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Sustainability, a conversation.

Let's start a conversation on sustainability.

Sustainability is a word that we use often, but few of us truly understand what it means to be sustainable. After a whirlwind of tragic world events, one positive is that the world has had some time to recover. Just as we have been gifted with the beauty of nature, we, collectively as a world, have the duty to give back. So, what does that really mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability is defined as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. According to The Datai Langkawi, it means conserving nature’s beauty.

We want to start a conversation on sustainability and what it looks like when you put it into action, let’s say, right in the heart of a 10 million-year-old rainforest. We’re talking about The Datai Langkawi, one of the world’s leading ecotourism resorts. We are speaking to Arnaud Girodon, The Datai Langkawi’s General Manager. He joined the resort in 2014, bringing with him nearly 20 years of experience. After managing luxury hotels in Thailand, Vietnam and Dubai, Arnaud arrived at the hotel intending to re-establish The Datai Langkawi as one of the top resorts in the world. A five-star beach resort on the fringes of an ancient rainforest, The Datai Langkawi is a haven for nature, sustainability and wellness, and its serene setting offers an escape from the every-day. The innovative property holds much-deserved recognition and boasts several awards including Best Hotel Design of The Year and The Best Hotels And Resorts In The World: The 2020 Gold List, Condé Nast Traveler, and most importantly with regard to sustainability, the Green Hotel Certification from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia. Furthermore, The Datai Langkawi is the first organisation in the world to be awarded the EarthCheck ECO Certification for terrestrial (land-based) tourism projects.

One of the main goals in talking to Arnaud is that we want to learn about The Datai Pledge, a sustainability and conservation project that came to fruition after the resort undertook an extensive refurbishment in 2017 and 2018. They took this opportunity to embark on a total rebirth, where they collectively made a promise to grow and progress their sustainability initiatives into a long-term programme, and so, The Datai Pledge was born. Made up of four pillars; Fish for the Future, Wildlife for the Future, Youth for the Future and Pure for the Future, they are now trailblazing the path for sustainable eco-tourism.

The story behind the movement

Firstly, we ask to learn a little more about Irshad Mobarak, whom Arnaud describes as the main inspiration behind The Datai Pledge. It is in fact led by Irshad himself, who is Malaysia’s most renowned naturalist, with over 24 years of professional experience to his name. We listen, fascinated, as Arnaud reveals that Irshad was a former banker and gave it all up to dedicate his career to nature. He also lets us in on the fact that Irshad is a fantastic storyteller. Inspired by past pioneers, he taught himself how he could create a positive impact on the world and began educating others through morning and evening walks in the ancient jungle that surrounds The Datai. Arnaud fondly speaks of Irshad, “he’s another pillar actually, he’s the main inspiration behind The Datai Pledge. It is something that he always wanted to do, he’s been an in-house naturalist for the last, well since we opened really so, you know, 28 years. He gave up everything for it.”

An integral part of The Datai Pledge is looking towards the future. A mission of ground-breaking conservation and sustainability efforts, the four pillars of The Datai Pledge are connected by a strong passion for improving the world we live in today. As Arnaud so eloquently states, we need to start local and start at our level. “That’s what we’ve done with The Datai Pledge, we started where we are… I didn’t want to have a slogan saying save the planet, because it doesn’t really mean anything, it needs to be concrete, it needs to be tangible.” Nearly 50% of Langkawi’s precious natural assets have been lost, and so it is a critical moment in time, where conservation is crucial.

Before we delve into the four pillars of The Datai Pledge, Arnaud explains how it works. The Datai Pledge is a private trust, which partners with four NGOs, one for each pillar. Considerable investment and funding are required to implement the various projects, and the chief contributor to that funding is The Datai Langkawi. Other sources of funding include guest donations, private donors and corporates. “The net contribution of The Datai Pledge, excluding operating expenses, is divided equally amongst our NGO and social enterprise partners to fund their research, conservation and sustainability efforts.”

Pure for the Future: To act responsibly and place sustainability at the heart of The Datai Langkawi’s business operations.

