Former yoga missionary could bring Philippine mining industry to its knees

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MANILA: The Philippines’ environment secretary, Gina Lopez, comes from one of the country’s wealthiest families, with business stakes in media empires, energy and manufacturing. But she had mostly stayed away from the limelight, choosing a life of travelling, spirituality and yoga.

When she returned to the Philippines, she became a passionate advocate for the environment using the charity arms of her family’s media company, ABS-CBN, to fund her projects.

That all changed when she was appointed environment secretary under the new Duterte administration and took on some of the country’s biggest businesses, despite little technical education.

Lopez has now threatened to shut down two-thirds of the country’s mining sites and cancel a further 75 mining contracts that were approved by her predecessor – a pipeline of mining investments worth about 1.1 trillion Philippine pesos (US$22 million).

THE PUSH-BACK

Her announcements shocked the mining community of the fifth-most mineral-rich country in the world for gold, nickel, copper and chromite – the Philippines has US$840 billion worth of untapped mineral wealth, according to an estimate by the country’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

Many of the companies are now fighting back, appealing both to the president and to the courts.

Members from the pro-mining community watch Philippines’ environment secretary Gina Lopez on TV, booing her. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

A nine-page complaint was filed on Mar 19 by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), charging Lopez with causing “undue injuries” to the mining industry.

The group lamented that as early as September last year, Lopez had already announced the suspension of about 20 mining firms even before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) mining audit was completed.

COMP said that most, if not all its members, have acquired International Standards Organization (ISO) 140001 certification, indicating that they have passed the highest environmental standards for mining.

There is also a lobby for a congressional committee to reject her nomination as environment secretary. Lopez was recently bypassed by the Commission on Appointments during her first round, only to be re-appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. She will face the committee again in May when congress resumes.

But despite the enemies she has made, she said she will continue her mission with confidence, knowing she has the backing of the president, who has referred to her as a “crusader”.

In a press briefing in March, Duterte declared: “You think you can live with it (environmental degradation) because of the 70 billion (pesos) or because they contributed to campaign funds? Not me.”

He was referring to the estimated 70 billion pesos mining contributes a year in revenue.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

For Delta Dumay, who comes from a family of farmers, the mining industry has impacted her source of living.

Her family had always benefited from two good yearly harvests – until now. A river runs along the side of her house and it used to provide water for irrigation for her rice fields, but now it is killing her crops. 

According to Dumay, her troubles started when a mining company set up in the mountains above the river. They began to notice heavier siltation in the river, increased flooding during the rainy season and more dust during the dry season.

“Of course it really began to affect our farmlands. And there were no fish in our river and we couldn’t catch anything,” she said.

Dumay said she used to be able to harvest 300 sacks of rice each season, but now this has been reduced to around 100 sacks.

Her town is located in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur in Mindanao, one of the country’s poorest regions, but also its most mineral-rich. There are 23 large-scale mines operating in the area.

One of the agricultural areas affected by siltation in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur, Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Lopez, the massive destruction of ecosystems in mining tenements – the massive cutting of trees, blasting of mountains, the digging and hauling to extract mineral ores – are to blame for the siltation of rivers, as well as degradation of coastal environments that affect agricultural and fishery production.

She said: “It causes suffering if you are a fisherman or a farmer; it aggravates your quality of life. Only 20 per cent of the labour force are people that come from the island. The ones that benefit are the local governments.

‘It’s not a viable economy where some people benefit and everyone suffers. But the most grievous thing there is the fact that the place is beautiful and the continuous mining there is killing the economic potential of the place. It’s crazy.”

Dumay said that while she knows of other communities nearby who receive money from mining companies, there are many who do not.

“They (the people from the mining company) came and did a test on the water and said there was no evidence we were affected so they didn’t offer compensation,” she said.

THE WARNING

Around 95 per cent of large-scale mining companies practise open-pit mining and Lopez has mostly focused on these large-scale open-pit mines. Mining experts said it is the fastest, safest and most efficient way of extracting mineral ore, but according to Lopez, it causes massive destruction of forest ecosystems.

“The 15 that we closed are in watersheds and I feel that to even consider allowing them to continue mining in the watershed goes against the spirit of the mining law, which says you should not put at risk the lives of the present and future generations in a watershed,” said Lopez.

