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Justine Vaz

Justine Vaz is the Executive Director of The Habitat Foundation (THF), the nonprofit arm of The Habitat Group which manages The Habitat Penang Hill, The Nature Discovery Park and A Gateway to The UNESCO Designated Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve. THF has been active since 2017 and is dedicated to advancing environmental conservation and sustainability in the region. Its programme is organised around its pillars of Conservation, Research, Education, Sustainability and Training. Since its establishment, THF has provided strategic grants to numerous projects and causes throughout Malaysia in addition to working on its own Foundation-led initiatives.

The Foundation believes strongly in investing in community-led conservation, habitat restoration as well as sustainable tourism initiatives. Although relatively young, the Foundation leverages on the experience of its managers who are veteran conservation practitioners and have been able to draw upon its extensive network of partners, colleagues, stakeholders, and decision makers for innovative and impactful actions in line with upholding national commitments to addressing climate change and protecting nature.

Justine has degrees in Geographical and Environmental Studies from the University of Adelaide, South Australia. She began her conservation career in Sabah in the mid-90s where she wrote a guide to the (then) little known, Kinabatangan Floodplain. She later worked on developing dossiers for several proposed protected areas in Sabah. In the Upper Padas, she worked with the remote communities to safeguard forest and establish village tourism programmes. Throughout her career, she has continued to work on strengthening the management and sustainable financing of Malaysia’s protected areas, and advocating for greater recognition of community-conserved areas and OECMs (Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures). She is a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

In her home state of Selangor, together with other residents, she founded the Kota Damansara Community Forest Society in 2011 to partner the government in managing the newly gazetted 800 acre Forest Reserve which had been established following a prolonged public campaign. Society members work on a voluntary basis to support public access for nature education and recreation, while upholding its conservation role. It is a model of public participation which has inspired other like-minded community groups to protect and advocate for nature.

Long before impact, is the quiet, personal decision not to look away and to pursue what is right and needful. Each of us has access to this decision. And with this comes transformations within your sphere of influence. With the challenges of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss, we are in the fight of our lives. We need millions of these transformations, in ever enlarging spheres, and ideally, with courageous commitments from those with greater power and influence than us. Change comes when we resolve that action is not someone elses responsibility.

Making an impact’ is having the courage to use one’s voice and platform to champion what is right and true whatever the outcome. In Malaysia, we know that nature is critical to human well being and our nation’s ability to face an uncertain future, yet we lose ground to short term objectives and magical thinking of an infinite earth.

It is not too late to turn the tide but this cannot be done alone – a critical mass of informed people from all segments of society and from all sectors must come together to bring about this change.

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