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Meet the UAE's green heroes

It's not easy to dedicate your life to saving the environment, but they've done it. We spotlight six eco warriors who've made a difference

  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    Ali Saqar Al SuweidiImage Credit: Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    Tatiana Antonelli AbellaImage Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News
  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    David WerneryImage Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News
  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    Theresa WerneryImage Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News
  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    Tolga SoytekinImage Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News
  • Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News
    Abdul MuqeetImage Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News

A raft of inspiring activities and initiatives around us demonstrates how the UAE is collectively finding answers to the threats of environmental pollution and climate change, and ushering the right kind of transformation to make the country a better place to live in. GN Focus selects six green warriors whose initiatives have truly touched our daily lives and made a difference.

 

Marine Saviour

 

Ali Saqar Al Suweidi

 

Organisation: The Emirates Marine Environment Group (EMEG).

 

Ali Saqar Al Suweidi, aka Major Ali, takes out a small package folded neatly in a red velvet cloth from his kandoora and puts it on the table. He unwraps it slowly to reveal pearls in myriad hues and sizes — a collection he has amassed over decades.

Al Suweidi always carries this package with him because the pearls not only remind him of the lives of his pearl diver father and grandfather, but also of the stunning marine life he has witnessed while occasionally diving into the Arabian Gulf.

It was the poignant realisation that something must be done to save the fascinating marine ecosystem of the Arabian Gulf that inspired Al Suweidi to dedicate his life to protecting the planet’s biodiversity.

After serving two decades in the UAE Navy, the Gulf War of 1990 and the massive destruction of the marine life due to oil spills prompted Al Suweidi to change his career path and set up EMEG in 1996, the country’s first NGO dedicated to the protection and conservation of marine life. “Major developments are taking place all across the UAE which severely impact the marine ecosystem,” he says.

Apart from looking at preserving the biodiversity by protecting endangered wildlife, EMEG also participates in various conservation initiatives.

Various initiatives

EMEG currently conducts extensive surveys of marine ecosystem and monitors the nesting behaviour of turtles at the Sir Bu Nair island, which is 65 kilometres off the UAE coastline. Al Suweidi says the EMEG recorded more than 322 nests of critically endangered hawksbill turtle and two nests of green turtle on the beaches of the Sir Bu Nair island in 2010. In 2011, though no green turtle nests were spotted, the group found 376 nests of hawksbill turtles.

“These findings clearly highlight that Sir Bu Nair is a prime location for turtle breeding in the UAE. We have also discovered some amazing varieties of fish and new coral species that have never been recorded in the South Eastern Gulf. As it is a protected island with no interference of general public, it is a haven for scientific studies,” he adds.

In 2011, the EMEG was involved in the relocation of coral reefs from the Palm Jebel Ali waterfront to Dubai Ladies Club. The group carried out the project in three phases: deployment of rocks onsite, transplanting of corals and regular follow up surveys to ascertain their response to the new environment.

At Sir Bani Yas islands in Abu Dhabi, EMEG monitors nesting practices of the endangered coastal bird species Socotra Cormorant, apart from maritime dolphins, dugongs and turtles. It also controls illegal fishing, camping and poaching in the island.

Al Suweidi has also developed a four-square-kilometre sanctuary for the UAE’s threatened marine species at Ghantoot, which is just 15 minutes from the Palm Jebel Ali.

Education and environment protection

Major Ali believes that people need to appreciate the beauty of nature to fully comprehend the value of conservation. To help people in the UAE understand their role in the environment and also some rare desert wildlife, he regularly entertains groups at the Ghantoot reserve.

“The reserve is a restricted access area and only accessible to EMEG staff and groups that have booked a visit with us in advance, so it has remained an area of near unspoilt natural beauty with several key coastal habitats,” he points out.

About him

Environmentalist Major Ali was born to a pearl diver father and a Bedouin mother. He studied geography in Egypt before joining the UAE Navy.

 

Environmental facts

 

Tatiana Antonelli Abella

 

Organisation: Goumbook.

