping: we do not call them “rubbish people” but “eco-warriors of the Tonlé Sap” or “plastic heroes”. That way they understand that cleaning up after themselves is a normal thing to do and they should be proud of it. They also see that they should not look down on scavengers and cleaners as these people do a highly valuable job. 

Sophal delivering talk about plastic waste at Angkor High school
Sophal Sea delivering a talk about plastic waste at Angkor High school in Siem Reap, Cambodia

How do you integrate the local communities in your actions?

When going to a rural community to raise awareness about plastic and waste management, the most important thing is to interact with the villagers. Meaning that I talk with people but also let them share their opinion. I do not force the villagers to do anything, I challenge them in thinking how they can reduce plastic pollution, which makes it much more engaging and fun for them! Obligating them does not work, they need to believe in it. The more interested and excited they are about it, the more they will take actions and  talk about it with their friends community members. 

The responses are mainly positive as the villagers told me that they like our way of working. We do not just come, ask people to clean and then go away. We sit with the commune chef and the villagers, discuss with them about the workshop, clean-up and follow up actions. We just don’t copy and paste the same actions, we apply different strategies because each village has its own unique waste issue. 

We also give the teachers and the leaders of the village posters, and tools about plastic and waste management. We are encouraging them to take this information to their communities. We want to empower them. This is why we do not bring volunteers from the city to participate in the clean ups, we want to enable communities.

Sophal sea and communities members of Kampong Chhnang Province
Sophal Sea, the eco-warriors and communities members of Kampong Khleang

You use a lot of students to raise environmental awareness. Why do you think they are a good “tool” to spread the message?

Young people are more dynamic, more ambitious and like to learn new things. They are very motivated and willing to spread the message. They also have free time to volunteer, once school is finished. They can educate their family members about the dangers of plastic, and then those family members can in turn educate their friends, colleagues and communities on the situation. If they become youth role models on the environmental issue today, they can become our forces for tomorrow. 

Eco-warriors near Pearraing in Cambodia
Eco-warriors and environmental activists near Pearraing Bird Sanctuary

As someone that is born and raised in Cambodia, do you think the situation has changed here?

Yes, I do. It is a global phenomenon. I think people are getting more and more aware of the impact of plastic on the environment, the wildlife and their own health. Especially in Cambodia, as plastic is very visible here. When you explain to people, they understand that plastic takes ages to biodegrade and that it is harmful for all living creatures. Once people realize how bad single-use plastic is, it is natural for them to try to reduce and reuse it. So people are more and more aware that plastic is a big problem.

But still today, there is a lot of people – and even university students – that don’t know how long plastic stays on this planet and how harmful it is. Even me, before I started to show interest on this issue, I didn’t know how bad plastic actually was. Then, I realized its harmful impact. That is why I decided to have plastic education programs: to raise awareness and educate people on the issue of waste management.

What would be your advice for young Khmer people to reduce their environmental impact and raise awareness about it?

My advice for anyone, but especially policymakers is to work together. Stop blaming each other, and put the responsibilities on others. For instance, the Ministry of Environment should work with the Ministry of Education to implement environmental classes for everyone. If people are educated, then they change their habits. And we need more policies around waste management and guidance on how to reduce and separate waste (for instance signs on the recyclable bins) so that everyone and even uneducated people in Cambodia understand what to do. Stop working in silos and sit to find synergies and improve the situation together. 

My other advice, notably for the young generation, is not to think of taking care of the environment as an obligation, but rather as a lifestyle. It is much cooler to have your drink in a reusable cup rather than in a plastic cup from a famous brand. Live as a role model, as an ambassador for our environment! And understand that living a more eco-friendly lifestyle is not only healthier for the planet, but also for you.

Lastly, you also have to believe in yourself, but also in others! Trying to raise environmental awareness can be depressing sometimes given the scale of the issues, but you need to believe in the world, and in yourself.

Proud eco-warriors with their reusable cups! 🙂

If you want to follow the adventures of Sophal and the eco-warriors, you can follow their facebook page and check out their website. A lot of new projects are on their way, such as their collaboration with Pssbl to have better waste management practices around Tonle Sap Lake. Pssbl sells bags made out of recycled materials including PET bottles and are providing one third of the revenues from their Pssbl x Tonle Sap bags to the project.

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