Soft power of Azraq eco-organization: Information is Key

    10 Oct 2021

    Founded in 2018, Azraq NGO is a very young organization. But in a short period of its existence, it was able to turn into a nationwide environmental protection movement. Their eco-projects are impressive not only because of their diversity, though they include everything from protection of sharks and dolphins, planting mangrove seedlings, and cleaning beaches from garbage to lifehacks for getting rid of microplastics and so much more. One distinct feature of Azraq NGO is the mass character, large-scale volunteer participation in its initiatives, especially by the youth. We asked the General Secretary of Azraq Kimberley Monges to tell us about the organization’s successes, further goals and objectives.


    Organization’s history and founder


    Ecolife. Azraq is known in the UAE as an active nature conservation organization. How did you manage to “make it big” so quickly, and how did it all begin? Who were its founders?


    Source: Natalie Hore (Banks) Facebook


    The organization was founded by Natalie Banks. She is originally from Australia and is a professional diver dedicated to her craft. I think she finds both her inner strength and peace while scuba diving. Natalie loves the ocean. She is the type of person who is implicated in her surroundings and is very sensitive to environmental issues. She also loves sharks. In Australia, she was nicknamed “Shark Mama”.


    At the time, Natalie was working as a Media advisor for the Australian government and came across a memo about Shark Culling. From this point on, she knew she had to do something about it. She rallied thousands of people against the initiative, fervently spreading the words, sharks could not. Backed up with scientists and supporters, sharks were given a voice and an exposure.


    Source: No Shark Cull



    At the time, Natalie – an active member of the scuba diving community and a certified PADI trainer – only had to write one post on Facebook to organize a demonstration against shark culling in Australia. With thousands of participants! All of them peacefully expressed their opposition to the killings. The next day, the numbers of supporters doubled. She pulled off this movement in a very short period of time.


    This shows how passionate and dedicated people such as Natalie find ways to inspire others around them. I feel this is what Azraq as a whole is now. We pass on the passion for conservation to our members, to UAE residents who wish to join us, to volunteers, and to everyone who wants to enact change and protect the beauty of the ocean. When Natalie arrived in Dubai, she continued to advocate for the preservation and protection of the Oceans. I think she always wanted to contribute to change, to leave a mark. And she is one of the people who start by changing themselves on a path to the greater good.


    Such is the story of Azraq’s founding.


    Ecolife. What are the difficulties with establishing that kind of NGO here?


    The first difficulty in establishing Azraq might have been the language and the cultural barrier.


    The second challenge was finding people with a similar mindset. In order to found an NGO, you need to “sell” something intangible, your worldview, and that is difficult. Natalie did not know anyone in Dubai and had almost no connections with the authorities. And when you don’t speak the language and have no network of contacts, it’s hard to create an organization from scratch and get all the necessary permits. You need to push through and expand a lot of energy. It often takes months to see the fruit of your efforts.

    But at the end of the day, we all want the same. It’s like kids on the playground, who don’t need to know each other’s languages ​​to play together.



    Government relations and recipes for productive dialogue



    Ecolife. How did the authorities treat NGO at the start? Were they supportive?


    Dubai has its Community Development Authority. The CDA provides information on how to set up a non-profit. It also grants the required NGO license and all accreditations for its activities. The Dubai authorities did not leave Azraq “in the dark”. Here the authorities have a shared vision of a “green” Dubai. They are working towards a sustainable future and therefore don’t block NGOs like ours.


    For example, recycling is one of the priorities. The Dubai authorities are going to build the biggest recycling plant in the GCC and the biggest e-waste recycling plant in the world. Aiming to divert waste from landfills by 75% by 2021.


    Therefore, I conclude: Dubai is actively working towards sustainable development, and environmental advocates don’t feel “lost at sea” here. We, in turn, work hard for a wildfire-like spreading of our ideas and voices.


    Ecolife. In your opinion, what are the best ways to communicate with the Dubai government? You do not use demonstrations, petitions, or other “forceful” methods. Are the “soft” approach and partnerships more effective?