Miners dig for mineral ore inside a tunnel in Mt Diwata. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In her presentations, Lopez repeatedly cites the Tampakan Copper-Gold Project in Mindanao. She said forests, watersheds and highly productive agricultural areas the size of 700 football fields will be devastated once proponents of potentially the biggest gold-mining project begin commercial operation.

“That area is the food basket of Mindanao,” Lopez said. “There are rivers and farms in those areas.”

She said miners use dynamite to tear down mountains or dig holes to fast-track the extraction of mineral ore.

Said Jaybee Garbganera of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement: “By the nature of the industry itself, mining is going to introduce permanent changes in the physical landscape and the topography of the Philippines.

“When you start doing mining, your operations are going to cut trees, use water from the river, use the forests which are the same resources of indigenous people.

“An introduction of a mining site in any area in the Philippines will likely impact the local environmental and cultural life of the population. This is different from any continental country like Canada or Australia where they can do mining and the next community would be 100km away.”

Gold separated from the rock, mined in the Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Garbganera, the introduction of mining operations in a locality increases the already existing risks of vulnerabilities of that community.

“The Philippines’ climate change and disaster risk reduction laws were passed in 2009, while the laws governing the mining industry were passed in 1995, so all the mining contracts we have right now do not factor in climate change and disaster risk,” he said.

EMOTIONS RATHER THAN FACTS

Lopez has stoked the anger of mining companies and scientists who believe she is addressing the issue with emotions rather than facts and due process.

They include Isidro Alcantara, CEO of publicly listed Marcventure Holdings, whose mine is currently being threatened with closure despite holding an ISO certification which confirms that the mine’s environment management systems are compliant with international standards.

“Perfection cannot be made the enemy of good,” he said. “When you disturb the earth, it will never be perfect; you will restore it 70 to 80 per cent but a lot of good would have come out of disturbing the earth; a lot of jobs, a lot of livelihoods including livelihoods that would be sustainable and that can be a catalyst for development, economic and social.”

Dr Carlo Arcila of the National Institute of Geological Sciences said differentiation needs to be made between the different types of mining in the country and that responsible mining can and does exist where minimal damage is done to the environment.

THE BENEFITS

It is not just the mining companies who are up in arms over her decision. Communities located near mining sites are worried about job and income losses if the mines are shut, and they have also been protesting in front of the DENR office.

Junarlo Hunahunan owns an iPhone, motorbike and flat screen TV. This may seem normal for a 22-year-old, but he is from a small indigenous community in the remote mountains of Surigao del Sur, which until recently was only accessible via a six-hour hike from the nearest town of Pantukan.

Junarlo Hunahunan’s renovated house in the indigenous community of Pantukan. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In 2007, two mining companies set up nearby. He, along with his three siblings, have been working with one of the companies for two years.

They used to live in a basic nipa or straw hut, surviving off the meagre incomes of their crops, but from the money they earned they have been able to build a two-storey house, send their siblings to school and buy all the things they enjoy.

“Before, it was really hard. We didn’t have money. We couldn’t send our siblings to school or have pocket money for them,” says Junarlo.

It is not only his household that has seen a big change. The community of around 1,000 has gone from having no roads, electricity or health centres to having a gym, school and ambulance.

Mining companies are expected to give 1 per cent of their total income to the indigenous communities whose land they are operating on. Last year, Pantukan and six other communities received almost US$60,000 from just one company alone.

According to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, Lopez’s order puts at risk around 67,000 jobs and at least 1.2 million people who depend on mining for their livelihood.

Lopez has said mining has failed to improve the lives of the people, and that people from Surigao del Sur remain poor despite mining. But Alfred Araneta, vice mayor of Carrascal, a town in Surigao del Sur, disagrees.

He said taxes and royalties from mining companies have boosted the town’s income more than 55 times over a 10-year period.

Mining companies have to pay business and royalty taxes as well as a percentage of every tonne of ore taken out of the country to the local government. With that money, they have improved government buildings such as hospitals and schools and infrastructure.

“We are really dependent on the taxes we collect from the mining industry,” Araneta said. “If they do close down, Carrascal will go back again to what we were in 2006. That is what we are afraid of.”

