In the second of our International Women’s Day features, we speak to Jenny Quinton, founder and project designer of Mui Wo-based Ark Eden, which offers outdoor environmental education classes and camps for kids, and promotes eco schemes for a greener Lantau and Hong Kong.
Tell us a bit about yourself – when did you move to Hong Kong/ Lantau?
I grew up in Cheshire, England, in a lush green valley with a river running through it. That valley is not entirely dissimilar to the beautiful valley I live in now in Lantau. There were not many children where I lived, so I spent most of my days climbing trees and playing in the river with my dogs.
I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 after back-packing around the world, and that was when Lantau ‘claimed’ me. After a few weeks of living in the city, my boyfriend and I decided to check out the islands and we came to Lantau. We arrived at the country park and immediately found three puppies in the rubbish bin. We fed them our sandwiches, and put them in our backpacks. At the top of the mountain, we met someone who said they had an apartment to rent, and so the following Monday we found ourselves moving to Mui Wo.
In those days, on Sundays, the people at the pink temple in Luk Tei Tong used to serve a vegetarian lunch for the elderly. Hundreds of people came to eat. Our Chinese friends asked us if we could help serve food and so we did. What an atmosphere it was on those days! About two months after, the lady who owned the temple asked us if we wanted to see a house. It was a bit far away, but it had a swimming pool. Our eyes lit up. And that is how we found the amazing house that became ‘Ark Eden’ and that I still live in today.
What inspired you to start Ark Eden?
My big wake up call for the environment came after about three years, when I stepped out onto my veranda and saw five fires coming from different directions, with one racing down the mountain behind my house. I put one of my babies in a front sling and one on the back, and gathered all the brooms I could. I raced up the hill, placed my children on rocks and fought the fires until the helicopters came with their water buckets. That was a ‘bad’ Chung Yeung day, and the first of four times I stopped my house from burning down.
That day was the day I became who I am today – I am not sure who that is. An environmentalist? An educationalist? An eco-warrior? A mega tree planter? A person who just keeps on going no matter what? I don’t know.
I wanted to stop the fires, so I found local environmental groups and I joined them. It took me many, many years, but I helped to reduce those fires and planted trees to bring the hills back to life.
As a teacher, I tried to bring this new, passionate environmental me into the schools I taught in, but while I loved teaching, I felt like I could never do enough, and I also felt that ‘environmental education’ just didn’t work inside the classroom. The children needed to go out, but at the time there were only a handful of people running environmental field trips. So I thought, “Well, I could do that!” and resigned from my job. This wasn’t completely sensible, as I was a single mum with two children and school fees to pay. The father of my children (my boyfriend who I came to Hong Kong with) had tragically died, so I was on my own, but it was something I needed to do.
What does Ark Eden do?
I set up Ark Eden in 2006. My living room became a classroom, but everyone spent most of the time in the garden, on the rooftop, in the valley or in the hills. We farmed, planted trees and examined buffalo poo. We cleaned beaches, made compost and visited beautiful places around Lantau. At the same time we took action, writing lots of letters – which we later learned the government threw in the bin – and learned about sustainable solutions.
A few years later, community, religious and corporate groups started to come, and we were able to run a lot more projects – planting more trees, restoring old buildings and doing more advocacy work. We ran permaculture design certificate courses, field study curriculum inquiries, service projects, outdoor camps, conferences, eco-holiday days, work experience, corporate social responsibility projects, leadership training and nature connections. We had a very wide filter – if it was going to help save the planet, then we would do it!
Essentially that is what we are still doing 11 years later, although I would say (sound of horns blaring) that the Ark is heading out.
What do you see as the biggest environmental challenges facing Hong Kong at the moment?
From a Lantau perspective, we needed to redetermine our resolve to stop the island being destroyed, all the buffalo being taken away and all the forests being cut down.
We need a paradigm shift, and to do that we need to put an end to destructive practices in Hong Kong, and change people’s mindsets. We need to push to stop the plans for the mega incinerator off Lantau and the East Lantau Metropolis. Better plans need to be put on the table, such as an integrated zero waste plan for Hong Kong and a vision of a new green economy for Lantau Island. Both of these things take a lot of work.
Right now we are all set on a course of self-destruction with most people completely disregarding the crisis or just throwing green peanuts at the problem. All those who are genuinely striving to do something in Hong Kong are having a tough time. There are a lot of women out there doing this work.
Actually in the world right now, a revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools and the material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs – the brown economy is really dead and gone. The ecological and social crises we presently face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth. Our poor little planet is teetering on the brink. We need to make the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization – the green economy.
What’s next for Ark Eden?
Our plan is to strengthen the advocacy side of Ark Eden. Obviously the programmes must and will go on. It is absolutely vital to expand eco-literacy and to raise capable children and young people, however we need to do more.
We’re about to launch a new website – arkedenonlantau.org – and we’re strengthening our programmes to be more ‘action-oriented.’ For example, if your programme is about habitats, you will take actual action to protect a habitat.
We’re also expanding our holiday eco-days to generate revenue to pay for our advocacy work (roll up, roll up for our Easter camps!), and we will be putting structures in place to raise funds to do this work. My focus will be on creating an alternative plan for Lantau and developing zero waste Hong Kong.
What advice do you have for other women wanting to effect change in Hong Kong?
It is International Women’s Day this Thursday, March 8. I hear many environmentalists say that the key to realising this life-sustaining civilization is through gender equality and women being able to exercise their choices and their wisdom. For the shift to take place, there needs to be a rise in consciousness, and it is often women leading the way on this front, as they will do what is best for the children.
Everything I have done so far – educating children about the environment and instilling a love of nature, planting 33 thousand native trees, creating Ark Eden – has all been quite simply to create a better world for our children and to look after the greater Earth community. I have not really known how to do any of the things I have done; I just started. And now I have started, I am resolved to do everything I can to go all the way.
To all the women on International Women’s Day I would say: Decide today and make a move. Now is your time.
Ark Eden – arkedenonlantau.org