    Azraq is built entirely on healthy communication and is dedicated to it. We don’t poke the government, as NGOs do in many Western countries do. We never march against anyone nor throw stones. The aim is to lift people up not the contrary.



    All our work is dedicated to educating people and sharing information. The more people are informed about what is happening in the ecosphere, the more people know about the behavior of sharks, for example, the more they begin to change their behavior and talk about it.


    Informed people begin to change, get more “hands-on”, and, as we say, “activate”. And we offer them ways to participate in Azraq’s activities. We are moving forward, planning campaigns for the future.


    From my point of view and based on my experience working in Azraq, appropriate and polite dialogue and communication are always better than applying pressure and pushing from behind. And since the Dubai government wants to make the city greener, the conversation happens much easier. Since everything in Dubai is regulated, we have to request permits to carry out our work. But regulations are not restrictions.



    One example is the cleaning of beaches in Dubai when workers get rid of thousands of garbage pieces every morning. They do it on schedule and never manage to clean the beaches completely, marine debris coming from the tide, never stops. We in Azraq are helping the city with the issue. We work hand in hand with the city in this matter; they provide containers and greenlight our activities.


    Azraq is all about educating people and spreading information to open up a conversation. This is the style of our founder, who also has a background in journalism, by the way.


    The best way to convince someone is through proper dialogue, never by force. We are dedicated to our passion and spreading this passion among people.



    Eco-activism tools in Dubai


    Ecolife. How do you carry out large-scale eco-campaigns?


    We are trying to be present in many areas at once, thanks to our volunteers and members. They are from different professional spheres, communities, and they know different people. This has led to a ramified network that allows us to successfully launch campaigns.


    Ecolife. How do people in the UAE respond to crowdfunding campaigns? In those, do you use platforms like Kickstarter? Do you employ social media e.g. Facebook and Instagram?


    We don’t use crowdfunding. We don’t have a charity license. We don’t ask for money and don’t organize fundraisers. We have an online store that helps us keep Azraq afloat, and all positions in our NGO are unpaid. That is why I can say that the organization is entirely passion-driven.


    Ecolife. Do you use online petitions?


    Petitions are not our method, as we do not like pointing fingers at people and use it to persuade the audience on a particular topic. This is just not how we operate. We love having dialogue, enlightening people, and sharing our experience.



    Azraq’s operating directions


    Ecolife. What is your main goal today?


    Our primary mission in Dubai: We have a motto that says “to educate, motivate and activate”. We are very youth-focused. This is our future we’re talking about, and young people are extremely concerned with the environment. We are very proud of this and keep them engaged and passionate about protecting the ocean. One of our youngest volunteers, my daughter, is now 3.5 years old. Next year, when the weather lets us, I will bring her to clean the beaches. She learns that beaches aren’t supposed to be polluted, where pollution comes from, and how not to contribute to it yourself. We have strong ties with schools, where we conduct tailor made workshops for little ones. We have a sustainability and environmental awareness program, and we also organize movie nights. Everything is built around information. We are regularly invited to environmental discussion panels, and recently have been hosting those with podcasts. We often communicate with local organizations who have their own eco-programs and arrange presentations.


    For example, the people in the hospitality industry know they can generate a lot of waste. The industry is now trying to reduce its garbage output. We make podcasts on this topic and distribute them via appropriate media.


    Through presentations in schools, we try to provide students with information on topics such as coral reefs, mangroves, sharks, dolphins, and marine debris. Basically, we try to tackle and raise our voice for many issues which for us,  are all on the front line.



    We also maintain our physical presence in Dubai. We organize beach cleanups, dolphin counts, mangrove planting. We are friendly and everyone who is eco-oriented or Earth-focused is welcome at Azraq. We all have common goals – changing our lifestyle and behavior, ways of consumption, and appreciating other ways of consuming. If you change those attitudes, you change many other things at once.


    Ecolife. What areas of the organization activities you consider priorities? Which of the ongoing projects, in your opinion, are especially successful?


