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Creating a Business out of Environmental Protection: An Interview with the Founders of Camphora

For our first blogpost, the outreach team sat down with the founders of Camphora to find out more about how and why Camphora was started, their views on the business of doing EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) and what they like about working in conservation.



Sylvia: Can you guys tell us a bit about how and why Camphora was started?


Derek: I left NParks a day before my 10th year anniversary of working there. I didn't set up my own firm immediately, I actually changed professions for a while, went into hedge fund management. That didn't work out because you know, they put me in front of six screens and I fell asleep while the market moved away from me. It turns out that I wasn't at all good at trading, but I had a boss who was developing a condo at Bukit Timah and needed someone to assess the trees. I went out and did the job, and that’s how the arboriculture consulting business started.


Eventually we went into ecology (floristic and faunistic surveys) so that we could emphasize on the important stuff – for example, which biodiversity findings are significant, what kind of construction works will have major impacts on biodiversity, and what specific recommendations to provide to mitigate impacts of development on biodiversity. So when we started, we had this basis of doing the surveys properly, despite people telling us that we didn’t need to put in so much effort. Eventually, we managed to gain traction for the credibility and the scientific rigor of the work that we do.


Chih Min: For me, the turning point came when an environmental consulting firm approached me for a consultancy job. I was asked to look at their plant selection and planting plans, to look at existing trees and evaluate how their designs can help to conserve more trees. And that gave me the thought that, finally, I have something that will allow me to do what I like to do, which is studying plants, and to link it to something concrete, which is guiding people on how they might design or plan for the land usage.


Sylvia: Did you guys ever consider doing this in a non-profit manner? Why did the both of you not end up going into non-profit conservation in Singapore instead?


Derek: When we decided to go down this path, we had to decide on where we wanted to be in this whole process (of helping to fight for conservation of Singapore’s habitats). The question was, how can we influence land-use decisions? And if you join the developer’s side, you can influence the design from their end. I figured that, if I want to be in a position to influence, I have to do this consultancy.


Chih Min: I think in the conservation sector or nature groups, there are a lot more passionate people who care about more specific faunal or floral groups, and not necessarily biodiversity as a whole. So I guess a lot of what we do has to be more data-based and holistic. When it comes to the big issues, I think there needs to be a more holistic overview instead of only looking at specific taxonomic groups or types of ecosystems.


Sylvia: What keeps you going in this job? What are the things that you like about this line of work and the work that we do at Camphora?


Chih Min: I like the outdoors and not the indoors! I enjoy the baseline collection (going for field surveys). I much prefer that to report generation, going for meetings, determining impact assessments.


Derek: I also enjoy doing site work, but what I really like about this job is the dynamic team that we are working in. When you have all these people who enjoy and do things differently, when they come together, you have this spectrum of ideas and opinions and listening to that is actually quite interesting. It adds fuel and drive.


What I don't Iike is the working hours. We are trying to solve important questions, and that requires a certain amount of work to be put in. The downside is definitely the amount of work that we have to put in to maintain our standard of generating data-based solutions.


Ariana: What is your vision for the future of Camphora and for Singapore’s environment?


Chih Min: The vision for Camphora is for everyone to set up their own independent companies, we come together and do work as a team.


Derek: In terms of the industry, I think for the last 10 years, we've been trying to influence how the EIA (environmental impact assessment) process is changing. I hope that EIAs will be legislated in some form or another, and that NParks can become an independent assessor for EIAs.


We also need to focus more on habitat enhancement and creation strategies. This will require cross-discipline learning and coming out with details (of habitat enhancement and creation strategies) that can be translated empirically on site. This should not only include things like what kind of culverts are appropriate for ground dwelling mammals, the design of arboreal crossings, how to implement such designs but also things on a larger scale like using carbon accounting or biodiversity net gain to measure the effects of compensation measures on and offsite.


Ariana: What about Chih Min, how do you think Camphora can help to shift things in a certain direction that you want the sector to go?


Chih Min: For me, what’s next is actually the education, the sharing to make people understand the importance of what we do and of biodiversity in Singapore. There is no doubt that things like EIAs have become more structured over the years. But yeah, a lot of people still don't know about how EIAs are run, how they contribute towards conservation of biodiversity, [or] why Singapore’s biodiversity is so important. So I think that if more people can understand this whole process, it will help us move to another standard in terms of how biodiversity is valued, and the kinds of mitigation measures we propose to reduce development impacts on biodiversity.


Ariana: Who do you is the most valuable group to try to reach with environmental education?


Chih Min: I think it is those who are involved in master planning. As we work with contractors and the other people working on the ground, I think in order to really make change and to make change faster the master planning needs to be done with biodiversity in mind.


Ariana: Do you think Singapore will ever run out of land to develop? What would happen then to Camphora and to Singapore?


Chih Min: I think that's a mindset thing. My dream is that one day, everyone will realize they can no longer cut down any more trees, and they just have to make use of whatever space they have, be it making your house a little bit smaller, to adapt. I hope the notion that this land is cheap, so I can just cut down the forest and build on it, will change. That is what I think is happening now – that people choose to cut down forests rather than to find solutions to avoid cutting down forests. So we shouldn't run out of land. I don't think so. How people should actually use and value the land and what's on it will hopefully change.


Derek: In terms of what will happen to Camphora, I don’t think there’ll be less jobs for us to do. With climate change, the work in coming up with adaptive pathways for Singapore will come in.


Sylvia: What kind of climate change work do you think or want Camphora to be involved in?


Derek: We can design adaptive pathways, for example proposing locations to create a mangrove or estuarine habitat, and how to do it while taking into account hydrology requirements and engineering restrictions. We can come up with solutions for how to buffer our existing habitats against climate change effects like sea-level rise, while also looking at where and how to re-establish habitats like mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass patches that may be wiped out.


Sylvia: So the last question is from someone on the team: If you guys had to choose a plant to represent yourself, what plant would you choose and why?


Derek: The Camphor tree. Camphora is named after the Camphor, which is also Totoro's tree. I grew up liking anime a lot, and I really like Totoro for many reasons, because it's a story about a combination of nature, magic and innocence. And the Camphor tree is also a beautiful, resilient tree.


Chih Min: Maybe the sea almond, because it represents my childhood. I had a big sea almond tree outside my kampung house, and every year the leaves would turn red and drop onto the ground. I wouldn't say it really represents me, but it's something that always comes to my mind. And whenever I see a sea almond tree, I'm very happy – although you might hear me say the same thing whenever I come across any other plant species.

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