A hospital in Carrascal that has been built from funds giving by mining companies. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In 2006, Carrascal was a poor provincial town made up mostly of farmers and fishermen. Now, most of the people in town work either directly or indirectly for the mining companies and the number of registered businesses has shot up from 74 to nearly 400.

Lopez insists that she can replace these jobs by creating centres of eco-tourism in place of mining sites. She asked for the communities to give her two years to get the people out of poverty from various ecotourism activities.

“I just feel that in a country that is beautiful, the better approach is to keep the country beautiful for the benefit of anyone living there. My complaint with the mining law and mining operations is that you ravage what is there and you take out the wealth and leave them poor and give them tidbit scholarships, and they’re totally dependent on you instead of developing the potential of the area to generate quality of life,” said Lopez.

But communities remain sceptical of this proposition, worried about the viability of bringing in enough tourists into these remote areas where infrastructure remains a big problem.

“If an eco-tourism project was to be implemented, it will take how many months, even a year, before it can start operations. How can we sustain those families that are eating right now and having their children studying?” said Araneta.

Dindo Manhit, managing director of Stratbase, argued that eco-tourism can’t exist in many mining areas. He cited mining in Palawan, a tourist hotspot located in the west of the Philippines as an example.

“There is mining in Palawan; there is also eco-tourism in Palawan. Why don’t we send tourists to those mining areas? Because it’s too rural and there’re lots of mosquitoes, lots of malaria,” he said.

SMALL-SCALE MINING

Many also question why Lopez in her crusade has ignored the small-scale miners. They make up 60 per cent of the total gold production, yet for the most part continue to flourish with little regulation from the main government.

There are around 400,000 small-scale miners operating in 40 mineral-rich provinces nationwide, building tunnels deep into mountainsides in search of their “jackpot” day.

It has provided wealth for the miners -signs of prosperity dot the gold-rush town of Diawata, where children who finish top of their class even get rewarded with a 15g pure gold medal worth around 19,500 pesos.

But the gold rush does not necessarily translate into prosperity for the government or environment.

Miners inside a small-scale mine in Diwalwal dig for gold. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Dr Carlo Arcilla of the National Institute of Geological Science, most of the small-scale mining is illegal and unregulated and certain practices are detrimental to the environment. According to him, practices such as using mercury when mining for gold is not only bad for the environment but for the miners as well.

“When you mine the gold content, it’s in the parts per million, so you have to grind very fine to get the gold out,” he said. “Many miners use mercury because mercury dissolves the gold. The problem is that the river will flow to the ocean and the mercury, once it gets into the ocean, is poisonous by itself and it becomes integrated in the food chain and becomes metal mercury – one of the most poisonous substances known to humankind.”

In an attempt to stop this, in 2015, the department of environment issued new policies and guidelines for these mines to adhere to. Cooperatives were formed to allow for more regulation of mines.

Jose Anayo, the head of a mining cooperative in Compostela Valley, said small-scale mining permits were issued by the provincial government. He added that there are regular check-ups on the mines for labour and environmental safety practices, but there are still a lot of mines that remain unregulated.

“Our cooperative consists of around 70 tunnels but that’s only from the registered tunnels, which make up only a small percentage of the total network of small-scale mines,” he said.

MINING CONTRIBUTION INSUFFICIENT: LOPEZ

Lopez has also argued that mining contribution to the Philippines is not enough to cover for the economic loss to the environment. Last year, mining’s contribution in terms of GDP was a mere 0.9 per cent. Mining export receipts were pegged at US$2.8 billion, or only 4.8 per cent of total exports, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

According to Credit Suisse, the mining ban could shave 0.2 per cent off the Philippines’ economic growth and hurt foreign investors’ sentiments. It could also reduce exports by around 2 per cent.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Lopez acknowledged that she was stepping on “very big business interests and political interests”.

“But at the end of the day, I’m doing what the government has mandated for me to do – which is to take care of the people and make sure the land and resources of the area can benefit the people living here.”



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Commentary: Narendra Modi, India’s social media star, struggles to get government online


When Narendra Modi was elected in early 2014, the media declared him “India’s first social media prime minister” and compared his approach to technology to that of then US president Barack Obama. In 2016, Time magazine named Modi one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet.