The Datai Langkawi is the first organisation in the world to be awarded the EarthCheck ECO Certification for land-based tourism projects. With the ancient rainforest as their backdrop, it is an added bonus to be constantly rewarded with nature’s triumphs as you usher in a new wave of sustainability and conservation efforts. Starting with Pure for the Future, it is the commitment to reduce the use of natural resources, reduce the carbon footprint and achieve zero waste to the landfill, at which The Datai has achieved up to 93%. Arnaud produces some terrifying numbers, “We basically save 25 tonnes of trash a month, that’s trash saved from going to the landfill. So just imagine, we are one hotel. There are 105 hotels in Langkawi alone, so just do the math. It’s just plain and simple, scary”.

So how do they do it? Well, it begins by separating all of the organic and non-organic waste at the Sorting Centre. Starting with the organic waste, The Datai turns it into compost for the garden’s organic produce. In the permaculture garden, organic herbs and spices are grown and used throughout the hotel. Arnaud lets us know that fruit and veg are enclosed in a separate space – it turns out the monkeys and monitor lizards were getting a little too fond of the vegetables, especially the cherry tomatoes.

Arnaud states it like it is, “A lot of hotels when they talk about their waste to the landfill program, they talk about organic waste…but they don’t talk about what they do with plastic, or rarely. We have initiated a program that is 100% zero waste to the landfill. At the moment we’re only achieving 93% because there are certain elements that we still don’t manage to fully recycle, so we have to use third-party companies to help.” That will soon change, as by the end of this year, The Datai will have acquired a new machine which will enable them to fully claim a 100% zero waste to the landfill program.

So, what happens to non-organic waste? It is upcycled and reused in various ways, whether it is through in-house construction or through the help of local artisans. Guests can also contribute to this inspiring initiative by participating in workshops to make upcycled pieces. Wastewater is purified using aquatic plants at the Wetland Filtration System, and the clean water is then used for irrigation in the garden, as is rainwater. Guests will also notice that there is no single-use plastic anywhere within the hotel, and The Datai has engaged with a local tribe in East Malaysia to produce bamboo straws and reusable baskets. Plastic toiletries have been completely replaced with sustainable bamboo and cornstarch products in paper packaging.

To give us an idea about how tedious waste management can be, Arnaud gives us an example using the humble tea sachet we all have used from a hotel stay. “You have a sachet, where you tear off the packet to open it, so you have one piece of plastic in your right hand and another piece of plastic in your left hand, which you would put into the trash. Then you are left with the teabag, which consists of the tea, bag, thread and sticker. So, for just one sachet of tea, you have five components.” When you start to think of all the sachets of tea we use, as well as all of the various other components from the guest room supplies, it quickly becomes apparent how tedious waste management is. To help make the process easier, The Datai has been rethinking the way we make these products and how we can reduce the steps involved.

The four pillars of The Datai Pledge.

Wildlife for the Future: To protect, restore and reconnect Langkawi’s fragmented forests to ensure wildlife continues to thrive.

Wildlife for the Future aims to protect and restore the natural heritage of the island. Arnaud explains that the main ways The Datai protects wildlife are through reforestation, identifying and establishing a network of wildlife corridors and of course, educating people on the negative impacts we have on wildlife and their natural habitat. It is uplifting to know that even in the early stages, they are already reaping the rewards.

Although reforestation and education programmes will take time to show their effects, the networks of wildlife corridors are already being used by wildlife. Furthermore, working alongside their wildlife NGO, Gaia, The Datai dedicates its efforts to protect the welfare of hornbills. Already, there is clear evidence that the wildlife are making use of the artificial nests placed within the forest. Gaia is also enabling communities to guard nests against poachers, repair tree hollows to make suitable nests and conduct field research.

Fish for the Future: To protect marine life within Datai Bay through the rehabilitation of coral reefs and promotion of sustainable fishing.

Unfortunately, our past actions have resulted in a huge depletion in fish stocks across the world. We cannot deny the current fragility of our oceans and The Datai Pledge is persevering to undo the damage caused. Fish for the Future’s NGO, MareCet, has dedicated themselves to the conservation of marine mammals, with a special focus on the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, Indo-Pacific finless porpoises and dugongs. Guests can contribute to these crucial research projects through educational programs and adoption. Apart from this, the team of Fish for the Future works towards rehabilitating fish stocks, reviving coral reefs, and engages with Langkawi’s fishing community to advocate the benefits of sustainable fishing and the management of marine biodiversity, along with the Department of Fisheries Malaysia.

