Monday, September 28, 2009

In Print: Reza's Interview with NST

Wild Asia is on a media roll! A profile article on Reza Azmi was published in a local newspaper, The New Straits Times. Here is a reproduction of the actual interview we would like to share.

Reza is wild about the environment
By Beatrice Thomas

KOTA KINABALU: FOR a man who has dedicated his life to changing the conservation habits of people across Southeast Asia and beyond, Reza Azmi is the first to admit that he was never much into nature.
The founder of environmental organisation Wild Asia says he spent a lot of time outdoors as a child but it was not until he entered university, and a subsequent opportunity to work for WWF Malaysia, that his attitude towards the environment changed.

"WWF basically said 'here's RM20,000 and we want you to go to Borneo'," he says of his first job with WWF Malaysia at the age of 24.

"They just said: 'We have no project there at the moment. We don't even know what we want you to do but you've got a botany degree and we know you're interested in people, so why don't you come up with something?'"

What Reza crafted was five years of research that looked at forest fragments -- or what are left after years of logging and development -- that eventually earned him a PhD.

That was in the mid-1990s.

In 1998, Reza left WWF Malaysia to start his own conservation project, which would go on to be known as Wild Asia.

With its beginnings as an online collection of stories about the places he had visited, Wild Asia has grown into a full-time project with a staff of seven people.

Reza says Wild Asia hopes to inspire businesses and communities.

"Our focus is literally on people's backyards, whether it's a community or a business with a land bank. This is because at the end of the day, these are people who are rooted to where they are."

A boarder from the age of 14 at the prestigious Aldenham School in Elstree, England, and later educated at St Andrews University in Scotland, the 38-year-old initially studied marine biology before he grew "fed up dissecting animals all the time" and switched to botany.

Born in Kuala Lumpur to a Malay father and Pakistani mother, Reza, the youngest of three sons, jokes that he is the only one in the family working outside the "corporate world". One brother is a partner in an auditing firm and the other is a chartered surveyor.

With Wild Asia, Reza concentrated first on Asia's forestry industry, which he claims is devastating the environment but since then, has steered it in a new direction -- palm oil production and the effects of tourism on the environment.

To gauge the impact of tourism on the environment, he has come up with the annual Responsible Tourism Awards, where self-assessments by tourism operators are judged by a team he put together.

He says despite palm oil being a lucrative business in Asia, the ever-growing thirst to expand the industry's footprint needs to be kept in check.

"We're at the stage where we are going into those areas where we shouldn't and developing land that people didn't want developed in the first place.

"That's where all the complications are now coming from. This isn't the 1950s, when we had a whole different scenario in terms of land and development pressures."

Sitting in a cafe near his apartment in Taman Desa, Reza has just returned from India and is suffering the effects of an upset stomach, something he shrugs off as an unfortunate side effect of the amount of time he spends in different, often remote, parts of the world.

Although easy to talk to and passionate about his work, he finds it difficult to describe Wild Asia in a few words, saying it is an ever-evolving concept and one which he is continually learning from.

"Having the confidence to do it is a big step, especially as we did not know what we were getting ourselves into.

"We have an idea of what people are saying that others should do. But it's tricky when you're looking at existing management systems. You tell them about climate change (and) they've got no idea about what's going on."

Companies are now hiring Reza's Wild Asia team to train their staff and advise them on how to improve their sustainability practices.

It's Wild Asia's biggest source of income, together with corporate grants.

Reza admits that relying on sponsorship and not donations is limiting how much he can do with Wild Asia.

But he is optimistic, saying that his work is helped by a growing realisation on the importance of staying environmentally friendly.

"You really don't have alternatives," he says. "It's not good enough now to say 'well, don't do anything' because we've passed that.

This article was published on 27 October 2009

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