By Salina Abraham
Depending on where you are in the world, heading to a café can be a solitary experience. One where you curl up with a book or a cup of coffee while you people-watch or stare at your phone.
Yet on Thursday at Africa Climate Week in Accra, this café was buzzing with people making new friendships and sharing old frustrations on the state of Africa’s forests. Led by the International Forestry Students’ Association, in collaboration with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Global Landscapes Forum, this world café attracted participants primarily through a love of forests, not coffee.
The interactive event was one of many held to celebrate the International Day of Forests. Pop-up cafés were hosted in Poland, Thailand, Italy, Peru and Canada. Hitting nearly every continent and capturing the voices of young people and communities, all shared one goal: Creating a vision of education that addresses employment needs and the rapidly changing forestry and resource management landscape.
The café in Accra during Africa Climate Week, brought together professionals and students from across various sectors and countries. Despite the diverse audience, the themes and outcomes converged strongly.
A summary of key highlights follows:
Africa has “imported education curriculums from the 1990s” underpinned by an external ideology of profiting from forests and exploiting natural resources. These curriculums are implemented, as opposed to incorporating traditional and local knowledge and emphasizes the needs to listen to local needs. Traditional knowledge flowed abundantly throughout conversations in the cafe. Stories of powerful traditional beliefs, with spiritual and religious undertones were shared, highlighting traditions that dictate when and how local communities interact with nature. Whether it is a green snake that cannot be killed, tree planting in cemeteries to provide shade for the dead, or forest areas that must not be entered for fear of death, these beliefs represent a cross section of the diversity of sustainable management practices that must be considered and respected.
In addition, the continent must deliver education that producers thinkers and innovators shape to address complex social and environmental challenges in the wake of the destabilizing impact of climate change. Current formal education systems seem more tailored to reward the ability to follow instructions, memorize and recite facts than encourage innovative and independent thinking. The survival skills of the 21st century, however, largely lie in the ability to collaborate, think creatively and lead. Technology and innovations in forestry – such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), drone technology, even blockchain – offer a multitude of different career pathways.
It is time to fight the disinterest and misconceptions of the forest sector with strong campaigns to raise awareness of dynamic and positive realities. In the cafe, ideas for advocacy shared in conversation largely relied on using existing cultural and societal avenues such as music, theater, poetry and dance. Experiential learning through eco-clubs and excursion also offer opportunities for first-hand experience and networking with practitioners, while religious leaders and places of worship offer an unprecedented opportunity to change behavior and reach the masses.
All in all, there was a resounding consensus that young people, regardless of age, must be at the center of activities. Their leadership is required to raise forth both the current challenges and solutions that will revitalize education for future generations.
Despite the many challenges identified — persistent poverty, climate change, corruption, and unemployment — the energy in the room was positive. Forests and nature conservation may have not been everyone’s first choice, but it is a sector that wins you over. Forests are filled with surprises and hidden joys, the opportunity to positively impact communities, wildlife, entire landscapes with a handful of seeds.
This unexpected love affair is perhaps best captured by one participant, who shared: “I wanted to study medicine, but I do not regret studying forestry.”