    Prioritizing projects we manage would be a luxury, given that the people who make up Azraq work for free. They all give their time and energy, and therefore we cannot make one thing our priority. Any campaign we run is a priority in itself. This includes sustainable fashion, marine debris problems, dolphins, sharks, opposing balloon launching. We believe that there isn’t a central element among them; they all are equal.


    We are currently handling twelve campaigns, and their priority may be determined only by season and weather. For example, the end of the year is an excellent time to plant mangrove seedlings and saplings. There are also suitable seasons for turtle surveys and beach clean-ups. In short, disregarding the change of seasons, all campaigns generally have the same importance. We are now planning a future campaign to remove “ghost nets” drifting in the oceans. We are looking for ways to recycle them into something else.


    We also want to protect coral reefs. And Dubai is a good place to restore these.


    Ecolife. What can you tell us about your most successful campaign?


    There’s an ongoing battle to convince people to create change. We are also fortunate to be working with social media influencers, promoting our ideas and communicating extensively on the topic of sustainable fashion.


    We also strongly oppose the use of plastic. We provide solutions for people to move in the right direction regarding plastic.



    For example, we have upcoming projects to clean up ghost nets drifting at sea. We are also aiming to protect coral reefs, which Dubai can also be interested in for the purposes of eco-tourism development.


    Our Mighty Mangrove Campaign is an important one in the becoming for the upcoming year or years to come as well. Stay Tuned!


    UNEP status


    Ecolife. Tell us about your participation in the international eco-programs and campaigns.


    In 2021, we are privileged to have been granted observer status for our NGO by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). One of the advantages of such recognition is the ability to write information requests regarding various documents via the UNEP secretariat. We can also participate in assemblies and voice out our concerns or questions.


    Therefore, this year has been a successful one. And now, we can legitimately share our efforts and observations with governments. In short, our work has been given formal legitimacy, which we are incredibly proud of. This is all very new to Azraq, and we want to get more results in the future thanks to it. Now everything has slowed down due to COVID-19, but we are looking forward to future successes.


    Ecolife. Tell us about your work in other countries of the Gulf


    Azraq is established with a license recognized and authorized by the CDA (Community Development Authority) in Dubai. We are now mainly focused on Dubai. But we are not bound to it neither and can be present in other emirates via our various partners. But we cannot operate outside the UAE. We can share information about the impact on the environment through social media, our campaign pages, and our website.





    Ecolife. Could mangroves save the Gulf region from climate change?


    I don’t believe mangroves could save any country from climate change. But they can compensate for its impact. Of course, this will not help us against rising sea levels, but we must plant many of these trees to limit the negative impacts of the current trend. They absorb a lot of carbon dioxide and have a world record-level size square area. Mangroves here are comparable to Amazon rainforests. If GCC countries re-plant mangroves on their coasts, they could become the “green lungs” of the region. They purify and filter water by absorbing salt, heavy metals and other chemical pollutants . If you taste a mangrove leaf, it will be salty. But if there is too much salt in the water, the tree loses energy.


    Simply put, if you plant a lot of mangroves, they will keep the coast “healthy”. They are my favorite trees. There is currently an idea, hopefully, in the making, one of creating a Mangrove Alliance, which would include Dubai, Abu Dhabi as well as Saudi Arabia, and other GCC countries that have mangrove forests.





    Wildlife conservation. Sharks


    Ecolife. So you broke some stereotypes about sharks?


    Sharks are the most “misunderstood” animals on the planet. Sharks may not have the most attractive smiles, so to speak. But they are some of the most important oceanic species.


    Turtles, dugongs, and other species need to be spread away from coral reefs every now and then to leave a breathing space to their food, and sharks are good at it… For example, coral reef mollusks are responsible for filtering the oceans. They are part of the ecosystem. Likewise, whales are like gardeners or fertilizers, creating food for phytoplankton who in return create oxygen. All these types are interconnected. If we remove one species, the other dominates, and the balance is ruined. It’s what we call a trophic cascade. The collapse of a food chain.