Today, he is the most followed world leader on social media, with more than 40 million Facebook followers. Needless to say, with a social media superstar at the helm, the Indian government was expected to bloom online.

But this idea should be advanced cautiously, as certain facts belie the assumption. According to the Pew Research Center, 87 per cent of American adults use the Internet, while only 27 per cent of Indians do. And only two in ten Indians regularly use social media platforms, whereas seven in ten Americans do.

“DIGITAL INDIA” TO CONNECT ALL CITIZENS

One of the government’s main priorities is to get more Indians connected to the web. New Delhi’s new programme, “Digital India”, unifies information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives under one umbrella.

The process of building ICTs into governance involves the automation of routine administration jobs such as online passport registration or school application, providing requisite information to citizens, and citizen engagement in policy-making.

The Digital India initiative has seen some significant successes. It has connected all 250,000 Gram Panchayats (local administrative clusters of villages) with fibre optic cables, established Wifi villages and smart cities and created an ecosystem for Aadhaar, India’s national biometric identification system. It has also encouraged electronic banking through mobile payments.

The government also launched an exclusive citizen engagement platform, mygov.in, which currently boasts 4 million registrations, 1.8 million submissions across 599 tasks and 35 million comments.

Given India’s infrastructure inadequacies and weak private-public partnerships, these are laudable efforts.

An customer in India gives a thumb impression to withdraw money from his bank account. (Photo: AFP/ Noah Seelam)

MINISTRIES ARE LETTING MODI DOWN

Modi has pushed his ministers to adopt social media platforms as a part of their job. Many agencies have invited the experts and representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to attend consultation meetings (some of which I have attended) and also made data requests.

Today, the Election Commission of India uses Facebook to engage potential and present voters with the democratic process, and most ministry and agency websites are integrated with various digital platforms. It is also common to see government agencies advertising to hire social media firms in national newspapers.

Social media platforms are part of the larger e-governance effort. At a minimum, the government uses them to get information to citizens and, more gradually, to include user-generated content in governance.

But at present, despite these various actions, social media acts primarily as a mere extension of agency homepages. Evidently, many ministries and departments are hesitant to use the pages and accounts they’ve started.

Real-time updates are few. Those that occur are thanks to a few savvy ministers, including Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External affairs, Piyush Goyal, Minster of Power, and Suresh Prabhu, Minister of Railways.

Some Twitter interactions have been impressive. Take, for example, the time Sushma Swaraj directly helped an Indian citizen who was mugged in Tanzania.

However, government social media usage starts to fail when ministers are questioned or criticised by users. It took Modi – who usually uses Twitter daily – ten days to tweet about the communal violence in Dadri, where a Muslim man was lynched by a Hindu mob on suspicion of slaughtering a cow.

LACK OF CREDIBILITY

Quickly voicing concerns to other users and trading in genuine uncensored content are major features of social media. If these activities are shaken, either by blocking criticisms or through non-responsiveness, trust and credibility are lost.

If a minister responds to, say, a tweet about the lack of baby diapers on railway platforms but does not immediately respond to queries about a recent accident, or if a minister keeps mum on violence when she is expected to speak out, the real value that social media could bring to governance is lost.

Citizens may stop following the ministers, or troll them. Both hurt efficiency in e-governance.

Despite its social media presence, Modi’s government has largely failed to move beyond simply disseminating information. In 2015, the Chennai floods left thousands homeless and killed almost 500. Well before the government responded, civil society organisations and citizens used social media to create live-updated maps of affected areas and tell residents about safe houses and transportation.

Displaced residents wade through a flooded street in Chennai, India. (Photo: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)

OF CENSORSHIP, TROLLS AND “BHAKTS”

The government is also concerned about its own employees criticising policy initiatives or “liking” anti-government views. Recently, civil servants were advised to follow a social media code of conduct (though this framework appears outdated and incomplete).

Government social media use is also co-opted by political party supporters. Called “bhakts”, or henchmen, these ardent supporters of Modi or of other right-wing political movements have sidetracked any possibilities of healthy discussion. And they are equally matched by their more liberal opponents.

Bhakts are not public officials. But their online activities have blurred the lines between the roles played by political party head and prime minister, reducing the potential positive outcomes of the government’s fledgling social media efforts.

