Looking back, as one is inclined to do in these early days of a new year, 2013 was a pretty big year for me.
I handed in my Masters thesis, thus bringing to an end seven long years of university study. I packed up my room in my lovely little Northcote home, and flew overseas to begin the trip of a lifetime. But I can now say, without hesitation, that one of the biggest, most lifechanging things that happened to me last year, was getting involved with IFSA.
I wrote about my first IFSA experience – taking part in IFSS in Spain – in my Feeling the IFSA Spirit post back in September. Even then, I don’t think I had any idea how much this one event would change the direction of my year to come.
After five months of travel, planned in detail as I’d never done before, the month of November on my calendar was left wonderfully open. I had ideas of heading to the Gili Islands, or back to Pulau Weh to dive. Maybe do a yoga retreat somewhere. But in the end, IFSA took me places I had never even dreamed of.
On the last day of IFSS, the FAO Liaison Officer told me about an opportunity to attend the 25th Session of the FAO Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission in New Zealand in November. This biannual meeting – a major international and inter-governmental forum to address key forest management and policy issues throughout the region – would be attended by Ministers, UN staff, academics and NGOs from around the world, and through IFSA’s partnership with the FAO there was funding for two IFSA students to attend. A few days later, I sat down at my computer in the leafy courtyard of my hostel in Granada, and wrote my application. Then, one month later, I received the reply:
Dear Sarah, I’m very pleased to inform you that your application to attend the APFC has been approved by our Selection Committee.
And so, I was heading to New Zealand!
There isn’t enough room in a simple blog post to express what an amazing and inspiring week this was (and, for any IFSA people reading this, there is my official report covering all the details). There were the two days of pre-session workshops, where participants actively discussed and brainstormed issues such as forest landscape restoration, forestry education, and mainstreaming gender into forest policy.
There were the four days of the official session, filled with high level presentations and forums on pressing topics such as forest governance, trade and legislation, and climate change mitigation.
And then, like at IFSS, there was everything outside the official schedule that for me, as a student and young forester, were invaluable in making connections, and in beginning to find my place in this professional world. As much as I hate the term ‘networking’, I came away from this event with so many new contacts, and so many new ideas, for both myself and for IFSA as a whole.
And then it was over, and time to make my way back to Singapore. I still had a few weeks until I had to start work in Thailand, and, as I said, Indonesia had always been on the cards…
CIFOR, the organisation I’m IFSA liaison officer with, is based in Bogor, Java. During IFSS, I had met a few students from IFSA IPB, a University based in the same city. And so, to Java, to continue my journey with IFSA.
I contacted my IPB friends, and we arranged for me to come to Bogor to visit, just for a few days. After checking into my student dorm I hopped on the back of one of their scooters, and we rode across the giant campus to meet their IFSA group.
I don’t know what I’d expected – maybe to see the few familiar faces from IFSS, maybe meet their IFSA president – but I certainly hadn’t expected this:
Their entire student group, maybe fifty students, had turned up to welcome me. We spent an evening playing icebreaker games, holding forestry discussion groups, and trading IFSA stories. Coming from Australia, where our IFSA student membership could probably be counted on one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how active their group is. Apart from this impressive turn out, they run regular English language discussion groups, and an ‘IFSA goes to the village’ program, where they hold environmental education classes for local school children. For the next few days I felt like part of this (not so) little IFSA family. They took me out for dinner and for tours of the botanical gardens, and drove me to CIFOR, where I had a productive day of meetings with their DDG, an old professor from Australia. So once again, to IFSA IPB, I say thank you, you are welcome in Australia any time.
Suddenly, it was time to move on again, and make my way to Thailand to begin my season of projects with ISV. I was originally supposed to start a project on November 25th, but when that got cancelled I suddenly found myself with a week to kill in Bangkok.
During the first workshop at the APFC, I was introduced to Dr Tint Lwin Thaung, Director of RECOFTC. Throughout my Masters I had a focus on participatory forest governance and social forestry, and as a regional capacity building centre for community forestry, RECOFTC has always been on my radar. I knew that they were holding their Third Regional Forum on People and Forests in Bangkok the two days after I would fly in, and, after mentioning this to Dr Thaung, I found myself with an invite to attend, to represent IFSA and to hopefully build an awareness of community forestry throughout our network. And so it was that I suddenly found myself thrown into the midst of an inspiring group of RECOFTC staff, government ministers and civil society organisations, all come together to workshop action plans for community forestry in their countries.
In stark contrast to the formal format of the APFC, this forum was a facilitated workshop; in contrast to a dark conference hall, we sat around circular tables in a bright room, surrounded by whiteboards, sticky notes and markers which we used to brainstorm issues, challenges, and future directions. I contributed where I could, but mostly I sat back and observed, taking it all in, and talking to as many people as I could. Apparently this was a new format – a trial run maybe – and it would be interesting to hear feedback from officials as to how they think it went. But personally, I see great potential in this style of approach. As the youth forum at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (an event which I helped coordinate an IFSA delegation to) reflects, there is increasing interest in engaging youth in these international forums and processes. Perhaps this sort of interactive and informal style of workshop is what is needed to actively involve youth in these events, to move beyond the traditional presenter-question style of formal conferences.
So yes, it’s been a big year. And, while my time in Asia is slowly coming to and end – barely six weeks to go – this work will continue. From co-coordinating a youth forum at the upcoming Forests Asia conference, to continuing to work on building an IFSA presence back home, this next year is already building up to be another big one. Bring on 2014!