The past two days in Hawaii have brought to light why I came to the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Being a first time visitor to the Hawaiian islands, I didn’t have a true personal connection to this land that I would be learning on for the next two weeks. I guess that’s is why I really appreciated being welcomed to Big Island, Hawaii through beautiful hoola dancing, drumming and singing as a part of the welcoming ceremony at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. Not only did I feel at ease on the land after this welcoming, but it opened the dialogue for links between culture and nature.
During my time on Big Island at the Pre-Congress Young Professionals workshop, creative ideas flowed like the lava from the Mauna Loa volcano. But we weren’t generating ideas by listening to lectures or reading from textbooks. Our learning was coming straight from the Hawaiian soil we were planting into, the alala bird calls we were hearing and the place-based stories that were shared.
On Big Island, there are amazing bio-cultural restoration efforts within Keauhou Ranch and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As young people, we got to play a small part in adding to these restoration efforts. Before a few days ago, I had no idea that much of the Big Island was previously converted into grassland for ranching! Cows, pigs and goats on a tropical island? I guess so. These creatures grazed away much on the native ground cover. What inspired me was that these conservation efforts to restore these degraded landscapes weren’t fueled by lots of money or power. The environment is being restored because there is a small group of very passionate people that are stewards of this place. We should all feel this way about the land, water and air that we share!
We got the chance to work with Evi, a true steward of Keauhou Ranch. Evi works to connect young people with nature. His passion for restoring his homeland was infectious and he was so willing to share his wisdom with us all. During our time with Evi, we removed invasive plant species known as faya. This plant hogs all the water and nutrients from the land. Its fallen leaves acidify the soil, so no ground cover can grow. Evi also taught us an important lesson while we were putting native plants in the soil. He said that when you plant something, it’s important to acknowledge that by that plant having life, we will have life, because we are nature.
I was equally inspired by a lady named Sierra, who works for Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks Service. After working for Parks Canada, I feel special connection to people like Sierra, at the forefront of conservation efforts in protected areas. In our group’s time with her, we got to pick mamane seeds off the trees. These seeds will be used if there is a fire or lava that devastates a certain area. We collected over 30,000 seeds today! Not only that, but we had incredible conversations about resource management, careers in conservation and citizen science.
To connect to this land, we have to know this land and love this land. In the same way we understand that to connect to each other, we have to know each other and love each other.
We can’t do work in conservation without understanding the environment around us. A few weeks ago, while travelling up north, I felt very deep connection to the Arctic because I spent time hiking on the mossy tundra and hearing the crash of a calving glacier. I was learning through all my senses. Climate change suddenly had a tangible sound and feeling. Here in Hawaii, I began to connect to the environment by the sulfuric smell of volcanic steam, the taste of papaya and the sound of the Hawaiian words emphasizing our connection to this place. I now feel such a strong desire to protect this place because I now understand the beautiful Hawaiian nature and culture through my own experiences.
I’m ready to jump into the World Conservation Congress activities with a bit of a better understanding of the local conservation effort and concerns for the future! Sam, Caroline and I took a last minute flight last night from Hilo to avoid the hurricanes set to hit the islands soon. We are now in Honolulu with open-minds and full hearts.
Mahalo to our friends on Big Island that helped us to love the land and each other so quickly. Safe travels!