As a child, environmental activist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil used to wander in the forests and trails along rivers, as she loved being in the company of mother nature.
And it was her passion and love for the environment that would eventually guide her to her present role as the president of environmental defenders group, Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka).
“It’s just in me, in my blood I think. Since young I’ve always loved mother nature, and being in nature always makes me happy,” said Shariffa during an interview with Malaysiakini.
The Peka president, who was born in Penang, said she used to spend her time trekking on Penang Hill and the Youth Park, as well as walking along the island’s many beaches.
“I believe that being with mother nature will make you positive in mind and I can feel the happiness in me when I’m with mother nature,” she said.
And it was her fond memories of nature that spurred Shariffa to establish Peka in 2010, to take action against activities that are harming the environment, after witnessing the drastic deforestation and the despoiling of our once pristine rivers.
“I established Peka in 2010 because I have seen forests being destroyed which made me want to start an NGO as a platform for me to talk and share my experience,” Shariffa said.
However, she was not always known as an environmental activist.
Not your typical ‘Puan Sri’
Even before she became a ‘Puan Sri’ in 2007, Shariffa was already a certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor, and ran her own string of cafes, restaurants, fitness centres and eco-resorts, something she continued to do until today.
She established the Tanah Aina Resorts in Pahang and Johor, soon after founding Peka to help more people understand about Malaysia’s magnificent flora and fauna, hoping to connect them to mother nature.
“I started the resort so that people can understand the flora and fauna and know how the trees give us oxygen and hold the water, and understand different species of trees and plants in the forest,” she said.
Shariffa also said that she is looking into expanding her ecotourism business to Terengganu and Perak but she will have to receive approval from the respective state governments.
Tanah Aina and other conservation projects by Peka, she added, are aimed to create environmental awareness among the people and encourage the younger generation to enjoy and respect mother nature.
Shariffa said protecting the rivers and ensuring access to clean water source are the environmental causes that she fights for the most.
“I have seen, with my own eyes, how rivers have disappeared or became shallow and how waterfalls have dried up,” she added.
Taking the initiative in establishing the organisation and fighting for the environment, Shariffa decided to put her Puan Sri title aside.
“I have the choice to be like other Puan Sris and enjoy life, go shopping, travelling and have high-tea, but I chose to fight for the environment because I believe that it is the best thing you can do in life,” she said.
When questioned about her elite status in the society, Shariffa denied that she utilises her connections as a Puan Sri although her husband Syed Mohd Yusof Syed Nasir has a close relationship with the Sultan of Selangor.
She said that her status as a Puan Sri has in fact made it more difficult for her to be more effective as an environmental activist, as her high profile can attract the wrong kind of attention.
“Sometimes I feel that the more I speak, the more they (authorities) will destroy what I want to convey,” she said.
Authorities making preservation difficult
In an effort to stop activities that are harmful to the environment, Shariffa said that Peka had sent letters of protest and memorandum to authorities but often stymied as land and natural resource administration are run differently in the various states, and not under central federal control.
“What I can see is that every state has their own power and they can do whatever they like, depending on the leader of those states.”
And while there are difficulties that the organisation faced externally, Shariffa admitted that sometimes, even she questions if her efforts in helping to promote environmental conservation does any good at all.
“I also wonder why it is hard for me to make people understand the importance of preserving our nature,” she said.
Apart from the bureaucratic stonewall from authorities, Shariffa also came face-to-face with more direct obstacles in her fight. For example, she and a personal assistant were arrested by police in December last year after exposing logging activities in a permanent forest reserve in Johor, which was deemed as insulting the Sultan of Johor.
“The arrest was very shocking to me and the nation,” she said, though declined to comment further, as she will be attending another hearing on the matter in March.
Despite facing challenges, Shariffa said that Peka had received positive responses from several state governments in its initiatives to preserve the rainforests.
“I think at the moment, Terengganu and Perak had been more responsive as they have expanded their forest reserves and they take care of their forests,” she said.
She said the state governments of Kelantan and Pahang, however, are less than exemplary caretakers of their forests, which had led to the interlinked problems of deforestation and floods.
Shariffa urged the state governments to preserve their forests if they love their people.
“As leaders of the country or the states, they should do something together in preserving the flora and fauna if they love the treasures of nature, love their people and do not want their people to suffer.”
Rating the state of Malaysia’s environment at less than five out of 10, Shariffa thinks that it is not too late to start preserving the forests now if the leaders and people are united.
“Nothing is impossible because things can be done successfully if we believe that deforestation is wrong and we are united to go against it,” she stressed.