Interns in GCC-land

Blog post written by three interns in GCC: Valerio di Biase, Irene Conenna and Arnau Pou

Sometimes, it happens that you are a potential, maybe possible, at least plausible, young scientist. It is also the case that you have a childish passion for animals and a too adult, and rather vague, awareness about how complex could be to contribute to the noble aim of saving some of them from extinction, at least for a few generations to be. At the same time, it happens that you have to move to Helsinki, for love for example, or that you want to come back to Helsinki, so badly, or that you’re curious about what’s going on up in the north of Europe, and you just move, to Helsinki.  In crucial, even though in different moments of our journeys, it happened that something caught our attention, just as the white rabbit did with Alice, in the renowned novel of Lewis Carrol. Thus, just as Alice did, we decided to follow him to Finland for an Internship at the University of Helsinki.

The white rabbit, in this case, had several forms, certainly more real than a waistcoat-dressed white hare. To arouse our curiosity, we had applied conservation-oriented science, interdisciplinary approaches, and last but not least, research at an international scale. That was definitely a rabbit who deserved to be followed! Long story short, we finally, and happily, ended up at the Global Change and Conservation research group (GCC).

Once landed to GCC, each of us met Mar, our group leader, who kindly introduced us to the new environment: our workspace and workmates. We discussed and arranged with Mar the best available options for our projects, fitting our different backgrounds and expectations.  From the first day we could enjoy the vast internal spaces of the university: starting from our own desk to the recreational and seminar rooms where body and mind can move and organize as they feel more comfortable, which really helps reducing stress, always in ambush during long working days! We could promptly make ourselves at home and enjoy our life in the group.

The new life in a research team with all those expert scientists made us feel overwhelmed at first, but soon being involved in various everyday happenings helped us become part of the team ourselves. On Fridays the group have weekly meetings and journal clubs, where we talk about news, ongoing projects and activities or we debate about the infinite list of problems of Humankind… The main two outputs of those debates usually are: a little window of hope and a really good reason to get two (or more!) beers in the evening. By the way, those were also great moments of sharing and learning. Through weekly seminars we learnt that what makes people develop valuable projects is the exchange of ideas, where opinions develop and melt together. Those networks allowed us to develop critical and broad forms of thinking and to contribute to those dialogues with our own views.

Here at GCC, we had the chance to work independently, therefore we got the opportunity to develop our potential without constraints, which, honestly, made us all feel a bit disoriented, used to the more hierarchical south European supervising methods. But this is Finland, where you can easily find 6-year old kids taking the bus alone! Anyway, we felt supported by the whole group members every time we needed to solve issues of any sort. People here are really open and always keen on helping. Concluding, such an environment does not allow minds to be lazy, but we are quite sure it is worth the effort.

Anyway, relax in good company is also crucial to be happy at work… and this is when team-building activities came to rescue from work and brought us outside of the office, and, to be more specific, to an escape room, where you need to find solutions to riddles and get your freedom back! Other than that, we especially enjoyed the Finnish sunshine until late in the evening that makes rather easy to fit work and leisure in a day time, so one can go cooking by the fire in the wood, cycling along the river (provided that your extremely cheap bike does not fall apart), or having a beer in the city center with friends. And to keep this list of nice things going, we can say that once you have the public transportation card you can flutter from flower to flower, or from pub to pub, easily, as metro, trams and buses take you everywhere, even at late night. What´s more, you can actually do all this independently, that is walking alone in the night without being afraid that the Queen of Hearts will cut your head… No one will harm you.

This short narrative does not do whatsoever justice to the whole experience we are living. Actually, writing this down was a tough task. We are quite sure that this is not a dream, we are not Alice and this is not Wonderland (even if Finland is full of hares!). We want to end simply saying ‘thank you’ to whom allowed us to be here and to grow up, both as scientists and human beings. We met incredible people, who struggle to have a better understanding of the world, serving the society in this crucial time of changes that are going on around us. We will bring this model of doing science with us. We would like also to extend the thanks to Finland and its people for their politeness and their deep, even if discreet, respect for other people.

Kiitos paljon!

Valerio, Irene & Arnau

Pachamama at risk

Tsimane' kid fetching water in a river in Bolivian Amazonia.

Tsimane’ kid fetching water in a river in Bolivian Amazonia.

The tension between the Bolivia’s government and the country’s environmental community has reached a worrying point, with President Evo Morales threatening to expel any opposing voices to natural resource exploitation in the country. A correspondence now published in Nature highlights the pivotal work of Bolivian civil organisations in protecting the nation’s exceptional biological and cultural diversity and urges the international scientific community to keep a vigilant eye on shifts towards weaker environmental policies in the country.

The Bolivian government has recently announced the opening of the country’s protected areas to hydrocarbon exploration and plans to construct a deeply-contested highway crossing the TIPNIS National Park, in Bolivian Amazonia. These two announcements are some of the latest along a line of incidences revealing the Bolivian government’s faltering record of policies neglecting its international environmental commitments.

Giant Otter in an Amazonian river.

Giant Otter in an Amazonian river.

