When I applied for the Global Environments Summer Academy (GESA) in the spring of 2013, I was at a crossroads in my professional life. I was seeking direction and mentorship in the field I was most passionate about: protecting and conserving biological and cultural diversity. In 2010, after graduating from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), I was fortunate enough to work for the ICCA Consortium: a non-profit NGO seeking to promote and provide appropriate recognition and support to Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCAs for short). It is here where the seeds of my interest in food security and food sovereignty were planted, but it was only when I attended GESA was I able to recognise that it was this direction I wanted to go in.
During the three years of working for the consortium, I carried out field research and organised events in Japan, India, the Philippines, Italy and lived in Indonesia for eighteen months where I worked as Project Coordinator for an ICCA ‘high threat’ documentation series. My fieldwork led me to West Kalimantan where I witnessed a Dayak Limbai Indigenous community protecting, managing and conserving their ‘Bukit Bunyau’ ICCA using generation-old customary intuitions and natural resource management practices. The experience irrefutably affirmed my belief that areas where local communities are able to independently govern and manage their natural environments (i.e. ICCAs) – with full access and control over their food production – biological and cultural diversity is far higher, compared to areas with externally enforced conservation management systems. Whilst documenting the work of a community radio network and organic seed bank cooperative during my time in India, I learnt of the rewards that small scale, community-led projects can reap. Similarly, when co-facilitating a community-made Photo Story in the Philippines, I witnessed a formidable spirit of resilience and innovation as this community fought to defend their ancestral homeland from encroaching mining companies.
I brought all these ideas and learnings to GESA and it was during the three-week period – with peer-to-peer learning, coupled with mentoring from GESA resource people and Global Diversity Foundation staff – that I was able to discuss, brain-storm and envision how to most effectively put my plans for ecological and social justice into practice. Up until this point, since leaving university, I had ploughed on with my career, never really giving myself enough time or freedom to stop and scrutinise if I was really affecting change. Despite people’s best intentions for ‘saving the planet’, within the NGO, activism and environmental movement, burn-out is a common manifestation and I believe we lose many great people within the movement due to it. GESA allowed me the breathing-room to stop and really consider what felt meaningful and alive to me, rather than just ticking the “right” boxes.
After GESA, I returned to the UK and became co-director for This is Rubbish: a food waste Community Interest Company which raises awareness about the preventable scale of food waste in the UK through policy research, community and arts led public events. In November 2014, I became Rural Artist in Residence for Cape Farewell where I created the on-going The Milking Parlour: an artistic inquiry exploring and opening up questions about the future and current situation of our food and farming system. Since receiving the residency, I moved to an organic family-run farm in South West Wales, from where I manage the Oxford Real Farming Conference: one of key organic and agroecological farming conferences in the UK, andBiodiversity – a Journal of Life on Earth.
My experience at GESA empowered me to pursue a meaningful and rewarding life of environmental change-making and more recently, environmental leadership and management. I was so inspired by GESA that I am now in fact the coordinator of both the academy and the Global Environments Network (GEN), which gathers alumni of summer academies and other events into a transformational leadership network. With other members of GEN, I am busy planning this year’s summer academy, which will take place 25 July – 11 August in the city of Oxford, UK, collaborating with the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science.
GESA brought much change and meaning to my life, providing me with a platform where I was able to speak of my experiences and begin to explore how to channel them into the next chapter of my life and work back in my own local community. If you want to read more about GESA 2018, click here.
First posted as an update on GlobalGiving.