Interview with Wael Hmaidan
Wael Hmaidan is the Executive Director of IndyAct (www.indyact.org). Manuela Paraipan of WSN recently spoke with him.
WSN: Wael, I know IndyAct works on several issues. What can you tell me about it?
WAEL HMAIDAN: We work on environmental, social and cultural issues by supporting individuals. We are not doing it financially but in terms of training, capacity building, providing logistical help, specialists, volunteers, office space, legal specialists, campaign specialists etc.
WSN: Who funds IndyAct? Where do you get your money?
WH: From donors, well-off Lebanese donors and foundations. We are also investigating other means of obtaining funds. The only criteria is that we want to keep our independence, meaning that we cannot take money from let's say British Petroleum and then claim we fight climate change.
WSN: Are you working with any of the state institutions?
WH: It depends on the campaign. If I have a campaign where I want to stop some type of abuse and the government is with me, fine. If it’s against me, then I'll attack the government. We are an advocacy organization that believes in a strong position and direct action. Our expertise is non-violent action and media pressure. This is how we work. In these actions you don't gain many friends, but we are always ready to cooperate with anyone who shares our interests.
WSN: What projects are you working on?
WH: At the moment we have several campaigns. We have a cultural campaign where we support local, emerging artists. Last week we published a book for a local poet. It is her first book and we organized the event and the media came. Basically we gave her exposure and now we’re helping her sell the book.
WSN: It sounds great.
WH: We are also supporting a few local artists who are working at a comic magazine. In the Arab world we are suffering on the cultural scene and we are doing what we can in this respect. We believe culture is essential to shape a society. It exposes us to new things and it opens our minds.
WSN: What about the social program?
WH: We have two campaigns. One is called IndyWomen and the other is IndyYouth. One is designed to promote women rights and the other to promote the rights of youth.
Through IndyWomen, we are trying to address the taboos in the society, like rape and domestic violence. Women here think that they have all rights because they can dress the way they want and they can go out. However, when they get married and get into trouble they start asking, where are our rights?
WSN: I know women who say the legal system discriminates against women.
WH: It is true. There are problems with the law. But first we want to empower women to fight for their rights. We are creating a feminist movement. We believe that such a movement is necessary in order to encourage women to fight for their rights.
IndyYouth is a program where we support youth under the age of 18, mainly between 10 and 18 years old. We are training the young people to campaign. We bring them together and they tell us what they want to be called, like IndyYouth tigers and what campaign they want to do.
We bring them into a camp and teach them how to organize themselves, how to put together a campaign, how to organize a press conference and so on. We let them choose the topic. Let's say they want to change the light bulbs in the school into energy efficient ones, or there is a factory in their neighborhood that raises pollution concerns and they want to stop it, etc. We help them but they are the ones who run the show. If the media calls and asks about their projects, I tell them to go and talk to them. When you see a 15 year-old fighting for his or her rights, it is inspiring for the grownups. At this age, their mentality is being shaped. What is happening nowadays with youth is either they want to just make money and go have fun or they join the political parties.
WSN: That young?
WH: It starts with their parents and extended family. So by creating this new trend, they get attached to it and start thinking that maybe it’s worth helping the society as an environmentalist or a social/cultural activist. It inspires both the youth and the grown ups. The greatest challenge in today's society is to create a healthy social environment away from politics. The youngsters come together every year and they train together and share ideas about possible campaigns or talk about what they already did. They cooperate and the fact that they are of different religions and different backgrounds doesn't matter anymore. You cannot just put them at one place and hope they'll be friends. It does not work like that. They need to have something new in common.
WSN: What about the campaigns you do on environment?
WH: The climate change campaign is really important. It is a global issue, and the Arab world has an important role to play because we are a main source of oil. The oil producing countries are the ones that are blocking the climate negotiations in the UN. We have this campaign and we are trying to create a climate movement in the Arab world. We are doing well in this respect. We have partners in Egypt, Morocco, Dubai, Syria, and Jordan and even in Palestine. We also worked last year on the oil spill, and we have a campaign against industry waste. This may be less of a problem in Europe, but we have toxics everywhere here. This is one of our priorities. We are also representatives of GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives). We are in charge of the Arab world. We need a treaty for this issue. But for a treaty you need to have the support of all countries, or you won't have it. The main countries blocking it are the US, Australia and important oil-rich producing countries like Saudi Arabia. People don't talk about it. The Saudis are as damaging as the US. We felt at IndyAct that we need to inform the world about this. If people don't know about it, this does not mean that its not there.
WSN: I did not know about the Saudis. What else can you tell me?