 

For Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the urge to do something for society came from the simple desire to change the way she lived. “Raising a family in Dubai made me see things from a different perspective and I suddenly realised the importance of the food we consume, the products we use on our skin, the detergents we use, the waste we produce, the energy we use and the water we waste,” says the founder of Goumbook.

She also realised that the UAE had a lot of eco-friendly initiatives, but they couldn’t be easily tracked down as they were not documented properly.

Randala Anabtawi, who co-founded Goumbook with Abella, also faced similar challenges when she tried to source organic products for her son. This led the two to assemble all the information in one place and metamorphose it into an online platform dedicated to green eco-consumerism and environmental awareness for the Middle East.  

Abella chose a name for  her maiden venture that could aptly depict the essence of desert life. “What can connect the region better than the Bedouins?” asks Tatiana.

“While reading about their world and looking for something particular to their lifestyle, I found out that people travelling around the desert from Persia up to Morocco were called the ‘goum’. The goum was a group of people who would live together following an ethic of self-help and collective responsibility, share resources, reuse them whenever possible and avoid any wastage,” Abella explains.

Goumbook is an online portal that offers significant information on green practices for an eco-friendly lifestyle in the Middle East. “It can help source products, services and materials through its unique green directory. The aim is to help manufacturers, retailers and consumers meet and boost the local green economy,” says Abella.

Goumbook took up the ‘Give a Ghaf’ tree planting programme, where Abella and her team planted more than 2,000 Ghaf trees in the last few months. “The initiative was undertaken to boost knowledge about the local ecosystem and protect flora and fauna from the dangers of desertification and extinction,” she says.

Future plans

“Goumbook is an ongoing project. We work around people’s and companies’ needs and always try to give them what they are looking for, be it awareness, education, hands-on initiatives or engagement activities,” she says.

Abella also plans to launch a green online store for eco-friendly products.

Making a difference

“We believe that the power to make a change rests with the individual consumer: the products you buy every day make a difference. Eco-friendly products are healthier and better for the planet.

Also, when a large group of consumers choose to buy eco-friendly goods, the market will respond with greater variety, more innovation and lower prices,” says Abella.

About her

Tatiana Antonelli Abella grew up in France, but later moved to her native country, Italy. She studied architecture and urban planning.

She moved to Dubai six years ago with her husband.

 

Road-trip preachers

 

David and Theresa Wernery

 

Initiative: Making people aware of the impact of single-use plastics

 

The idea of going on an extended vacation is always fun. And Dubai-based David and Theresa are leaving their careers, friends and families behind to take a two-year sabbatical. However, the  break is not simply for fun and adventure. The German couple is embark on a global road-trip in March to help fight plastic pollution.

David and Theresa Wernery have both been aware of the dangers of plastic pollution since their childhood. Their concern for discarded plastic waste has been so intense that they didn’t even mind friends joining them for their honeymoon — a seven-day camping trip across Oman — as long as they were willing to share their enthusiasm of cleaning up the surroundings whenever they discovered any rubbish.

Why a road trip?

“‘The ‘Plastic Not So Fantastic’ road trip will serve many purposes. We’re going to meet as many people as possible worldwide and tell them about the effects of plastic pollution, archive example to show that it is a global problem and also find and encourage the use of alternatives to  single-use plastics,” he says.

The couple is set to spend 18 months driving through Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, South America, North America, Africa and the Middle East and will then return to the UAE.

David chose to drive throughout the journey rather than travel by air to reduce carbon footprint. He says his V8 petrol engine will produce fewer greenhouse gases in 18 months than the couple currently generates living in their two bedroom villa. “Looking at our daily commute to work, the air conditioning, washing machine, the lights and watering our garden, we produce roughly 60 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. The expedition, excluding our sponsored fuel enhancing tablets, will produce about 112 tonnes of green house gases for two years.”

Furthermore, to offset their carbon footprint, David and Theresa will also be planting the corresponding number of trees in the UAE and along their route.

David and Theresa both grew up in the UAE with a strong awareness about the environment. At a very early age, David learned about the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution in the animal kingdom thanks to his father’s work as a veterinarian. Theresa also became aware of the plastic pollution when visits to the sea and beaches as a child were marred by debris that had been washed ashore.

