Xyza Cruz Bacani’s work documenting the impact of climate change on the lives of indigenous workers in Indonesia’s palm oil industry continues her long interest in photography as a tool for compassion and understanding of people forgotten in the media. Born in the Philippines, Xyza moved to Hong Kong at the age of 19 to join her mother, a domestic worker who had left home to support her family. While working as a maid for close to a decade, Xyza kept her imagination alive as a voracious reader. She loved to read about the arts: as a young adult, she discovered how artists could bring to life the stories of mistreated and underrepresented communities, often forgotten by the media. She also discovered the power of photography to influence perceptions and understanding of other people, and the discovery changed her life.
After Xyza began shooting street photography and documentary work in Hong Kong, in 2015, she was awarded a Human Rights Fellowship through the Magnum Foundation. The Fellowship is part of an effort to give aspiring photographers from around the world the skills and support to pursue socially conscious photography in their home countries. As a Human Rights Fellow, she spent six weeks studying at New York University. She used her skills to document life in Hong Kong and in the Philippines. Then in 2019, a friend from Indonesia described the severity of climate change in her home county. Xyza started studying the effects of the palm industry on Indonesian farmers and the environment. She pitched her idea for a photographic study of Indonesian palm oil plantations to the Pulitzer Center, who gave her a grant to travel.
About 50 years ago, the Indonesian state claimed large swaths of land and gave them to corporations for the production of palm oil. Acres of lush, forest land were leveled and the soil, packed with preserved organic matter accumulated over millennia, was drained. The rapid deforestation and the emission of greenhouse gases led to irreversible climate change.
Xyza traveled to Kandis, a subdistrict of the province of Riau in Indonesia, where she met the Sakai. The indigenous group once lived a nomadic lifestyle, but now they primarily work as contractual laborers on palm oil plantations. The farmers were earning only $170/month, and many had respiratory and other health issues as a result of air and water pollution. They were required to use tools that put them at risk of severing their limbs. Xyza recalls meeting a farmer named Misnan who had severed his arm and lost his youngest child, a one-year-old girl, to respiratory disease. Xyza knew that she could empower the Sakai community through her photography, so she delved even deeper into her research.
"They were able to relate to me and I could relate to them because we were both Asian,” Xyza says. She was accepted into the community and, through conversations with the farmers, she learned that the chemicals from palm oil mills were being dumped in their local river. This was causing terrible pollution: children who came in contact with the water suffered from diseases like ringworm. Clean water was scarce. Some of the farmers spent 10 percent of their income just to pay for access to clean water. There was increased flooding, drought, landslides and wildfires in the community since the creation of the plantations.
Her sense of responsibility grew: she knew the people of the community were giving her the opportunity to bring their story into the public eye.
“We talk about climate change a lot, but if we don’t put a face on climate change, it’s hard to make it relatable,” Xyza says.
The melting of glaciers may not mean anything to someone who has never seen snow, but seeing a kid suffer from respiratory problems as a result of poor air quality from climate change is more likely to cause concern.
“Words are powerful,” Xyza says, “but if you combine them with photographs, the story becomes more relatable and easier to understand.”
Xyza treasures the opportunities that photography provides for learning. She learns from her subjects, and in turn, her audience learns about them. Because the Sakai do not have access to clean water, she refused to drink clean water while she was there, which meant that she was dehydrated for the majority of the time on assignment.
“Clean water is a human right and everyone should have access to it,” she says. “Experiencing not being able to drink water anytime I want and not having clean water made me much more conscious of how I consume it even when I have an abundant supply of it.”
Her experiences with the Sakai also gave a new appreciation for the sacrifices her mother had once made for Xyza and her siblings. When her mother left her life in the Phillipines and moved to Hong Kong, she dreamed that her children would have the opportunity to pursue their own path in life.
The farmers that she met in Indonesia did not know how to read or write, so it would be very difficult for them to pursue any other life than that of a laborer. Having the freedom to choose her own path in life and pursue photography after moving to Hong Kong was a luxury.
“I know I can’t change the world tomorrow,” she shares, “but I can change someone else’s perception on important issues through my photographs,” she adds. “And that, to me, is remarkable.”
Xyza is passionate about photography projects that center the human experience and create a positive impact on the communities that she photographs. “I know I can’t change the world tomorrow,” she shares, “but I can change someone else’s perception on important issues through my photographs,” she adds. “And that, to me, is remarkable.”
This article for Photo District News was sponsored by Fujifilm.