WH: Saudi Arabia is part of Kyoto. It is not outside like the US. Therefore, Saudi Arabia can influence the text and even block it. Kyoto forces only the developed countries to take measures but since Saudi Arabia has the status of an underdeveloped country it is not obliged to do anything. Take as an example the last international report on climate change. They produce an impact study every 7 years. The Saudis blocked important information saying that the report will not come out until certain paragraphs were removed or altered. Remember that these are UN reports. Countries have to agree on them before they are released.
In Saudi Arabia, no one talks about it. There is no civil society there. The international organizations would rather focus on Europe or the US where they have connections and where they know how to operate. Countries that would dare to stop the Saudis risk having problems with OPEC. We feel it is our responsibility to raise awareness about such maneuvers because no one else will do it. For that we need to start a climate debate. Let's start with Lebanon. What is Lebanon's position on this topic? There is no position. Why? Because Saudi Arabia controls the Arab League and Lebanon follows the Arab League’s lead. Each Arab country should have its own position on the issue.
For this to happen, people have to feel this is an important matter that has a direct impact on their lives. If you don't see the problem you won't fight for a solution. In the coming years we will strongly advocate through media and other means to try to connect the impact of climate change to people. We have professors in the American University of Beirut doing scholarly research, we have a documentary and there are important advertising agencies helping us to create a strong campaign.
WSN: Do you expect any support from the Lebanese government?
WH: Saudi Arabia is giving a lot of aid to Lebanon so even if the government is sympathetic and would like to support us it won't do so if this would endanger the relationship with the Kingdom. But if they want to help, I would be more than happy. Will they take the right position or a political position? We know what is right and we cannot compromise.
WSN: What about the oil spill of last year? Was it in Tripoli?
WH: No, it was along the Lebanese coast. It happened in the middle of the war. It was a difficult situation and we understood that we couldn’t start to clean immediately, although we wanted to. After the war the environment minister had a meeting with the NGOs. He said they needed only two months to make the assessments and then they would clean up the area. It made no sense. We have done the assessments and there was no need for another round. It is a disaster and you have to contain it.
They could have done assessments while cleaning if they had wanted to. We did not agree with the minister and asked why weren't they ready? Something had to be done. However, we did not have money to do the cleanup and this is something the professionals should do. With our experts we decided to go and clean 50 meters, to inspire others – including the government - to do the same. We got permission from the ministry to do it. When we went there, the minister sent people to stop us. So we had a clash. We talked to the media about this situation and the minister allowed us to continue. Other NGOs followed our example. We started this process. Afterwards we monitored it. We acted as a watchdog to see what was being done wrong. Some took the oil only to dump it into the sea.
WSN: Really? There were such operations?
WH: We managed to stop several bad practices. The biggest issue is with the collected oil. It was put in bags and containers and left on the beach. We raised this issue last summer but the political situation did not allow us to highlight it enough to make a change. Plus we don't have a minister of environment anymore. Yaacoub Sarraf resigned and the government is paralyzed. Now we are waiting for the presidential elections to take place and after that we will solve this issue.
WSN: Will the bags stay on the beach?
WH: There is always a chance they will go back to the sea and all the work we've done will have been in vain. It could be like this. We have already seen empty bags in the sea.
WSN: Can’t you ask for help from the EU or from some other international actors?
WH: With this tense political situation, not even the EU will listen. The bags have been there for a year now and we can wait a little bit longer. Clearly this is a priority but there is nothing we can do now. There is hope to solve it in October or November. It’s actually easy. The government has to send some trucks and take it away. The ministry has two storage areas. They just need few thousand dollars to get the trucks to transport the containers.
WSN: Earlier you mentioned a documentary on climate. Are you already working on it?
WH: We are doing a Future TV reality show now that is broadcast via satellite. We work on an environmental issue and the camera follows us and captures everything. At present we have 25 episodes. The show is 5 minutes every Sunday morning. But we will soon extend this to 30 minutes on Tuesday nights, prime time. Maybe it is the first environmental reality show in the world. I don't know. However, it is for sure the first in the Arab world. I am the host of the program and the co-producer. We are glad it is a successful project.
WSN: You have something on the radio too?
WH: There is one local radio station that is asking for 1-2 hour show and one of our activists is in charge of it.
We want to go and live with the tribes in North Africa for one month and see first hand how climate change influences people’s lives. Even if the Arabs were to suddenly see polar bears and ice they would not be moved. They need to see something related to them. Here you need to talk about water, agriculture and how all of this can be destroyed. This documentary will be similar to Al Gore's movie but designed for the Arab world. What Gore did was for the American public and people here are not interested in it.
WSN: Good luck Wael and thank you.