Bolivia’s environmental community is no stranger to clashes with politicians surrounding land management and resource extraction, and several national and international groups, including both activists and scientists, have been voicing their opposition to these government trajectories. The scuffle has now reached a critical stage, with the recently re-elected president Evo Morales, once known as Bolivia’s foremost defender of Pachamama (‘Andean Earth Mother’), threatening to expel any NGO or foundation that attempts to obstruct natural resource exploitation in the country.

These recent developments unveil gloomy prospects for the conservation of Bolivia’s unique biocultural diversity and the international environmental and scientific community is encouraged to aid in the struggle for the conservation of the country’s exceptional biological and cultural diversity.

Bolivian rainforest

Bolivian rainforest

Complete reference:

Fernández-Llamazares, Á., & Rocha, R. (2015) Bolivia set to violate its protected areas. Nature 523: 158. doi: 10.1038/523158c

Our Story from the Bhutan ISE Congress 2014

Blog-post written by Aili Pyhälä and Álvaro Fernandez-Llamazares

Photo 1. Aili & Álvaro on our first day in Bhutan
Aili & Álvaro on our 1st day in Bhutan

Last month, we were amongst the 300 or so very fortunate participants of the 14th International Congress of Ethnobiology, this time held in the awe-inspiring country of Bhutan. Bhutan… a country that has designated 42% of its surface area as National Parks, many of which are connected by ecological corridors; a country where people are not evicted from Protected Areas; a country where the majority- in their practice of Buddhist philosophy – continue to live in relative harmony with nature, winning over many of the less sustainable and outdated Forest Policy Laws that were adopted in the country in the 1950s (from India, who in turn had inherited such laws from the era of British colonialist-style conservation and forest management). Bhutan, perhaps best known to the world for being the only country that has officially endorsed the Gross National Happiness (GNH) over the Gross National Product (GNP), the latter being the standard global measure of a country’s development. Yes, Bhutan, one of the last places on Earth where the signs of globalization are still largely unnoticeable…

The congress we attended is one organised every two years as part of the main networking of the International Society of Ethnobiology, to bring together researchers, academics, students, policy-makers, lawyers and community leaders from all around the world, including from the hosting country.  It was the largest ever international conference organized in Bhutan to date, and her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi, the Princess of Bhutan, was present herself at the opening ceremony, enlightening us with her beauty and her well-spoken words on the importance of traditional knowledge in guiding us into the future. This year, to our pleasant surprise, an exceptionally large number of indigenous peoples and their representatives attended the conference.

Photo 2. Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi at the opening ceremony
Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi at the opening ceremony

The congress was very well organized and generously hosted by UWICE, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, a government research and training institute under the Department of Forests and Park Services (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests). The week-long congress (1st-8th of June) took place in the stunning Lamai Gompa Dzong in Bumthang, a valley in central Bhutan, a 12-hour bumpy and dusty yet spectacular bus ride from Paro, where we had all flown into.

The over-arching theme of the conference this time was Regenerating Biocultural Ecosystem Resilience, under which sub-themes included topics such as broadening the meaning of conservation, sacred heritage, governance policies, and wellbeing, to name a few. The conference format consisted of a healthy and stimulating mix of conventional academic presentations and more open discussions, talking circles, workshops, cultural presentations, field trips, and even a Biocultural Film Festival! Here we share some of what for us, personally, were the substantial highlights of the conference and what we came away with.

Photo 3. Lamai Gompa, site of the Congress
Lamai Gompa, site of the Congress

One of the best sessions that we attended – both in terms of the quality of the presentations, as well as the depth of the discussion that followed – was the session on Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change, chaired by Rajindra Puri (Univ. of Kent). Puri himself gave a very interesting talk on his recent work reviewing the extent to which the IPCC is taking into account Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Key points that he raised were that:

  1. The IPCC treats adaptation as if it were something new, something we need to “plan”, as if it were a new “Western” concept, while in actual fact adaptation has always been occurring amongst traditional and indigenous societies;
  2. The IPCC tends to portray indigenous peoples as helpless victims needing our help to adapt, when perhaps it is the other way around: they are in-depth experts on climate change adaptation who we can learn from;
  3. The IPCC frames TEK rather simplistically, and continues to call for more evaluations and evidence, as if we still needed to prove that TEK  is effective (when local communities know very well what works and what doesn’t, and have surely filtered out the knowledge that does not work over the millennia that knowledge has evolved and been perfected).

Another very good session was that on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, a double session co-chaired by our colleague Matthieu Salpeteur (Univ. Autònoma de Barcelona) and Ashok Jain (SK Jain Inst. of Ethnobiology). One of the best talks in this session was a presentation given by Erik Gómez-Baggethun (co-authored by Victoria Reyes-García, both also colleagues from the Ethnoecology Laboratory). Several fundamental and important points were raised, questions that often get overlooked in conferences which tend to go into great detail on a number of different topics. The talk explored the history and reasons behind the loss of TEK in Europe. The most interesting points raised were that i) non-resilient systems tend to adopt modern knowledge more, whereas resilient systems are more likely to maintain traditional knowledge; and ii) many TEK systems are adapting to change, and we need to recognize this adaptation component. In other words, we tend to hold TEK in a frozen form, lamenting its loss, romanticizing an “idyllic past” (which in fact never existed – not biologically nor socially!) whereas TEK is constantly changing and evolving, like all else. Similarly, there is a systematic bias in the TEK literature towards looking at the past, rather than looking at the present or the future. If knowledge systems are to be the institution and substrate for resilience, we need to start shifting the focus of TEK towards adaptive co-management, and here sovereignty is a key factor.

