HIS might not be a household name but for the past 30 years, Dr Martin Abraham has tirelessly championed consumer rights and environmental protection, both locally and globally.
Through his work in numerous non-governmental organisations and United Nations bodies, he has had a hand in shaping global green initiatives and policies.
His quiet, unassuming ways belie years of experience which have placed him as a respected figure in environmental circles.
His deep knowledge of all things concerning the planet has seen him playing advisory roles in various think-tanks and conservation groups, and involved in writing up global treaties and policy documents.
He has worked on a diverse range of topics, from chemical safety to hazardous wastes, sustainability, traditional knowledge, persistent organic pollutants, trade, endocrine disrupting chemicals, tobacco, biotechnology, genetically modified organisms, consumption patterns, energy and climate change.
For the past 10 years, Abraham has been instrumental in helping community groups obtain Global Environment Facility (GEF) funds to carry out sustainable development projects.
As national co-ordinator of the GEF Small Grants Programme (GEF-SGP), he has helped these groups shape their project concepts and prepare documents to support their applications for funding.
The funds have helped the single mothers of Wanita Inovatif Jaya Diri (Wijadi) in Kelantan to grow and market medicinal herbs, communities in Selangor to set up the Kota Damansara urban park, and Sarawak fishermen to stop overfishing of the endangered ikan terubok.
“By building the capability of NGOs and local communities in implementing activities that promote sustainable livelihoods and at the same time conserve natural resources and ecosystems, my work in SGP has brought about positive changes in the lives of people,” says Abraham, 54.
He left the GEF-SGP programme in July, however, following policy changes at the headquarters and now works as an independent environmental consultant.
His wife, Rajeswari Kanniah, is the dean of law at Taylor’s University College and they have a daughter, Gowri Chitra, 17.
Tracing back his green roots, Abraham can count himself as one among the small group of people who were witness to the rise of the budding Malaysian environmental movement during the 1980s.
Armed with a doctorate in marine microbiology, he had joined a local university in 1983 as a research co-ordinator but ethical conflict saw him quitting soon after.
“Seabed oil exploration was just taking off then and I was involved in a project to look for oil-eating bacteria in Malaysian waters, which can prevent oil spills from destroying mangroves and coastlines. When I found no such bacteria, I was instructed to doctor the data. It was against my ethics, so I left.”
The loss of a capable scientist in the research community, however, was a gain in the fledging environmental movement, for Abraham then joined Sahabat Alam Malaysia.
As a research officer, he used his science background to eject science-based principles into work related to water pollution and pesticides.
His next positon was with the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (now renamed Consumers International) in Penang, where he campaigned against harmful chemicals and tobacco trade, among other things.
In the aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal industrial disaster where a leak in the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian town exposed 500,000 people to the toxic methyl isocyanate gas, Abraham was among those who lobbied for better management of chemicals.
His books on this subject cover hazardous technologies, unsafe pesticide manufacturing in the Third World and the denial of justice for the Bhopal victims.
In 1989, his environmental activism work was acknowledged – he was elected into the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Roll Of Honour, the second Malaysian to receive that accolade. (The first was former IOCU president Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal).
Abraham recalls that the years leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were a whirlwind of non-stop jetsetting for him as he travelled the globe as an NGO representative for talks on environmental concerns.
By then, his scope of work had widened from toxics and chemicals to include indigenous rights, transnational corporations, trade-environment issues, biotechnology, consumption patterns and climate change.
“I was travelling eight months of the year and accumulated so many days of leave that my boss ordered me to go on a year’s leave. It so happened that at the same time, Dr Mostafa Tolba (then UNEP executive director) invited me to be one of his consultants and advisor.”
During that year-long tenure in Nairobi, Kenya, Abraham joined negotiations running up to the Earth Summit and helped draft UN documents – everything from Agenda 21 (the blueprint for sustainable development endorsed at the Summit) to the UNEP annual environment report and even Tolba’s speeches.
Upon his return to Kuala Lumpur in 1993, he took up a new position at WWF International, heading its new division on “wasteful consumption and pollution”.
Four years into the programme, it emerged that corporations found to be toxics emitters were also major funders of the conservation group.
A decision was made to close that division. Abraham was then asked to work on WWF’s core area of wildlife conservation but he declined.
“I’m not into cuddly animals. I’ve always been more interested in toxics as that affect people and will lead to extinction,” he says of his decision to quit WWF.
Brief stints in the private sector ensued – brief because his ethical convictions again saw him quitting both companies.
In one, an environmental consultancy, Abraham witnessed how Environmental Impact Assessment reports were produced, “sometimes four reports a day from someone sitting at his desk”.
“There were conflicts of interests and being a consultancy, the bottomline is profits.”
His next position at an environmental monitoring consultancy was short-lived too because of differences in directions, in particular his stand that Air Pollution Index (API) figures should be made public.
When he joined the GEF Small Grants Programme in 1999, he finally found gratification because he could work with communities, especially marginalised groups. “People have always been the focus of my work. The orang asli, for instance, have been a major beneficiary of the Small Grants Programme,” says Abraham.
Indeed, the SGP has funded numerous indigenous people projects, such as the rafflesia ecotourism by the Semai of Ulu Geroh, Perak, and the conservation of rice biodiversity in Tanjung Purun, Sarawak.
Having witnessed the growth of the Malaysian environmental movement, Abraham is heartened by the rise in green awareness, action and advocacy but is frustrated that policy changes have remained dismal.
“There is space for improving environmental conservation in Malaysia. We need more strategic approaches such as abiding by the ‘precautionary principle’. Now, we tend to be reactive and not proactive, and have a tendency to focus on the symptoms rather than the root causes of environmental problems.”
He also sees a need to shift from individual, site-specific EIAs to more comprehensive and cumulative studies, especially in ecosystems of ecological significance.
And he still advocates the principle that had guided him when he first joined the NGO movement – the community’s “right to know”. “Now, people get to know about a coal plant only after it has been approved. We should not only be guided by the 3Ps … people, profit and plant. They must be underpinned by justice and equity, too.”
The Star 06.10.2009