Froilan Grate is an environmental educator and zero-waste advocate. He is the Asia Pacific Coordinator for GAIA, president of Mother Earth Foundation in the Philippines, and a founding core member of the global movement Break Free From Plastic. He uses the web as a tool for advocacy and activism, and to reduce the carbon footprint of the environmental movement he champions — putting theory into practice.
I have the privilege of working with grassroots organizations and frontline communities to address the problem of waste and plastic pollution. I have played the role of educator, community organizer and network and movement builder. In all these roles, the web has been instrumental in allowing us to scale our work and our reach.
Meeting with our partners and members in person will always be integral to our work, but the web has allowed us to reach more places and more people, at a faster rate and ensured that we’re able to maximize our limited resources. Most importantly, it has allowed us to live our values: we’re able to do our work but at the same time limit our negative impact on the planet, with less waste and fewer emissions from travel. By eliminating unnecessary travel, wasteful meetings and use of resources (like paper for conferences), we’re able to continue doing the good part without the negative impact on the planet. When we do meet in-person, the web helps us build on these connections even after we’ve gone back to our respective places and work.
Storytelling is integral to this work, building a movement and support for these issues. The web allows us to show stories of solutions in many places in Asia, ensuring that we’re helping change the narrative of Asia being only the source of the problem, particularly on plastic pollution. It is also a powerful tool for democratizing representation — giving space to the voices that are not usually heard. Generating cross-regional support is also facilitated by the web, ensuring that local issues in a particular place are elevated as shared issues where people from other places are able to express solidarity and offer support. It is very important to small grassroots organizations to feel that you are not alone and that you have an entire movement behind you.
One example of this is the Zero Waste Academy, where for the first time we’ve transitioned to an all virtual event. Groups are able to share their experiences and collectively build solutions for issues that are common to many. Another example is the International Zero Waste Cities Conference which is also happening virtually for the first time this year. With the savings from travel we’re able to feature and support more local groups to participate. This has also enabled wider participation from the general public.
During the pandemic, the web has allowed us to continue with the work despite the restrictions around travel and people coming together. It has also exposed foundational iniquities. Access to the web is not uniform across the board, and some of our members, especially the marginalised, have had difficulty transitioning to virtual work. We see groups and people in advanced economies, with better access to the web, able to transition more and groups in poorer countries with less established infrastructure have a more difficult time. This results in a pronounced lack of representation for many marginalised groups, something that can be addressed if the world would work together to ensure universal access to the web is a human right.
Access to the web in the Philippines and many other Asian countries is sadly still very inequitable. While there is a greater appreciation of the power of the web as a source of information, the limited infrastructure that would allow us, especially young people, to access it is still a major stumbling block. Where it is available, cost is another barrier. Discriminatory practices of carriers and service providers, where certain content is favored over others, is something that needs to be addressed. Digital literacy (or lack thereof) is also something that needs focus as those with less experience fall prey to online scams and misinformation.
Digital inequality exacerbates existing economic and social divides. In the context of the pandemic, those without access are not able to participate in the shift to study-from-home setup and are left behind. This leads to a sense of frustration, isolation and adds to the feeling of being the “other” — with devastating consequences. We cannot talk about recovery from the pandemic without ensuring that we are also looking at democratizing digital access. And in these difficult times of social and physical distancing, the web, if used well, could ensure that we all remain connected to one another, and can share common experiences.
If web access was universal, we would be able to realize the full potential of each young person, where a little boy in an island has the same opportunities as the little boy in a big city, and where a little girl could have the confidence to be whatever she dreams to be because she has the resources and the opportunity to learn and be inspired by others who came before her. The web allows for more stories to be shared, and we should never underestimate how these stories inspire young people to be their greatest selves.
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