    Shellfish disappearing would lead to a disaster. Similarly, sharks play a role in the life of all species; they help maintain the balance by being predators. The global ecosystem must exist in harmony. If we removed sharks from it, it would be a complete catastrophe. Yet “thanks” to Hollywood, sharks are known as the most terrible creature in history. Due to their teeth and speed, they were branded as a species associated only with fear, as monsters. All of these stereotypes were not helped by the film industry.


    Now we are gradually “unwinding” the situation. We show our friendly attitude towards sharks. They are famous for being curious, swimming around the person to get closer and closer. Some sharks can be more aggressive, some less, same as tigers or lions. They are predators and behave a certain way. They don’t attack without reason.



    Wildlife conservation. Dolphins


    Ecolife. You have a dolphin defense campaign section on your website. What is your position on commercial dolphinariums? Do they have a right to exist?


    Dolphins live in a complex and emotionally interconnected community. They hunt together and need a vast space in the sea to live their lives. They are social creatures. And the most beautiful way to watch dolphins is in their habitat. They need a lot of swimming space. If someone needs help or therapy, it should be provided by specialists. Any animal should be in its natural environment, in the wildlife where it belongs. For dolphins, this is the ocean.


    Ecolife. Tell us a little about eco-friendly dolphin watching tours.


    Here I’m not speaking on behalf of Azraq. In my opinion, watching dolphins and whales in their natural habitat is wonderful. And you don’t need to touch anything or take away from the ocean; this is pure contemplation. However, at certain times, it can create disturbance and impact their behavior leading to forms of disruption for example on reproduction during breeding season, the animals are uncomfortable with the noise of boats and tourists constantly visiting certain spots. In a word, wildlife sightseeing could still cause some discomfort. This is not the best idea – wild animals should ideally be left alone. But in any case, viewing them in the ocean is breathtaking.



    Dealing with microplastics


    Ecolife. Could you tell us about the dangers of microplastics?


    Microplastics are dangerous. They end up in the ocean. Depending on the types of plastic, there are some that are still decomposing from the day they were created. And they will remain in the environment forever. A plastic bag takes minimum 20 years to decompose. And even after disintegrating, from a chemical point of view, this plastic remains in the ocean. With turtles, you can see the real danger of plastic waste. The turtle thinks the plastic bag is a jellyfish and eats it. Then, bag after bag, the turtle’s stomach is full, but it does not satisfy its primary needs, so the turtle dies of starvation. And when the body decays, the plastic that killed the animal remains. Therefore, during its “life cycle”, plastic threatens dozens of species.


    As for fish, when the fish is finally caught and gets on your plate, with it you will consume dozens of toxic chemicals. And it’s terrifying. Now some doctors don’t even recommend fish to pregnant women due to the amount of mercury and other heavy metals in some fish. Plastic generates many chemicals when it breaks down, which are then found everywhere.



    Ecolife. How can regular people influence plastics manufacturing in the UAE?


    Shift their buying habits towards eco responsible ones. The growing demand for alternatives may influence in this direction.


    Ecolife. What is your vision of the global solution to the plastics manufacturing problem?


    The solution for Earth is for all of us to end the plastic madness and focus on other alternatives; several at once to maintain balance. The salvation for the planet will be the use of several organic solutions at once.


    For example, people are now replacing plastic straws with other alternatives, avocado starch, bamboo, stainless steel etc. There is also a type of plastic bag that dissolves in water. Perhaps, this is a more organic path. And it is not greenwashing since the method does not lead to ocean pollution.



    Dubai development, business trends, and “green” globalization


    Ecolife. Should the government push the business to sponsors the invention of new solutions?


    My impression is that Dubai is already working in this direction. Compared to Western countries, Dubai is a very welcoming place; it attracts all kinds of businesses and provides them with the necessary tools and space. The city has become a well-known business hub and made great strides in helping companies flourish.


    Dubai is fully focused on green businesses of the future because of stability they provide. This also applies to the means of transportation and consumer habits. A simple example – they began selling milk in glass bottles in supermarkets. At first, my family was surprised: “What, glass bottles, like in my childhood?” Yes. The energy and political dynamics of this country are different from those in the West. There is no need for lobbying and demonstrations. The government has a shared vision. And therefore, they speed through some processes that would take a lot of time in the West. Here, with a single vision that includes a more “green” future, solutions are implemented differently.


