Tag Archives: inspiration

Travelling IFSA throughout the Asia Pacific

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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Feeling the IFSA spirit

“You come to these events, maybe for the first time, and think ‘I’m here to learn, to meet new people, have fun…maybe I’ll go for something small’. Then before you know it you’re caught up in the energy of it all and find yourself thinking ‘I want to be a part of this, maybe I can give something more.'”

It was late one night and I was sitting, cross legged on the ground and homemade tinto de verano in hand, in a quiet Spanish street, talking with a friend, a fellow IFSA student. Apart from the small group around me, the rest of the IFSS contingent were tucked into their sleeping bags for the night, 100 odd students sprawled out on thin mats on the hard floor of the sports hall outside which we were sitting.

We were drinking to send off the outgoing IFSA President, and we were talking about the ‘IFSA spirit’. Like my fellow student, this was my first IFSS. I had come to Spain not knowing what to expect, and hoping for nothing more than to get an understanding of what this was all about, and to hopefully meet some great people along the way. Unlike her, I had not even considered the prospect that, less than one week in, I would be standing for an official position, or that I would be feeling so energised and inspired by everyone around me that I would be reconsidering my plans and priorities for the upcoming year.

But wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Let me take a few steps back.

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IFSA stands for the International Forestry Students’ Association. As the name suggests, it is a network of student associations from all over the world, connecting ‘local committees’ of students studying forestry or related disciplines. After hearing about it early on in my studies from a lecturer, and browsing their (slightly ramshackle) website, I had started to vocally question if we – the University of Melbourne, and my Department of Forest Ecosystem Science – were a member, and if not, why? Then, a little over a year ago, I received an email that we had just paid up our membership fee, and I took on the role as one of our uni’s two key contacts.

I met with our regional representatives in Canberra when I was studying at ANU last winter, and picked their brains as to what being a part of IFSA involved. They had both attended the big event – the annual International Forestry Students’ Symposium (IFSS) – in years gone by, but when the call came out to register for IFSS Turkey, 2012, it clashed with ISV work and I had to pass it on. At ANU we talked of wanting to get more active in Australia – the IFSA website was constantly listing events and meet ups being organised throughout the rest of the IFSA community, with the Oceania region remaining silent. But our discussions kept coming back to how, unlike Europe, we were faced with the logistical and motivational challenges of being a limited number of geographically isolated forestry schools with a declining number of students, in a country where ‘forestry’ was increasingly synonymous (to much of the public at least) with destructive logging and anti-environmental values.

And then…well, nothing. With no active student association to begin with, our local committee existed for this past year as little more than a name, and a listing on a website.

When the announcement came that IFSS 2013 was to be held in Spain, right in the middle of my European travels, I took this as an opportunity to learn more about what this whole IFSA thing was really all about, and to hopefully bring back what I’d learnt to my department at home.

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And so it was that I found myself getting on yet another plane from London, emerging at the other end into the sweltering heat of Madrid. Everything was unknown – along with the practicalities of orienting myself in a new city I was still orienting myself within the IFSA world, and what it meant to be taking part in IFSS. With each new email from the Spanish organising committee I had begun to feel a little more out of my depth. Well, maybe that’s not the right phrasing, but it certainly felt like I was embarking on this thing blind (LC presentations? Auction and international night? Erm, no, was I supposed to bring a blow up kangaroo?).

Apart from the name of our hostel, a general itinerary (visit to a ‘dehesa’? general assemblies?) and the recent knowledge of the fact that I was the sole Australian in a group of roughly 100 students from all over the world, I had little idea of what the next two weeks would hold.

Looking back now, I don’t think any amount of talking with past participants, or reading of schedules, could have given me any idea of what an amazing two weeks it would be. So much happened, so much more than can be fully captured by words on this (virtual) page.

There was the itinerary organised by the Spanish OC, that took us from the mountains outside Madrid to the mountains and islands of Galicia, on ‘beach days’ and epic hikes, and recreated childhood sleepovers on an epic scale as we stayed in sports centres and school halls in tiny villages and coastal towns until making our way back to the big city once again.

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There was the official IFSA business: the five plenary sessions of the General Assembly, in which we seemed to suddenly transform from a group of young students into a group of organised and motivated adults, voting on statutes and electing officials and doing all sorts of other grown up business (often with beer in hand…we were still students after all).

And then there was everything else that, while not on the formal agenda, to me formed the most important aspects of the whole thing and signified what IFSA is really about.

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The many conversations over dinner or drinks, that – at times despite our best intentions – once again went back to forestry, in all its many and diverse forms all over the world.

The moments when I found myself sitting next to someone on the bus, or walking side by side with someone down the street, whom I had hardly spoken to before, and realising we shared the same interests, or that they had incredible stories or experiences to share that I could never have imagined.

Listening with interest (and some amusement) to Northern Europeans scoff at the idea of a dehesa agroforestry landscape being classified as a ‘forest’, and wondering what they would think of our Mallee landscapes…or with astonishment at hearing the strong opposition that seemingly every other country has to prescribed burning or ecological fire management, something that is such a part of forest management in Australia.

Forming an informal partnership with the three Indonesian LCs – our closest neighbours – and joining, with a vote and a resounding cheer, the new Asia Pacific region.

And of course, converting half the group to Vegemite during International Night, albeit with avocado and cheese.

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There’s something quite amazing about being thrown into such a diverse group of people from all over the world, and coming out two weeks later counting 100 new friends.

I overheard someone saying something like, it is essentially only with foresters that he can walk into a big group of new people and know that he will feel comfortable. I know exactly what he meant. This might seem strange to non-forestry friends back home who think of foresters as rough old men who just want to chop all the bloody trees down, but while that stereotype may exist, it certainly doesn’t characterise any of the young foresters I’ve studied with. While we all came from different backgrounds, and had different interests and views on many things, there was something that we all had in common, that brought us together (no, I mean other than beer).

IFSA and IFSS to me are all these things – bringing people together, sharing stories and knowledge and opportunities, opening our eyes to the different ways forestry is known and understood and studied and practised all around the world (and maybe causing us to wonder what we could do differently at home).

So, where to next? That’s the question that has had me thinking since early on in IFSS. I have come away with so much – not just new friends, not just a better understanding and appreciation IFSA and an official role as liaison officer with CIFOR, but a motivation to do something more.

Motivation to get our LC, and Australia, active once more.

Motivation to really be a part of our new region, rather than a little island of inactivity on the southern border.

Motivation to work with my department while I’m still away, and go back to the university when I’m home, to try and engage our students, to make them aware of this network that I’m only just discovering now, but wish someone had told me about before.

We have our challenges – no undergraduate forestry degree, a small intake at Masters level, a largely older, often professional student cohort who only come together for two weeks at a time on campus then disperse again. And, unlike other relatively new LCs I spoke to, for us, it’s not just about creating an LC and IFSA connection, it’s building a whole new student association from the ground up.

And yet there is some promise – a new Bachelor of Science major in forestry starting next year, and the promise of support (both moral and financial) from our department, who seem as keen as me to get something going.

I have ideas (possibly too many, as is often the case with me) for my uni at home, my LO position to keep me busy and connected to IFSA, and the possibility of IFSS 2014 British Colombia to look forward to. I guess this is just part of what is meant by the IFSA spirit.