“The UAE is one of the highest consumers of single-use plastics in the world, particularly plastic bottles and plastic bags, and that’s why we face such an extensive problem,” says Theresa. “But we have a responsibility to ourselves and the rest of the world to reduce our consumption of plastics.”

Spreading the word

The couple regularly offers presentations to schools, companies and organisations and also participates in events in malls and public spaces to aise awareness of the need to urgently regulate the use of plastics. “People can see our banners, photographs and gastric liths (pathological stony mass formed in the stomach). The gastric liths always cause a stir. We always ask people to guess what it is and where it comes from. Most people realise that it’s a mass of plastic, but very few can tell that it came from an animal’s stomach.

“Our current display piece weighs 35 kilos and is about the size of a large car tyre. People are appalled when we tell them that a cow has had to carry that weight and volume in its stomach, and it sends across a very powerful message,” says David.

About them

Theresa and David are avid campers and love to be outdoors. David is a founding member of the Emirates Environmental Group and also a member of the Rotary Club of Jumeirah and Dubai Natural History Group. Theresa works as an investment banker.

 

Small steps, big impact

 

Abdul Muqeet

 

Initiative: Recycled newspaper bags

 

Abdul Muqeet could have just spent his holidays playing and watching TV, but instead he has decided to do his bit to save the planet. The ten year old makes paper bags with his mother and distributes them to local groceries to curb the use of plastic bags in the UAE.

“My mother once told me that plastic can damage the environment. As many people are not aware of this I decided to recycle old newspapers and magazines and request them to stop using plastic bags not only for the environment but also for our convenience,” says Abdul.

He recently attended the Tunza International Children and Youth Conference on the Environment, organised by United National Environment Programme (UNEP) in Indonesia as one of the youngest participants. “I learned how to save water and trees and what other countries in the world are doing to save the environment. I attended workshops organised by UNEP experts and learned about initiatives that can be undertaken to control the use of plastics.”

“Through the Bandung declaration, we requested all world leaders to save the planet. It will be submitted at Rio+20, the United Nations conference on sustainable development which will be held in Brazil in June. I was one of the few participants who were selected to come on stage for a speech and also a presentation on our initiatives,” he says.

Juggling studies and venture

“I’m a very good student,” quips Abdul. “I make bags in my free time, normally after I finish my homework and also during weekends and annual holidays,” he says.

About him

Abdul Muqeet is a student of Abu Dhabi Indian School. He loves to play football with his elder brother and is a supporter of Manchester United. He loves to cycle and also recycle unwanted objects into useful products.

 

Clean and green

 

Tolga Soytekin

 

Organisation: Eco Clean

 

What about getting housekeeping services that not only clean your house, but also green your life? Ask Tolga Soytekin for suggestions.

The brain-child of Tolga Soytekin, Dubai-based Eco Clean offers environmentally friendly cleaning services. Formed in 2011, the company uses tea-tree oil and citrus-based bio-degradable and non-toxic cleaners and detergents to clean homes. “Citrus-based cleaners are scented and can be used for multi-purpose cleaning chores depending on their dilution rates,” says Soytekin. “Tea tree is a natural disinfectant and so we don’t need to use harmful bleach,” he adds.

The company was born out of the awareness that cleaning products often contain harmful chemicals that not only damage the health of home owners and their pets, but also the environment when they are washed down drainage pipes.

Special training for staff

Apart from using only eco-friendly products, maids working for the company all train in a hotel as housekeepers before further on-the-job training with their team leaders.

“All our staff is also trained in first-aid and paediatric first aid. I make sure that the girls and even our drivers know exactly what to do in the event of an emergency,” he says.

Future Plans

Soytekin plans to unveil his own range of eco-friendly cleaning products and detergents very soon. He has also entered into a partnership with online portal goumbook.com to launch an e-store in early 2012.

About him

Tolga Soytekin came to Dubai nine years ago from London on a two-week holiday and decided to stay in the emirate. Apart from running the company he is also a support committee member for the Senses Residential Care Home for Children with special needs.

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