    Dubai is situated on the coast, with the desert behind it and the ocean in the front. In terms of urbanization, they caught up with highly developed economies and top world players at a very early stage. In a very short period of time, they managed to become true students of the globalization “school”. Their urbanization efforts led to the creation of a “smart country”. And as the country has reached political and economic maturity, I see their shift towards a “green vision”. For example, backed from the swiss government export finance agency, Dubai has initiated the construction of a processing plant that can recycle electronics, including microchips and batteries. This plant in Dubai is the largest of its kind in the world.


    In its quest to catch up with Western countries in environmental protection, Dubai may overtake them. Standing between the desert and the ocean, Dubai aims to be an attractive destination that fosters an eco-conscious lifestyle and behavior.



    For example, now is the time to revive the mangroves in the GCC. This is one of the common goals for making Dubai a green region, by restoring the population and growing locations of the mangroves. These fantastic trees absorb salts and keep the forests healthy. They also absorb carbon dioxide, just like rainforests, as well as preserve the coastline.


    Dubai has also set the goal of preserving coral reefs, which will benefit the ocean. Moreover, the authorities also fight against coastline erosion. In short, the city is becoming known as an ally of the environment, which is terrific. In 2011 there were only two natural reserves in the region, now there are six, with more being planned for. The government’s goal is to make 60% of the Dubai territory into natural reserves. As an eco-activist, I would like this figure to be 100%. But looking at the issue realistically, 60% will be an impressive achievement, given the current urbanization layout.


    Eco-responsibility of people and government


    Ecolife. It is believed that waste recycling is based 30% on government efforts and 70% on citizens and their education, their adherence to the rules. Would you agree with that?


    I think it is the responsibility of the individual to be a conscious consumer. And the government can provide them with tools.



    Ecolife. But the system requires an educated population?


    Yes. People have to “play ball”. The government and the population must work hand in hand. The more information is shared, the more enlightened people are, the better. The spread of information plays a crucial role in this work.


    Ecolife. From your perspective, how much progress has the UAE achieved in terms of recycling?


    For now, everyone has access to the recycling spot. But it is also important to correctly sort waste. If organic matter gets into the recycling chain, it will get contaminated, halting the entire recycling process. So the process must be properly organized.



    How to be eco-conscious in a consumerist world


    We must start environmental education with young people because it is a matter of knowledge. Previously, people didn’t know how much pollution is caused by plastic. There was even a saying: “Plastic is fantastic!”. Yes, plastic is durable, cheaper to produce, but plastic is one of the biggest problems of our time. That is why we educate children to build a better future.


    I think that not all people are informed, but we work on it. Often it comes down to resources – including financial ones. For example, now many inexpensive items are sold in packaging, which is not at all eco-friendly. Meanwhile, many tools made to benefit the environment and help people be eco-friendly are pretty costly. There is, for example, a plastic microfiber trap that you put in the washing machine before starting it. It collects microplastics that come out of T-shirts, other polyester fabrics. But the device costs about 160-170 dirhams, which isn’t that cheap.



    Therefore, we must account for the financial side of things. From a social perspective, those with the ability should make necessary improvements. Progress does not stand still, and the economy keeps changing its shape. It is already moving in a “greener” direction. At the moment, though, the war between business structures and nature preservation continues. In conclusion: this is not just about the government’s actions. What constitutes the planet? Only ourselves. Therefore, we must change the global mindset. We are consumers. Nobody forces us to consume. I consume if I can and if I have a choice, but what will I choose? This is a matter of our stance in the world.



    Azraq’s future plans


    We’d like to start hiring specialists to develop ourselves. We could launch larger projects, hire, develop our projects further.


    In general, we want to scale up our activities, spread the word for a greener future. We have many projects that we would like to implement, but they need funds, and we must find ways to finance them. In the long term, we are looking to strengthen partnerships with local companies and corporations.


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