There was some interesting discussion about terminology, i.e. whether we should use Local Environmental Knowledge (“LEK”) or Traditional Environmental/Ecological Knowledge (“TEK”). While some prefer to use TEK in some contexts because of the cultural continuity component that it implies, prefer to use LEK because they believe relevant knowledge does not necessarily have to be traditional; it can also be adaptive. Philippe Barret (Geyser) in his talk questioned whether the focus in the transmission of LEK is to reproduce or to inspire? Another very interesting and relevant point he made is that they, Geyser, publish on experiences, not practices, because the transmission of TEK must be holistic, not analytic. A similar point was raised by Evelyn Roe, who gave an excellent talk on phenomenological botany and holistic science, illustrating the lessons that she had gained from observing waterlilies in Zambia and how a holistic paradigm of science starting at the observational level could help to build more meaningful and better grounded research studies.

Another excellent session was that on “Visioning Food, Health and Energy Sovereignty: Ways Forward for Research and Practice” organized and chaired by Karim-Aly Kassam and his Research Group from Cornell University. The session was great in that it was more of an interactive workshop than a one-way presentation. We were all asked to contribute our ideas and views on the topic, both individually as well as in small groups, the end result of which included a visually impactful “word cloud” with the results of what participants felt were the keywords related to food sovereignty. Kassam and his group outlined four key elements to sovereignty: ecological possibility; cultural relevance; knowledge capacity, and; institutional infrastructure.

Photo 4. Word Cloud of Food Sovereignty
Word cloud of “food sovereignty”

Another very informative and thought-provoking session was that on “Medicinal plant itineraries: new analytical approaches on the production, trade and use of herbal remedies” chaired by Gary Martin from the Global Diversity Foundation.  Jan Martinez Agnes van der Valk (Univ. of Kent) gave a very good talk on plants and governance with regard to Traditional Herbal Medicine in Tibet. He pointed out that traditionally in Tibet, herbal medicines did not have any brand names, and all this talk about “quality” “safety” and “efficacy” has been imposed by modern Western firms. We also learned about the new (April 2011) European Union THMP Directive, ordering over-the-counter sale of traditional herbal medicine as illegal, unless it’s already been in use in the EU for a long time (e.g. 30 years).

Sue Evans (Southern Cross University, Australia) also gave a fascinating talk about responsible medicinal plant consumption in Australia, with a historical overview of how certain European medicinal plants came to be used in Australia. An important point she raised is that while traditional methods in preparing plants for use generally involved a very sophisticated method of extraction that resulted in highly concentrated and appropriate doses and minimal plant mass, pharmaceutical companies today use methods that require a much larger volume of the plant, hence placing significantly more pressure on the viability of these plant populations (and sustainable extraction levels), especially when it concerns wild plant harvesting. Similarly, she raised the question of why, in our Western culture, consumers are so interested in where their coffee and chocolate comes from (as apparent in the increasing array of “eco” and “fair trade” labels and certificates), but much less, if any, importance is given to where our plants and medicines come from.

Photo 5. Aili giving her presentation Photo 6. Álvaro giving his presentation
Aili & Álvaro giving our respective talks in the Congress

Finally, being in the country of Gross National Happiness, we were hardly surprised to find in the programme an entire double session on community wellbeing. Aili has written a separate blog on this and GNH, which you can find on  the website of Radical Ecological Democracy.

As for the Biocultural Film Festival, it was an extraordinary opportunity to experience through, and learn from, compelling visual narratives about the broad spectrum of innovative approaches in biocultural conservation. Amongst the numerous short films presented, we particularly enjoyed Seeds of Sovereignty, a recent and deeply touching film from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network sharing the stories of a number of communities across Africa embarking on a journey to revive their traditional seed diversity and regain control over their food systems. A free version of the film can be watched online at the website of the Seeds of Freedom Project.

The ISE 2014 Congress was a very diverse and stimulating event that seems to have inspired all of its participants to a degree rarely reached by large conferences. We believe the keys to its success were: a) the excellent organization; b) the very warm and friendly hosting; c) the peaceful setting and milieu, enclosed enough to encourage quality networking and exchange, but open enough to not be too claustrophobic; and d) the incredibly beautiful natural and cultural settings, including the gorgeous traditional attire and humble serenity of the Bhutanese, days starting with morning meditations in the nearby monastery and ending with lively dances around the fire, and the energy and inspiration that all this invoked in us.

Photo 7. Post-congress trekking in Bhutan's wilderness
Post-Congress trekking in Bhutan’s wilderness

Photo 8. Tiger's Nest
Tiger’s Nest, one of Bhutan’s most breathtaking monasteries