As per the 2012 global air quality ranking by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Estonia has the world’s cleanest air. Before you start scratching your head and wondering where Estonia is on the world map, look at the picture on your right and soak in the freshness.
A walking trail through a protected nature reserve along the Ahja River, known as Taevaskoja, the ‘place where Heaven touches the ground’.
Done? Now, let us talk business. As per WHO’s statistics, Estonia, the beautiful Baltic nation, made of a cluster of islands, benefits from its low population density, superior climate conditions and strict control measures on air pollution. Sounds like heaven, does it not? Sorry, we are not offering you a trip to this surreal land on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. What we shall do instead, is introduce you to Erik Bhullar, an Estonian citizen of Indian origin, who will help you understand, as he puts it, “how this little country has achieved so much.” Over to Erik. Yes , that is him in the picture (right) at Sääre, the south-west tip of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island.
Erik-speak on Estonia
The ranking does not come as a surprise, considering that more than 50 per cent of Estonia (around 2.3 million hectares) is covered by forests. But, more than just the statistics, this factoid says a lot about the people of this country.
The connection to the land is integral to Estonian culture and traditions, and is one of the key reasons in my mind why Estonians set such a value to sustainability.
Sense of ownership
The Estonians I have come to appreciate and admire have a sense of ownership, personal responsibility and independence.
Most Estonians decide to do things driven by their own sensibility, rather than being prompted or pushed. They can be stubborn and unyielding, even inexpressive and gloomy in the midst of winter – probably why they like having a passionate and jovial Punjabi guy (me) around! That said, just as still waters run deep, they are thoughtful and can be very perceptive. Their sense of ownership has created a culture that is more resilient and forward-thinking than most.
A great example of this is the ’TeemeÄra’ (’Let’s Do It’) initiative that started in 2008 where 50,000 people volunteered to clean up 10,000 tonnes of garbage dumped illegally on roadsides, forests and towns.
This initiative continues today and has inspired a global movement. No government pushing, no use of subtle force whatsoever by thrusting people with excessive taxes were required. People cleaned up because they wanted to.
Less than a third of the forests in Estonia are protected while the rest are commercially owned or have private owners. Regulations in Estonia exist to ensure sustainability of natural resources. But most Estonians enjoy and take pride in their natural treasures. State Forest Management Centres (RMK) provide a listing of places one can visit within the forests where various facilities are available such as fire/barbecue safe zones, walking trails and the like.
I find Estonians take ownership of and treat not just the environment, but their bodies too like a temple. They are very active sports people. Aside from being home to world-famous athletes, Estonia hosts marathons in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter where both locals and people from nearby countries join in to participate. Fitness is not a fad here, it is a way of life – and they live by the phrase that ’those who sweat in practice do not bleed in battle’.
There is a focus and commitment to mastery and self-improvement I’ve found in the people here that is self-directed. It needs no ‘inspiration’, praise, or cheer – it is unadulterated dedication.
Archery in the woods
Inspiring? Impossible? Wondering why we are telling you about a country so different from ours in its size, culture, ethos? What is your take away here? The fact that any effective action to protect the ‘Environment’ is only possible when the agenda becomes our ‘own’. We have to learn the right lessons. And Estonia can help us with some tips. Right?