The Greta Thunbergs of Chiang Mai: young activists pushing for change in Northern Thailand

Lanna Sayles looks at how and why young people are at the forefront of environmental activism in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand.

By | Fri 29 Nov 2019

As a young child, I envisioned my future as bright and sustainable. However, now the future looks bleak and apocalyptic to me — all thanks to a lack of climate action.

During the summer of 2018, I decided to take climate action more seriously when I happened to read a CNN headline “UN: Earth has 12 years to avert climate change catastrophe”. My first reaction was to panic and contemplate my existence. However, that panic soon turned to anger. How could this have happened? I have always picked up litter along the canal and limited my meat consumption and use of plastic. I have seen others keep up their responsibility to be sustainable as well, but yet again we are failed by our leaders and governments.

Most of the fault for climate change can be laid squarely at the doors of large corporations. According to USA Today, Coca-Cola’s plastic packaging was found in the waterways of 42 countries around the world, and that’s just from a single company. Though corporations are a significant part of the climate issue, endless individual consumerism is also an important factor. Thailand and other ASEAN countries have shown increasing examples of rampant consumerism. Consumerism in Thailand is quite evident in everyday life as we return from each trip to 7/11 with far more plastic than necessary. There is an abundance of plastic packaging at local Thai markets as well, though I am happy to note that many of Chiang Mai’s markets are beginning to reduce the amount of plastic packaging normally on offer. But the fact remains that the seven or so billion of us on earth are generating more pollution, contributing to more and more plastic waste, aiding and abetting deforestation, and as an inevitable consequence, causing climate change.

The good news is that Climate Action is on the rise. This rise is mainly due to youth activism and tends to focus on making extra efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also to reinforce the earth’s resilience and its capacity to adapt in the face of climate-based impacts. It is mainly due to youth activism that 2019 saw a global rise in awareness of these issues and a real push for change.

One young activist in particular has inspired hundreds of thousands to take action. You may have heard of her: Greta Thunberg. She’s a sixteen-year old Swedish climate change activist who began a solo strike outside Swedish parliament each Friday instead of attending school. Thunberg’s journey began as recently as August 20th, 2018, but in this short time, hundreds and thousands of students all over the globe have boycotted school every Friday, calling the movement “Fridays for Future”.

Thunburg has also inspired many of us here in Chiang Mai, resulting in a group of youths protesting in front of the Three Kings Monument every Friday. The students stand gallantly, holding signs of protests admonishing certain institutions for their lack of action against climate change. The first Fridays for Future was organised on March 15th, 2019, during the peak of the burning season. Since then, the Fridays for Future events in Chiang Mai have been sporadic. Nonetheless, each protest seems to attract around 60 or so people; not much, but not insignificant.

I decided to talk to one of the local youth leaders, Jessie Luder, a student who attends the Christian German School and who says that she has always taken an interest in human rights and climate change. However, her realisation that simply acknowledging an issue in a passive manner will not resolve anything, has led her to take action. “People still don’t always take you seriously,” she said about her previous efforts to have a conversation about such topics to adults. “Taking to the streets and striking turned out to be more impactful than just solely discussing climate change in the classroom.” Like Jessie, many students around Chiang Mai have shown they want tangible change by regularly attending the strikes as well as by spreading awareness online to inform their peers.

As far as I could find out, such activism has been mainly confined to the international schools, many of which have created student-led sustainability clubs and events. Two examples of international schools promoting activism are Chiang Mai International School’s PLUB (Please Let Us Breath) organisation, and my own school, Prem Tinsulanonda International School’s Green Team. PLUB is a student-led organisation that began in August of this year with the goal of addressing the issue of air pollution in Chiang Mai; to start conversations and to raise awareness among the school’s students, teachers and parents, and hopefully the community at large. PLUB’s members have also attended the Fridays for Future events, but one member did say, “It was a very great event, but when we arrived we were underwhelmed. This event was promoted to all of Chiang Mai, but we felt like the number of people who attended was very low considering how much awareness there was.” They had also noticed a lack of Thai participants: “Considering that this is the Thai people’s country and future, we felt that this was not enough,” she said. I found this staggering. How can change commence if the country’s own citizens don’t care?

Prem’s Green Team has similar goals, regularly organising activities to attempt to alleviate or solve Chiang Mai’s pollution issue. However, the Green Team’s main focus is Chiang Mai’s plastic problem, rather than its air pollution. By now, I am sure we are aware of Thailand’s rampant consumerism and excessive use of plastic. A single trip to 7/11 for an Oishi and bag of crisps inevitably leads you to take home two or more plastic bags, let alone the plastic bottle and crisp bag. Most of these bags and their contents end up in landfills. To combat this, myself and the Green Team have begun collecting plastic bottles donated by students/staff/parents and have used a machine from Germany to grind, melt and mold these plastics into sturdy tiles. The tiles can range from being used as coasters to wall decorations. Though we enjoy the beautiful result of the tiles, The Green Team’s mission is to emphasise the ‘reduce’ aspect in the reduce, reuse and recycle process. Both organisations are brilliant examples of young activists striving for change. To help me and my fellow activists, the contact information for PLUB and The Green Team is listed below. Any communication and/or donation is welcome.

As for the city of Chiang Mai, some stores are trying to be more sustainable: Top’s has implemented a no plastic bag option for the 3rd of every month and Rimping provides and uses biodegradable packing every Wednesday.

But we all know that we still have a long way to go in regard to climate action. However, with the proper support from younger and older generations, young activists like myself can cause proper and meaningful change. Our generation feels that this is an existential crisis and one which will be affecting us in very real ways. Please help us so that we can help the earth.

The Green Team: