Cover Baida Hercus, president of the Free Tree Society

The president of Free Tree Society certainly lives by her green philosophy

"I was born in Sabah so my love for nature is in the blood," says Baida Hercus, who set up the Free Tree Society nine years ago to build a healthier and greener Malaysia. In her role as president of the non-profit organisation, she has received an award from Dr Jane Goodall and worked with Greenpeace and Arbor Day Foundation as well as industry-leading brands such as The Body Shop

"As a child, it was a goal to work with these iconic institutions but it's really the little experiences that keep me going day-to-day—from seeing my team get excited about our progress in reforestation to receiving thanks from people we have worked with and those we are guiding towards a more sustainable journey," she adds. Currently, she is focused on changing community values through education and empowering them to take collective action against climate change, rampant pollution and biodiversity loss. 

With the country still under lockdown, her efforts under Free Tree Society have been moved online, delivering virtual talks and workshops. "Did you know that globally, the loss of primary rainforests* has gone up 12 per cent despite the pandemic, and Malaysia has one of highest rates of deforestation in the world. This is bad news for us, which is why we need to make a change!"

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*Data from University of Maryland, published by the World Resource Institute (WRI)

Free Tree Society educates the public on environmental stewardship and environmental awareness, waste management, gardening and biodiversity. How do you implement any of these activities in your personal life? 

I fulfilled a lifelong dream when I bought a hobby farm, called Plateau Farm, and created an off-the-grid, zero-waste, sustainable utopia for my family to live as close to nature as possible with free-range animals and organic produce.

Some days, I have neurotic goats or chickens demanding cuddles and treats inside my house and on others, I have a bounty of homegrown coffee beans roasting in a pan. 

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What else do you do in your personal life that helps the environment? 

Free counselling for friends and family! Everyone is into gardening today and people have questions about how to compost, where to buy the best soil, and so on. My phone is constantly buzzing from such queries. I’m also into re-wilding—planting native species to actively help our Malaysian animals. I’ve been rewarded with many different types of butterflies and birds visiting during lockdown. They are a joy to observe.

Related: Baida Hercus Shares 7 Handy Tips To Grow Your Green Thumb

My husband and I are also rebuilding my great-grandfather's house at our farm in Pahang. It was built in the 1930s but fell into disrepair. We salvaged the best wood which includes the solid and incredibly heavy beams, carved columns, window shutters and balustrades, and transported them from Alor Setar. We call it our zero-waste upcycled home! The house will not be an exact replica as so much was damaged but key elements are being expressed.

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It’s also been a wonderful experience discovering the history of the building from stories from family members—an MCO pastime for the whole, extended family. If you take a look at this photo from 1957, the child at the front is my mother, Datuk Munirah Hamid. In the back row, the adults second and third from left are Datuk Rahmah and Datuk Zakiah Hanum; they are the people who have inspired me to serve the community. 

The house was used as a general's headquarters during Japanese occupation. The family had to move out temporarily during this time. When they returned, they found that the Japanese had lit a fire in the main room to burn documents as they hurriedly left. 

It also won a Best Looking House competition in a pre-Merdeka celebration in 1957, after it was repainted for a family wedding! From the black-and-white photos, the house looked like it could have been painted green and cream.

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Who are environmental activists that you look up to?

Journalists are so uniquely placed to champion sustainability through their ability to reach and inspire. Damian Carrington is the environment editor and journalist at The Guardian, who write factually accurate and educational articles about the environment. He campaigns for institutional change from governments and companies while inspiring people to make changes in their everyday lifestyles. 

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Do you have any tips for people looking to kickstart their green journey? 

People need to rethink what their role in nature is.

It needs to be at the forefront of every decision moving from not causing harm to actively rebuilding our environment and ecosystems. Every individual and household plays a role in climate change, deforestation and pollution. We need to evaluate the way we consume everything—from travel and energy use to the food we eat.

We can change our mindset to grow back greener.

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