Wasting richness, 90.9 x 65.1 cm, ink on paper, 2020

How Asian-Pacific Islanders Shaped Environmental Activism



For The Frontline, a young Asian-American environmental justice organizer reflects on the history of her community—and the work that lies ahead.

Buddhist, Hakka, and Aboriginal Taiwanese cosmologies have always played a key role in my understanding of environmentalism and in shaping my activism. I vividly remember my mother communicating with the spirits of the trees in our yard before she’d trim their branches. But growing up in Texas, I rarely saw Asian-Pacific climate leaders reflected in textbooks, stories, and media. Instead, I was shown white scientists seeking to protect polar bears from extinction.  


The Asian-Pacific community, however, has played a critical role in advancing environmental and climate justice—even if its knowledge and leadership are often disregarded. From the 48 countries across Asia to the more than a thousand ethnic groups across Oceania, countless resistance stories can be found. As we work toward global climate solutions, we need to learn from the traditional knowledge that these communities hold—and their centuries of experience fighting colonialism, capitalism, and the climate crisis. After all, they are the ones on the frontlines of the climate crisis, exposed to toxic pollution, heat waves, typhoons, and cyclones.


It wasn’t until my late teens that I learned about the racist origins of the environmental movement and the ways Asian-Pacific communities have helped center justice. As I got more involved in grassroots organizing, I began exploring stories of my people’s legacy in the movement.

“We believe that ourselves and the forest are like a joint united entity instead of two separate things.”

Laetania Belai Djandam
Indonesian and Dayak climate activist

In 1965, Filipino-American labor activist Larry Itliong organized a strike of over 2,000 Filipino-American farmworkers fighting for better wages and working conditions, including regulating pesticides that hurt workers’ health and the environment. After five years of striking, they secured higher wages, benefits, and regulations. This connection between workers’ rights and environmental injustice remains a key contribution of Asian-American communities. 


In 1987, Chinese-American activist-scientist Charles Lee oversaw a 1987 study on toxic waste and race in the U.S., the first empirical study to uncover environmental racism at a national level. Then, four years later, he led the organizing of a convening in Washington, D.C., where U.S. leaders of color formally established the environmental justice movement


The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, better known as APEN, was born out of that 1991 gathering. By 1993, Laotian refugees helped formalize the network in Richmond, California, to fight against pollution—particularly a Chevron refinery nearby. In 2016, APEN successfully pushed the state to pass legislation to mitigate carbon pollution. In 2018, the group saw Chevron pay a $5 million settlement to the city of Richmond for one of many refinery fires. 


In Hawaii, revolutionary leader Mililani Trask has been fighting for Native Hawaiian sovereignty and, thus, a return to Indigenous stewardship of the land instead of the extractive economy the U.S. empire imposed upon its colonies. The fight for independence and protection of sacred mountains and water remains strong in Hawaii


Now, Asian-Pacific youth follow in the footsteps of their elders by building international solidarity within the climate justice movement. This was particularly clear at COP27, the international climate summit that took place in Egypt in November. There, I met so many Asian-Pacific youth advocating for their communities, whether through negotiations, protests, or storytelling.  

One leader is Indonesian and Dayak activist Laetania Belai Djandam, who serves as an associate board chair for Health In Harmony, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting rainforests everywhere. I first met her at a COP27 panel on Asian-Pacific youth leadership, and her poignant demands for climate justice stuck with me. We met up again at the Children and Youth Pavilion where thousands of people ran around us. Amid the chaos and energy, we sat on the floor to connect and share stories. 


Djandam shared with me that for her Dayak Tribe, who are Indigenous to Borneo Island in the Pacific, the forest is central to their culture and identity. “We believe that ourselves and the forest are like a joint united entity instead of two separate things,” she said. “It’s really important for the Dayak people to be at the forefront of forest protection and any negotiations and policies that have to do with our territories.” 