TO REGULATE AND TO SERVE

There are two main ways that a democratic government approaches the social media sphere – regulation and service provision. Modi’s government is in the nascent stages of both.

As a regulator, governments should monitor online activity, policing content and its creators (if needed) without damaging freedom of expression. The Modi administration’s regulatory role is being hijacked by partisan trolls who lack training and legitimacy.

As a digital public service provider, governments should treat online citizens like customers, seeking feedback on services or extending post-service support. If Twitter may be explored as an e-banking platform, for example, why not use it to book a ticket on India’s state-run railroad or apply for a passport?

Without better guidelines on playing this role, however, Modi’s government agencies will continue to struggle to provide citizen services. As an individual, Prime Minister Modi may be an exceptional social media influencer. But, for now, the same cannot be said about his government.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. The author P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan is an Associate Professor at The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. Read the original report here.



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Sex tourism in Pattaya frustrates Thai government


PATTAYA, Thailand: With mascots dressed as smiling fish and a police rock band, Thai authorities launched a “Happy Zone” at the weekend to improve the image of a city notorious for sex tourism.

Stung by foreign headlines portraying the seaside resort of Pattaya as “Sin City” and “The World’s Sex Capital”, Thailand’s government has begun a new effort to re-brand it.

But the contradictions in Pattaya highlight Thailand’s challenge in tackling a side of its tourist industry that remains economically vital while being officially excoriated.

“I want people to see that we are not like what they say. We are not allowing prostitution in these entertainment places,” provincial governor Pakkaratorn Teianchai told reporters on the infamous Walking Street in Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok.

Less than 10 metres away, women accosted foreign men to offer sex for 2,000 baht (US$60). Others lined up with numbers so customers could take their pick. Masseuses in miniskirts offered “happy ending” massages whose euphemistic title has nothing to do with the Happy Zone of the authorities.

“Everyone is here to make a living,” said one 35-year-old woman who came originally from a village in central Thailand. Tagged with the number “136”, she declined to give her name.

“I would rather be a waitress, but then I couldn’t send my children to school and I want them to have a better future than this,” she said.

In fact, sex tourism is not growing as fast as other aspects of Thailand’s tourist industry – the only bright spot for an economy whose expansion has been by far the slowest among major Southeast Asian economies since the 2014 coup.

No official figures show its scale.

But there is an indication in the balance of male to female visitors. In 2012, there were nearly 6 men for every 4 women. In 2015, the numbers were pretty much even, according to figures provided to Reuters by the tourism ministry.

Sex tourism began in Pattaya when it became an R&R spot for US soldiers during the Vietnam War, though prostitution is just as evident in parts of Bangkok and other resorts.

The number of female sex workers in Thailand was put at over 120,000 in a 2014 UNAIDS report. Some estimates run to double that and not all the women who get paid for sex are full-time prostitutes.

Given a 305 baht (US$8.80) a day minimum wage, the chance of earning several times more is an obvious lure, particularly in poorer rural regions.

CRACKDOWN

The latest of many crackdowns in Pattaya happened after foreign newspaper reports last month, which drew an angry response from Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, for whom bringing order is a mantra.

A handful of bars were raided. Bar owners and working women were fined. Scared to venture out, tourists looking for sex stayed in hotels. Street vendors and shops saw sales tumble. The money which flows to all levels in the city – including law enforcement agencies – fell off.

The Happy Zone approach is a softer way to try to show that something is being done. If it works on Walking Street, the idea will be spread to the less sanitised side streets – the sois.

Businesses in the Happy Zone are asked to make the area feel safer, there are increased security patrols, police launched a mobile phone app for visitors to summon them in emergency.

“This is a pioneer project to organise a tourist destination and elevate it to promote Thailand’s quality tourism,” Apichai Krobpetch, chief of Pattaya city police, told Reuters. “We will also stamp out prostitution in the area.”

There was no sign of that at the weekend.

In fact, Pattaya’s sex industry has become an attraction in its own right for the millions of Chinese who make up about one in three visitors to Thailand.

Led by guides with pennants, the Chinese tour groups thread quickly along Walking Street, past the go-go bars and the beer bars where young Thai women sit down with foreign men.

They only pause to take pictures.

