1 September 2023

Fortifying Sustainability: Revisiting the ASEAN University Network Ecological Education and Culture Conference (AUN-EEC)

AUN Writer Team

By Emmanuel Sancho (Emman) and Xingru Chen (Sera), AUN Interns

Amidst the alarming rates of environmental concerns in the society today, the AUN-EEC has been a platform to amplify experiences and initiatives that foster the essence of nature and its significance in an individual’s way of life. Several experts have been invited to induce action among individuals, particularly the youth, in exploring processes towards preservation and conservation of nature. Along with their remarks, inspiring studies, stories, and experiences in safeguarding the environment were also a part of the program. These instances are envisions to bring inspiration and motivation to individuals in conserving nature for the future. 

With the theme of Communing and Reconciling with Nature, the AUN-EEC Conference was held last August 16, 2023 via Zoom Meetings, hosted by the Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines. The program intends to reconnect people to the essence and significance of nature in the society. The program was divided into three parts, keynote lectures, panel discussions, and breakout room discussion sessions. It was attended by Dr. Choltis Dhirathiti, the Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network and Fr. Roberto Yap, SJ, President of Ateneo de Manila University. 

Dr. Choltis Dhirathiti, in his welcoming remarks, affirmed another year of the AUN-EEC which envisions a connection among various individuals to share success stories and lessons to collaboratively create the changes we are hoping for in our way of living. He also underscored that nature is an essential element of the society, while underscoring that the AUN-EEC has a vision to “connect experts, students, and the general public, to share success stories and lessons to co-create the changes we are hoping for in our way of life.” Similarly, Fr. Roberto Yap, SJ, also emphasized the significance of the meeting since it is held in a critical moment in which the negative impact of human actions are reverberating such as pollution, drought, heat waves, and flood. Furthermore, he highlighted the necessity to reinforce individual and collective actions in preserving and renewing creations. 

Notable individuals and several experts in the field of ecological conservation were also invited to provide valuable insights and cultivate discussion towards protecting nature and the environment. The keynote lecturers present were Mr. Benjamin Ong, Ph.D. (Cand.) from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development University of St. Andrews and Dr. David Ganz, the Executive Director of the Regional Community Forestry Training Center (RECOFTC). Mr. Ong began his lecture by contextualizing his relationship and understanding of nature through his own experiences. For instance, activities he initiated in the past were mentioned such as the Rainbow Project and the Backyard Explorers programme. He emphasized the significance of personifying a child’s lenses in viewing the world since it was easy to overlook the existence of little things. He also posed a question stating “The reality is we dominate the planet and urban ecosystems. What can be done to make that foundation even better?”, to emphasize the risks brought by increasing diversity in human-dominated landscapes such as the cities. Along with his remarks, the essence of reconciliation was highlighted by stressing that the mission of ecological education is to bridge the gap of difference and separation between human beings and nature.

Similarly, Dr. Ganz started the lecture by elaborating on the co-evolving, synergistic, and symbiosis between people and the environment. He also underscored the importance of forests as significant biomes that aids in building resilience for communities that rely on nature. Furthermore, he also elaborated the abundance of indigenous and local communities that contribute to the conservation of nature despite not being recognized nor acknowledged by their local government. Dr. Ganz stated that “When indigenous people are allowed to manage their own land in a way they were accustomed to, biodiversity flourishes.” He ended his lecture by insisting on the importance of soft skills in addressing environmental concerns such as the climate crisis comparing it to parenting. He said that “These [soft skills] cannot be taught but they are cultivated. Kind of like parenting. There are books about parenting but you will never know if you are right until you become a parent yourself.” After the keynote lectures, the program continued to the panel discussions that concluded the morning session.  All three panelists shared their lived experiences and lessons from the field on reconciliation ecology. The panelists are as listed below: 

  • Ms. Billie Dumaliang, Advocacy Officer & Trustee Masungi Georeserve Foundation
  • Dr. René Dommain, Senior Research Fellow, Asian School of the Environment Nanyang Technological University
  • Dr. Rebecca T. Barrios, Executive Director Philippine Initiative for Environmental Conservation (PhilinCon)

Ms. Billie shared her success with ecosystem solutions through assisting natural regeneration. The difficulty of restoring key Sunni watersheds, in addition to the particular geographic location - the forests in the northeast severely weaken the watersheds helping people mitigate climate change - was the drastically declining forest cover. As a result, the solution focused on land restoration  and education. This became one of the central parts of the water education program through the creation of a board game showing the different areas of the watershed. They achieved good practical results by having students use the machines, despite the fact that they were not allowed to leave their homes during the epidemic.

The topic then shifted from the Philippines to Borneo. Mr. Rene, looking at the current situation of peatlands in areas such as the Sunderland region of Southeast Asia, which are under the hesitant threat of extinction, pointed out that the main problem facing humanity is that it is destroying a large amount of carbon loss and leading to a large amount of biodiversity loss due to the drive for profit. Therefore, in order to alleviate this natural environmental problem, Mr. Rene pointed to the need to challenge current materialism and growing value systems. Environmental education for all ages was essential, and there was a greater need for young people to be exposed to the natural world. In addition, working with indigenous peoples who had rich experience of living in nature was key.

