Eco-warrior Tatiana Antonelli Abella celebrates sustainability in the UAE. Video Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Tatiana Antonelli Abella is an eco-warrior like no other.

16,750 meal beneficiaries served; 15,031kg of food conserved; 17,500,000 plastic bottles saved; 1,667,141 cigarette butts cleared – the impact of what she routinely does is huge.

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But as the UAE's Year of Sustainability gets extended into 2024, the Italian expat in Dubai will tell you she still has promises to keep.

Architect-and-urban planner-turned-environmentalist, Tatiana spearheads over a dozen green initiatives in the UAE, all through a social enterprise Goumbook, which she founded in 2009.

With a one-month-baby in her arms, she first came to Dubai from Rome in 2005, when she followed her husband who took up a new job in the emirate.

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“It was a time when Western society had begun talking about the need to protect the environment. But the sustainability narrative here was based on a ‘foreign’ concept, not adapted to the ‘local’ environment,” she recalled.

Much as Tatiana wanted to do something about it, she knew she had to first familiarise herself with the desert land and find her own feet in her new home.

Give a Ghaf

“One of the things that struck me during this time was the Ghaf tree and how it symbolised life in the desert. We needed more of these trees and when Goumbook was launched, ‘Give a Ghaf’ was the first programmed we started.”

Ghaf saplings, grown by Goumbook volunteers, are distributed among community members to be planted in homes. farms, parks, schools and other areas. Image Credit: Supplied

Under this initiative, which still continues, volunteers plant ghaf seeds and when they germinate, they keep them in nurseries until they reach 30-50cm and are safe to be planted. The seedlings are then given back to the local community to be planted in homes, farms, parks, schools or urban areas where natural shade and greenery are needed.

Drop It, Save the Butts

Tatiana said as she went about the process, she encountered a lot of litter – “There were plastic bottles, bags and cigarette butts everywhere. This then led us to start the ‘Drop It’ campaign.” Ahead of its time, the campaign which began in 2016, got residents rethinking single-use plastic consumption. By choosing to embrace the campaign, they stopped using plastic bottled water, but instead filtered and bottled their own, to be used at home, in offices or in public areas.

On February 2, Goumbook held a special ceremony to award volunteers who have taken part in the Save the Butts campaign to clear over a million butts since the initiative began. Image Credit: Supplied

Encounters with litter everywhere also led to a dedicated campaign to clear cigarette butts and do something about them. “The Save the Butts campaign, which completed a year this week, has collected over one million cigarette butts that are getting transformed into a sustainable alternative,” said Tatiana.

Eat it or save it

Another area Tatiana feels strongly about is food wastage.

“We introduced interactive packing activities suitable for all ages in 2022, calling for responsible consumption and production to address food waste. Our assembly process combines a warm meal with fresh fruits and vegetables. These meal packs are mainly composed of surplus foods that have been diverted from landfill just because they were unsold in the market or have near expiration dates. We work with the UAE Food Bank to distribute the meal to those in need,” she said.

Goumbook has introduced interactive packing activities, calling for responsible consumption and production to address food waste. Image Credit: Supplied

“Every time you buy an apple and do not eat it, you are wasting 4.5 buckets of water – for that is how much it takes to grow just one apple,” she added.

Soaps can be recycled too

In another innovative initiative, Tatiana has begun to address the wastage of soaps. “Hotels in the UAE throw away 16 million soap bars every year, even as 2.3 billion people worldwide still lack a basic handwashing facility with water and soap at home. SO we thought of bridging this gap with UNISOAP UAE, which turns waste into value to serve those in need.”

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Tatiana Antonelli says she feels blessed to be in a country like the UAE. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Under this programme, discarded hotel soaps are recycled in a clinical manner to benefit both people and planet. “The programme, launched in partnership with the French NGO UNISOAP last year, aligns with governmental and industry-specific sustainability goals and promotes positive social impacts with a local focus,” she added.

Boundless opportunities

Tatiana feels blessed to be in a country like the UAE. “The focus in some of the oldest cities in the world which have an already built-up environment is on how to preserve ancient wealth. When I came here, it was very refreshing as the opportunities were boundless. One could witness a phenomenal growth story and be part of it too, which has been emotionally very gratifying. The need to nurture nature is something I fully understood after coming here,” she said.

Obsessed almost with all that she could do in this respect, Tatiana said she would constantly nag her three boys with her prescriptions to make a difference to the environment. “Then one day, a friend suggested that I put all these ideas and actions on a website, so more people could benefit from it and together, make a bigger difference,” she said, adding that that was how Goumbook was born.

Alu Coalition

As the momentum of her work picked up, Goumbook got involved with more campaigns with more social impact partnerships: The Alu Coalition to popularise the use of the aluminium can as a sustainable beverage packaging because it is 100 per cent recyclable; a water bottle refill joint initiative; a Trees Matter programme to facilitate companies’ efforts to plant trees in the UAE and beyond; Fair Care Dubai to provide dental care to low-income families; the Take a Breath drive to improve indoor air quality; and so on.

Tatiana Antonelli Abella speaking at a workshop as part of the Take a Breath campaign. Image Credit: Supplied

“As part of Take a Breath, an in-depth study is being conducted in 10 schools in the UAE to first collect data on the indoor air quality, prior and post solutions implementation within classrooms of primary years,” said Tatiana.

She said Goumbook also works closely with the Ministry of Education on some key initiatives. One of them - the Takween National Programme (with Emirates Schools Establishment and Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation). “This initiative aims to develop the cognitive and skill capabilities of 5,000 cycle two and three students in public schools nationwide by engaging them in various after-school programmes and training courses,” she said.

She has also partnered with the Ministry of Education to raise awareness about biodiversity at the Education Hub in the Green Zone at COP28.

The Takween National Programme aims to develop the cognitive and skill capabilities of students. Image Credit: Supplied

Forward talks

Tatiana also runs a podcast Forward Talks to highlight leaders and professionals who promote positive impact and sustainability in the UAE and beyond through their work, entrepreneurship, and commitment.

Looking back at her journey in the UAE, Tatiana said she feel very thankful. She also talks about the many challenges she faced, especially in the first two years of Goumbook when she struggled “to stay relevant”.

“Then one day, an Emirati casually made a remark about me still being around, which, in his view, meant I cared. That was the tipping point for me – the support of the local community,” she added..