“Where we’re already seeing rewards is with our fish aggregating device. We plunged five fish aggregating devices in 2019, these are big structures – you’re talking about 5 tonnes each, 3.7 metres high by 3 metres wide, and they’re custom made for the location they sit in, inside the sea. So, from there we’re already seeing a lot of fish moving from the smaller reef to that reef, to make that place their home.”

He tells us a little bit about their coral nursery, where they take dying corals and replant them into the nursery, where they thrive and grow. Once regrown, the corals are transported to these fish aggregating devices as well as to coral frames in the bay, where they’re already starting to spread.

"Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved."
Jane Goodall

Youth for the Future: To promote education programmes on sustainability and nature protection awareness aimed at local youth.

When we ask Arnaud what his favourite part of The Datai Pledge is, he gives us a heart-warming answer; “I would say it is anything to do with guest activities or where guests partake, because at the end of the day, I chose this line of business to create emotion and smiles in guests’ faces, and on top of that, if you can create and do some good, that’s very rewarding.”

What we do today has a direct impact on the youth of tomorrow. For all of our efforts to be worthwhile, it is paramount that we teach young people how to work towards achieving a sustainable lifestyle. Partnering with their NGO, Green Growth Asia Foundation (GGAF), The Datai Pledge responds to the challenges of education through sponsoring two schools in Langkawi, soon to be three. “The sponsoring is together with our dedicated NGO for that program, Green Growth Asia Foundation. They have created a sustainable and conservation curriculum that has been accepted as part of the official curriculum from the Ministry of Education…. It is a worldwide program under the umbrella of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature).” Furthermore, schoolchildren across the schools of Langkawi are welcome to visit The Datai to embark on field tours of various facilities including The Lab, The Nature Centre and Permaculture Garden. “There is a program called Young Reporters for the Environment, that has been created by WWF and Green Growth Asia Foundation, and we’ve already collaborated on creating three videos, all dedicated to sustainability and conservation.”

As part of Pure for the Future, The Datai Pledge does not forget the people of today. Arnaud explains how they give back to the community, by not only donating clothes and food but by helping single mothers and other beneficiaries by providing employment as part of the pioneering movement.

So, what does this mean for the future?

There are various reasons why The Datai Pledge was created, one being that the pledge will be associated with wherever they go. With the objective to create a small portfolio of very exclusive properties in very exclusive destinations, The Datai Pledge will always be a part of any new property, bringing with it its sustainable pillars and philosophies. Arnaud also informs us that the long-term goal is to develop less than 15% of the estate’s land into sustainable tourism, with much larger sustainable facilities onsite to fully achieve zero waste to the landfill. “We also want to continue making an impact on the local community of Langkawi itself.”

It is important not to avoid the elephant in the room, the global pandemic. As The Datai’s Impact Report states, “the global pandemic raised the already critical issue of biodiversity in new ways.” Arnaud recalls the images we were stunned by at the very start of the outbreak, when we saw wild animals roam the streets and “reports surfaced linking biodiversity destruction with the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 and SARS.” The effect and impact we have on the world simply cannot be ignored any longer, and we need to remove the rose-tinted glasses and face the hard facts; our planet has suffered enough. We must safeguard what we have, to protect it for future generations but also to protect the wildlife we share the world with.

Arnaud stresses that the end goal has always been to educate others to follow the trend and start creating a more sustainable world for the future. Nature sits at the very core of our existence, and the beauty we see today will not remain for tomorrow if we do not take action. By educating the world of tomorrow, protecting the world of today and rectifying the mistakes of the past, we can all join in the efforts to make the most of the world we live in. Like Arnaud said, “You need to clean your own doorstep first. And we’ve done a major cleaning!”

OROKO would like to extend a huge thank you to The Datai Langkawi for taking the time to teach us about The Datai Pledge, and of course for taking the responsibility to conserve nature’s beauty. To learn more about The Datai Pledge, please visit https://www.thedatai.com/sustainability/. Partnering with The Datai Langkawi, OROKO offers tailored sustainable holidays and experiences to include this wondrous eco-resort in the heart of the jungle.


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