I am closing in on having spent the last 17 years teaching wildlife ecology and conservation Biology to an ever growing student body at Deakin University in Australia. It is interesting to reflect upon how things have changed and to think about what we need to be doing in the future for students of conservation.
There is no doubt in my mind that getting students into the field and exposing them to the skills they need to survive in the future as conservation biologists is absolutely critical (a discussion on field learning is for another day). In the last 10 years, however, I have also felt that students need to understand the issues around conservation from a more Global perspective.
So many of the issues we face together on this planet are global by nature, but are students of conservation prepared to face the challenges on a global stage? I can hear you groaning, but stick with me here 🙂
We discuss teaching students from a global perspective, we incorporate international examples in our teaching, but do we really teach students to understand the roles of culture, economics, religion etc that provide the local context in which conservation is conducted in different parts of the world? I suspect we probably don’t.
And then comes the question, can we do this from our safe western based class rooms, or do we need to immerse our students in different cultural contexts to allow them to understand the challenges of doing conservation in a different place?
Certainly for me, I felt the one thing we could not easily teach conservation students in Australia was how to view situations through the eyes of a different culture. In fact, I was fairly certain the best thing we could do for our conservation students was to take them outside Australia and visit our Asian neighbors.
At this point, it helped greatly to have a supportive Head of School, who himself was Chinese, who shared a similar view point and was willing to back a little bit of an experiment, and ultimately take a punt.
So six years ago we started planning to take a small group of our environmental science students to Asia to focus on conservation and environmental sustainability from an Asian perspective, and in 2011 we headed to Taiwan for 3 weeks. Taiwan was a really interesting place, a similar population to Australia, a similar GDP, a similar proportion of indigenous people, in an area approximately half the size of Australia. We explored the country, looked at issues associated with protected areas, indigenous land management, eco-tourism and urban planning and sustainability. It was really interesting, and the students found it really challenging.
The big lesson we learned during the process was that our students wear rose coloured glasses when reflecting on Australia. Note to self for future years, students need to do pre-departure study to compare and contrast Australia with their destination.
Students were surprised to see commercial exploitation within National Parks, but equally saddened to see indigenous peoples moved out of areas to establish protected areas.
For various reasons, we decided to up the challenge level and take the tour to Malaysian Borneo, and this year will be our 4th trip back. There is no doubt that Borneo typifies the issues associated with tropical forests the world over.
Exploitation of timber, deforestation and transformation to oil palm, major hydro-electric power projects, massive species declines, and significant pressures placed on indigenous communities (sound familiar?).
I suspect to our students the issue of oil palm led deforestation is at the fore front of all of their thoughts. They have grown up on campaigns to buy non-palm oil products etc.
But what happens when you get to a country that heavily relies on palm oil for their economic development? Well first there is shock! “Why do they not understand what they are doing to their environment?”. Horror! “I cant believe that everyone we talk to supports the need for oil palm plantations”. Then comes the mellowing. “Well how could this be done better to get economic advancement and conservation of tropical jungles at the same time?”.
It is interesting to note, that as much as 50% of oil palm fruit ends up rotting on the ground unharvested, even as more oil palm is being planted. This is largely due to a lack of workers. Suddenly, the issue becomes how do you get the most efficiency out of your current crops before clearing more land for more crop? And so the conversation starts.
A visit to an oil palm plantation in Sarawak was an eye opening experience. Students started to try and think about solutions to the issues of workforce, and an inability to service the current plantations.
Having now spent many weeks in Asia with Australian environmental science students, I am more convinced than ever that we need to get more students out of Australia and seeing the issues for themselves.
To this end we have also been able to establish a unit where students go on an environmental placement for a month to a developing nation and work on local projects. This unit has been ridiculously successful with 150 students heading around the world this summer.
I have over the years been surprised, excited, saddened, and every other emotion possible watching our students immerse into a different country with a different culture, a different mix of religions and completely different economic imperatives.
Certainly, this one trip does not change the world view of our students, but it starts them on a journey. At the end of the day life is about journeys, and it is the route you choose that adds depth, colour and understanding (whoops, sorry, I got philosophical for a second there).
So my plea to all of you involved in teaching our future environmental scientists, start to think about innovative ways that you can take your students out of their western comfort zone for a while, and look at the world through some one else s eyes.
Spending time with indigenous communities has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Our students are constantly amazed about the generosity and openness of all the indigenous communities we work with.