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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002

OUR PLANET EARTH

CONSERVATION

Eco-tour program puts priority on people


First of two parts Stefan Ottomanski is a rare educator: He thrives on uncertainty and views obstacles as opportunities to teach both his students and himself lessons that were never part of the curriculum.

Ottomanski works for the Japan Wildlife Research Center in the Uguisudani district of Tokyo's Taito Ward, where for the past five years he has been developing and leading JWRC overseas training tours. Though the tours run by the nonprofit research foundation offer Japanese young people a chance to experience marine and forest conservation projects in developing countries, what they learn there goes far beyond coral reefs and forest regeneration.

Certainly the students will return with a better understanding of conservation issues in the developing world. However, after working and socializing with local young people, they also gain a clearer sense of who they are as individuals, as Japanese, and as Asians.

Ottomanski, 46, gives the example of a recent program he conducted on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. Youths from a village were to join Japanese students for a study program, but the community was anxious because a previous group of German students had intimidated the villagers with their excellent English and polite aloofness. For months before the Japanese came, there was concern about how they would adapt, and how the shy local youths would communicate.

"When the Japanese came," Ottomanski recalled, "the local youths were surprised, and relieved, to find that they also spoke poor English. The two sides formed such a close bond, it was hard to pull them apart at the end of the program. God only knows what they were talking about, but there was communication, and it was rich." To date, more than 120 Japanese have taken part in JWRC tours.

"At JWRC we believe that conservation cannot be separated from the needs of people," Ottomanski explains. "We also believe that proper conservation requires decisions and actions that are based on proper information-gathering. We hope to attract young people who are eager to learn something about the realities of conservation in these countries."

JWRC is also delighted when participants use the program as a first step toward careers as conservationists or work with the Japan Overseas Volunteer Corps.

The training tours are not cheap, regrets Ottomanski, a professional photographer turned educator with 16 years' experience in Japan. Two-week programs in the Philippines or Indonesia range from 170,000 yen to 250,000 yen. But they are also not simply "Japanese study tours," since a key feature of each trip is one-to-one participation with local youth. "If there are 15 Japanese participants, there will be 15 local students joining the program on an equal basis," he explains. "In this sense our programs are as much about cultural exchange as conservation."

Ottomanski admits that coordinating such mixed groups poses "logistical challenges," but insists the efforts are worth the trouble. Conservation requires the cooperation of local people, "the people whose lives are most affected by the ecosystem that is being 'conserved,' " he explains. "This idea is not new," he adds, "but too often conservation programs by outside-donor countries remain the domain of program staff, and local people are treated as objects of the program."

The one-to-one approach is ideally suited to Japanese, says Ottomanski, and he would like to see more such programs developed, because of the diverse benefits they bring to both sides. For the Japanese, there is a rare chance to work and live with peers in a developing country. The programs have fixed themes and objectives, so the students not only learn for themselves, but also see how locals approach similar challenges. Ottomanski believes this gives the students "an unprecedented insight into the young generation that must carry on the conservation from the local side."

For local students, the JWRC approach offers a chance to learn about the Japanese.

"All too often I find that Japanese are poorly understood abroad," notes Ottomanski, who is Australian. "One factor is that they are generally poor at communicating themselves. Another is that they are perceived as being in a mysterious subcategory of the much more alien Western foreigner. Yet when the opportunity arises, Japanese turn out to have a much closer affinity with the local people."

Ottomanski thinks the Japanese should cultivate this "inherent affinity" that they have with Asians. He also wishes Japan would utilize it to a far greater extent to develop better neighborly relations, rather than relying on money and Western development approaches. "The cultural personality of the Japanese is what makes this possible," he says, "and it is something they should be proud of."

Programs run by JWRC, which has close ties to the Environment Ministry, rely on field-based learning because, Ottomanski admits, he is not fond of classrooms. "Much of what we show our participants is pretty simple, but it can only be understood in the field." As for the teaching, he adds, "Learning in the field is easier. The field itself does most of the teaching."

JWRC welcomes beginners, and trips are not aimed at biology students or even "nature lovers." Ottomanski finds that those who are keen to learn, but know nothing, often have the best experiences.

Trips in 2002 will visit the Philippines (Leyte and Palawan), Indonesia (Sumatra, East Kalimantan and Komodo) and Thailand (Chiang Mai).

Because all the programs involve interaction between two nationalities, the common language is English. Ottomanski calls it "English, sort of," referring to the creative communication he sees develop among participants. For those with very little English ability, there are structured checklists with simple points and keywords for all activities. These give the students something tangible to facilitate fieldwork and conversation.

The JWRC tours are not typical "volunteer" or "work-camp" programs, stresses Ottomanski; the participants are volunteering time and sweat, but they are also learning from their local counterparts. This combination, he believes, is highly effective, and far better received by local residents than purely physical labor.

Ottomanski promises the programs are fun as well. "Coral reefs and tropical forests -- degraded or pristine, endangered or not -- are still worth visiting. The enjoyment is even greater when we take the time to learn more about them, and can begin to see behind the masses of trees or the brilliant colors and shapes of the coral reefs, and begin to 'read' the life stories they can share with us."

On Jan. 24, this column will focus on JWRC's marine and forestry programs. For more information on JWRC, visit www.jwrc.or.jp For information on JWRC tours, contact Stefan in Japanese or English at: ottomanski@jwrc.or.jp Stephen Hesse welcomes comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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