“We just came here to see. That’s all,” saleswoman Linda Sieng in a group of 11 tourists from Guaghzhou in southern China.



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Cities and monuments switch off for Earth Hour


PARIS: The Empire State Building and United Nations headquarters in New York joined other iconic buildings and monuments around the world plunging into darkness for sixty minutes on Saturday (Mar 25) to mark Earth Hour and draw attention to climate change.

The Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin, the Acropolis in Athens and Sydney’s Opera House also dimmed their lights as millions of people from some 170 countries and territories were expected to take part in Earth Hour, the annual bid to highlight global warming caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas to drive cars and power plants.

The event, which originated in Sydney, has grown to become a worldwide environmental campaign, celebrated across all continents.

The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) conservation group, which organizes the event, said great strides had been made in highlighting the dire state of the planet.

“We started Earth Hour in 2007 to show leaders that climate change was an issue people cared about,” coordinator Siddarth Das said.

“For that symbolic moment to turn into the global movement it is today, is really humbling and speaks volumes about the powerful role of people in issues that affect their lives.”

In Sydney, many harborside buildings switched off their lights for an hour from 8:30 pm local time as the call for action began rolling out across the world.

“I agree with the concept, 100 percent,” said student Ed Gellert, 24, in Sydney.

“I think people probably avoid the fact that climate change is happening, so it’s good to see the city grouping together to support Earth Hour.”

From Australia, it moved westward through Asia, with many of the skyscrapers ringing Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour going dark in solidarity, while at Myanmar’s most sacred pagoda, the Shwedagon, 10,000 oil lamps were lit to shine a light on climate action.

The lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France’s best-known symbol, were switched off for five minutes at 1930 GMT and the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, went dark for an hour.

London’s Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and London Eye giant wheel followed suit, among 270 British landmarks that switched off.

Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate and its City Hall also plunged into darkness as some 300 other German cities took part in the event.

(Photos: AFP)

In Singapore, around 200 organizations, including buildings along the city-state’s iconic skyline, went black to mark the occasion. Organizers said around 35,000 people watched performances and participated in a “carbon-neutral run” that saw some runners in panda and tiger costumes to raise awareness of wildlife protection.

And in Japan, Tokyo’s famed Sony Building in Ginza extinguished its bright lights to honor the occasion.

Homes and businesses were also asked to join, and individuals could commit to the cause on Facebook.

WWF said teams around the world would use Earth Hour this year to highlight climate issues most relevant to individual countries.

In South Africa, the focus was on renewable energy, while in China, WWF said it was working with businesses to encourage a shift toward more sustainable lifestyles.

VISIBLE PROOF

Last year, scientists recorded the Earth’s hottest temperatures in modern times for the third year in a row.

Nations agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit average global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial temperatures.

That is the level at which many scientists say humankind can still avoid worst-case climate outcomes in terms of rising sea levels, worsening droughts and floods, and increasingly violent superstorms.

“Climate change is visible proof that our actions can have a ripple effect beyond physical borders,” Das said.

“It is up to each of us to ensure the impact we create helps instead to improve the lives of those around us and elsewhere, at present and in the future.”

Earth Hour does not collect global statistics about the energy conserved during the 60-minute blackout, chiefly a symbolic event.



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How Ninja Van's 'smart and ruthlessly aggressive' co-founder hooked a big investor


SINGAPORE: Irked at not being able to find a nice-fitting men’s shirt, Lai Chang Wen ditched his five-figure-salary job as a derivatives trader for the risky retail scene – to build his own menswear brand.

It was a decision his parents thought quite mad at the time. Said Mr Lai’s mother Madam Tan Poh Siang: “It was a real shock. I said: ‘You’re a guy (working) in banking. Why would you want to go into something that is about fashion and tailoring?’”

The answer boiled down to simply this: Mr Lai’s fixation with solving problems.  Even if it was in a field he knew next to nothing about.

“Do you think Chang Wen was interested in fashion?” laughed current business partner Shaun Chong, referring to the blue rubber slippers Mr Lai wore for the interview. “Look at what he’s wearing to the office. At least I wear shoes.”

Marcella, a made-to-measure menswear brand, was started in Mr Lai’s own words “when I couldn’t fit into a shirt well. And I couldn’t afford a nicely tailored shirt”.