That’s why Djandam was attending the climate negotiations—to call for investments in community-led solutions. The Indonesian government often comes in with top-down, corporate-first approaches that don’t recognize the expertise of locals. This is part of a historical pattern: the delegitimizing of Indigenous science, community knowledge, and activist expertise by those in power. Right now, the communities Djandam works with urgently need government leaders to listen. On Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo Island, crops can’t grow due to devastating palm oil cultivation that has displaced families and cleared forests.

“We aren’t given a lot of space at all, especially at the international table.”

Mina Flores-Cantrell
Chamorro and Okinawan activist

This is what happens when governments and international bodies like the U.N. exclude Indigenous voices from participating in events like COP27 as negotiators, a role only afforded to representatives of nation-states despite Indigenous and tribal nations being sovereign, too. Still, Djandam was clear: “Representation is not enough.” Not if it comes without meaningful participation in political decision-making processes. 


The goal should be to center radical activists from communities that are most impacted and to learn from their histories and cultures. That’s where radical listening comes in, an approach Djandam uses. “We lead by listening to the communities, and we call it radical listening, not because it’s radical for the communities, but [because] it’s radical for us who are listening and facilitating because we are doing it with radical love, empathy, and respect,” she explained. World leaders need this type of active and loving listening to truly understand the issues at hand and implement solutions instead of tokenizing marginalized voices while ignoring their messages. 


While in an official meeting with U.S negotiators, I met another incredible young leader: Mina Flores-Cantrell, a Chamorro and Okinawan activist who works with the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance and founded Numa’lo Refillery, the first zero-waste and refill store in Guåhan, also known as Guam. Living there, Flores-Cantrell experiences the climate crisis directly through surviving extreme heat and severe storms, as well as witnessing coral loss and sea level rise. She also sees the consequences of the U.S. military firsthand. 


The U.S. military is the largest polluter on Earth. After years of resistance from local Okinawan communities protesting patterns of sexual assault and environmental harm, the military is relocating 5,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam by building a new base and firing range. The construction of a new firing range complex will result in the loss of more than 1,000 acres of limestone forest. It’ll also threaten ancient villages and the island’s primary source of drinking water.

Flores-Cantrell was at COP27 to advocate on behalf of her community. As a U.S. territory, Guam does not have a negotiator. She spoke to leaders, negotiators, and civil society about the need for demilitarization, traditional knowledge, community-based solutions, and Indigenous rights and sovereignty. 


“We aren’t given a lot of space at all, especially at the international table,” she said, speaking of Guam. 


Flores-Cantrell’s identity grounds her activism. “In my Chamorro culture, we’re called Taotao Tåno’, which means people of the land, and our ancestors are living land and water.” These aren’t resources to be exploited—these are family. It’s a worldview that governments should adopt if they want a habitable planet for future generations. 


“Anything that happens to our lands and waters is direct,” Flores-Cantrell said. “It’s trauma—it’s an emotional burden for us.” Today, across Asia and the Pacific Islands, environmental injustice is directly tied to colonization and the U.S. military presence. Outside of her organizing, Flores-Cantrell is imagining new realities by asking questions. What would life look like here without a military presence? How can we visualize a peaceful life? 


She envisions walking out of her home into a garden and the ocean. To be able to pray to her ancestors and have family over for food and stories.


This is not currently possible: the military has destroyed her people’s homes, farmlands, sacred sites, and beaches. It continues to threaten the community through plans to blow up toxic military waste. For governments, the climate negotiations at COP27 are simply words in a document. For frontline communities, these are decisions that impact their lives and lands. 


Fatemah Sultan, a climate justice activist from Pakistan with Fridays for Future, echoes that sentiment: “We are not here talking about the loss and damages of tomorrow. We are talking about the ones from my yesterday, my today, and my tomorrow.” 


We hold the answers. We must look toward our ancestors who survived genocides and colonization. We should learn from history to build solidarity through storytelling. We must connect to our cultural roots.  


Many solutions exist in the myriad Asian-Pacific communities and cultures. It’s time we listen. “Listen to the pain, the generations of trauma, and the desperation and urgency in my story,” Flores-Cantrell said. 


It’s time to radically listen.

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,