The last panelist was Dr. Barrios which focused on highlighting programs and her experiences in the Community-based conservation efforts in Northwest Panay Island, Philippines. She discussed that her work in a non-governmental organization portrayed the prevalence and incidence of hunting, poaching, and several other illegal activities that threatened biodiversity and wildlife in protected areas. However, she also highlighted the conservation efforts they initiate in these areas including foot patrols to monitor and enforce laws in the protected areas despite instances of harassment and limited funds. She stressed that the immersive experience allowed them to confront potential incidents of large-scale wildlife trafficking while also learning meaningful experience with volunteers in the community to enforce law in the protected areas. Dr. Barrios mentions that “we are providing them [volunteers and communities] with opportunities to reciprocate with nature and remind them of their reciprocal relationship with the environment.” 

After the keynote addresses and panel discussions, the meeting was divided into four (4) breakout sessions that present a variety of student and organization-led activities, studies, and experiences on ecological practices and initiatives that attempt to resolve environmental concerns . The following topics were discussed in each sessions:

The first parallel session focused on the integration of environmental sustainability and education. In a variety of presentations, education was addressed to students of all ages, from children to eighth grade. In addition, in terms of disciplines, not only was the connection between the Bible, a representative work of religion, and ecology explored, suggesting the importance of rethinking our role and reinterpreting the Bible from an ecological perspective. Environmental issues are also linked to interdisciplinarity, fully reflecting the interconnectedness and multifaceted nature of the environmental theme, as well as expressing a vision of a future of harmonious coexistence. In terms of different methodologies, volunteer motivation and eco-spirituality were investigated through stereotypical and quantitative research methods respectively on how eco-spirituality and volunteering influence students' decisions. Finally, the awareness of solid waste management among the students of Jugan National High School was investigated as a sustainable school action.

It is common that the ASEAN region is rich in ecological diversity and cultural traditions, which have resulted in the wisdom of indigenous peoples to live in harmony with nature. The sharing and discussion in the second session demonstrated the richness of indigenous peoples' wisdom. As an example of what Nicole and Ms. Dawn shared, coastal gleaning is a mode of small-scale wild fishing and a source of income for some local families. This enables gleaners to gain a deeper understanding of the natural environment and develop local knowledge based on experience. However, climate change has had a significant negative impact on Coastal gleaning, which has affected the lives of local people. In addition to this, the speakers also mentioned in the parallel sessions that the process of constructing indigenous knowledge is not only reflected in the natural interactions of indigenous peoples, but also recognized, innovated and practiced according to the political, cultural and social contexts. For example, the impact of the Mori Conservation Policy on indigenous knowledge, etc., all brought a wealth of knowledge to the audience.

Scientific and technological developments are equally driving technological innovation to address environmental issues. Linked to the theme of the second session, the third session constitutes the adoption of T-fences by wise locals to maintain the seawall's protection of the community. This skill was also learned and perfected by experts at the University of the Philippines College of Architecture. New smart technologies are also being used to identify, detect and analyze areas of concern, such as mangrove forests and shoreline changes in Malaysia. In addition, the topic of mental health is beginning to be emphasized due to the lack of connection with nature during pandemics. Studies have found that studying in an environment with full access to nature is beneficial to mental health, so the ideal university study environment needs to include greenery, spaciousness, lots of windows, indoor plants, and nature-themed artworks or photographs.

Alongside the other parallel sessions, the fourth parallel session featured the perseverance and dedication of individuals and organizations in their pursuit of advocacies for the environment. In particular, the participants were imparting their encounters during the pandemic to engage and remain connected with people affected by environmental issues. For instance,  Sarikulay: Samot-Saring Kulay ng Buhay by the University of the Philippines Ecology and Systematics Major Students Society (UP ECOSYSTEMSS) from UP-Los Baños mentioned that their previous coloring books that aims to educate and raise awareness of the local flora and fauna species to the children was adopted into an online e-book to continue their advocacies. However, they also returned to their onsite activities recently including seminar workshops and distribution of physical books. Similarly, Into the Wild program from the Ateneo Biological Organization (Ateneo BOx) also highlighted their online programs such as the SustainaBOx— encouraging participants to keep environmental conservation in their actions, and LoveBOx— promoting animal welfare and supporting animals and strays through valentine love boxes. Recently, they also returned to their onsite activities emphasizing the essence of animal welfare, biodiversity, and bioeducation. 

Overall, the AUN-EEC was able to manifest success in amplifying the environmental issues and concerns, while highlighting the initiatives and programs that are in place to respond to these issues. Furthermore, featuring keynote lectures and panel discussions from ecological experts potentially increased the fervor of the people and sparked inspiration in advocating for environmental transformation. These vital aspects of the conference were testaments that conserving and preserving the environment, and nature in particular, remains to be a relevant cause in the present towards a sustainable future. As Dr. Choltis Dhirathiti mentioned, “[nature is] an extension of our body that we should look after.” We, individuals, portray a role which would be vital to extend the life of our environment, providing future generations a society that is peacefully coexisting with nature.