Unfortunately, the business – which automated the process of translating clients’ body measurements into paper patterns – quickly ran into problems with unreliable courier services. Deliveries were either delayed or lost.

“When anything went wrong, the customers had no way of reaching out to the couriers. They were stuck at home waiting the whole day just for our parcels. That’s not what e-commerce was meant to be,” he said.

And so, once again, he set his mind to fixing the nub of his frustration – by setting up logistics company Ninja Van in 2014 at the age of 27 with co-founders Mr Chong and Boxian Tan, despite “zero experience” in logistics (“all I knew how to do was to receive parcels,” said Mr Lai).

Ninja Van went on to redefine the industry by enabling next-day door-to-door deliveries for e-commerce firms and their customers, at a time when such services were not yet ubiquitous in Singapore and most had to depend on the postal service.

WATCH: How they did it (2:58)

It has been so successful that it has raised S$45 million from investors so far, including B Capital Group, a venture capital firm whose founding partner is Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

Mr Lai’s journey, and that of Ninja Van, is profiled in Monday’s (March 27) episode of Game Changers, a series about entrepreneurs who reinvent themselves and their industry.

A DO-IT-YOURSELF REVOLUTION

The learning curve was steep and it meant 22-hour work days, sleeping in the office, and even sorting parcels and doing deliveries himself.

“The first few months was hell. Everything was inefficient. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Mr Lai, now 30. 

Still, they didn’t look to hire logistics industry veterans, who would just bring with them “old tricks”.

Instead, the trio was confident they could leverage on their mathematical and technology skills to improve the delivery process. They examined the entire life cycle of a parcel, from the point when it is picked up to when it’s delivered.

Technology and algorithms were used to improve every process – for example, to calculate the best route a driver should take, or which van should be used to deliver a parcel. This means drivers are able to deliver more parcels in an hour while saving on fuel costs.

Existing logistics providers were then still relying on outdated mail-sorting technology, where delivery documents were usually handwritten and tracking of parcels was difficult. But at Ninja Van, staff used their handphones to scan parcels and find out in an instant where the parcel is heading and what should be done with it.

“The only reason we got to where we were is because our technology was much better than the incumbents at that point in time,” said Mr Lai, acknowledging: “But a lot of them have caught up or are close (now).”

Ninja Van also harnesses crowdsourcing during crunch times, where they activate part-time drivers to help them deliver more parcels and in a shorter period of time, easing the load on their existing drivers.

Mr Lai said: “We make our engineers drive to understand how difficult it is operationally. And we make our operations people think of product specifications, and we try to educate them more about technology.

“We tell them that this is a technology company and here, you get your hands dirty.”

FACEBOOK CO-FOUNDER GIVES THUMBS UP

It is this ethos of Mr Lai that helped sway Mr Saverin’s firm to invest in the start-up. Ninja Van received US$30 million in a second round of funding in 2016 from investors including B Capital Group, which will help them expand regionally.

Mr Saverin said: “As soon as I met him, he struck me as a smart and ruthlessly aggressive entrepreneur who would do whatever it takes to get it done.

“The example was just clearly laid in front of me. A mattress on the floor of his office where he would sleep most of the nights, because that’s how hard he worked.”

The billionaire said that Mr Lai was focused on developing the right culture where everyone in the company understood what each other was doing, and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty while doing so.  

He credits Mr Lai for creating real-time tracking in logistics where control is handed back to the consumer, just like what Uber and Grab did for the taxi industry.

Mr Saverin said: “Innovations like Facebook, even in the early days, were not these out-of-the-box brilliant thinking. It was replicating something that existed in the real world.

“So these are the types of businesses that create new markets and drive through real positive change. They’re not destructing, they’re enabling.”

More about Lai Chang Wen’s story on Game Changers on Monday, March 27, at 8pm SG/HK.



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Las Vegas Luxury Homes – Mountain Top in Spanish Hills



Gorgeous custom estate in guard gated Spanish Hills! Features include drive-in courtyard with circular driveway, travertine floors throughout, gourmet kitchen with custom cabinetry, granite, and the finest appliances. Beautiful master suite & custom master bath, office/study, home theater, wine cellar & guest house. Mediterranean style backyard with pool and spa & your own vineyard. Mountain and city views.

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