Our new group of students – well, now they aren’t so new anymore – is an enthusiastic lot. Since their arrival at the Center for Rainforest Studies (CRS), they have explored the width and breadth of the local area and beyond, mostly in pursuit of knowledge but also for leisure.
The students’ first academic activity took them to the local towns within the Atherton tablelands. The aim of this exercise was to help them hone their skills of observation, information gathering and sense-making. As is always the case with our students, they gained some interesting but diverse perspectives about the Atherton tablelands. My attention was drawn to an important observation which the students drew from their visit. They were unanimous in their assessment of the area’s unique value proposition. They characterized the Atherton tablelands as a place of coffee, tea, sugar, and milk in every sense of the word. They were not referring to the simple availability of these products in coffee shops and supermarkets. They were explaining that these agricultural commodities are produced in the Tablelands, and distributed both locally and abroad. The Atherton tablelands are arguably the only place in the entire universe where you’ll find all of these popular beverage products growing in one place. I could tell that a thought process was developing in the minds of the students. I thought they were grappling with the questions of how to reconcile the need to sustain or even improve agricultural production, and the responsibility to protect the fragile ecosystems which had now become their home.
A visit to a renowned local coffee and papaya farm, which involved a lecture and tour of the farm, provided a good example for students to see how conflicted farmers are in this era of global environmental consciousness. On the one hand, they understand the benefits of employing sustainable farming practices. On the other, they are rational business people out to make profits; a goal that does not always go hand in hand with sustainability ethos.
A visit to the Mandingalbay Yidinji country gave students a rare opportunity to interact with and learn from Australia’s first nation people. Students found the indigenous peoples’ environmental worldview to be different from those of the non-indigenous people they had interacted with earlier. They observed that indigenous people have an intimate relationship with the land. They not only aim to bequeath a healthy country to the future generations, they also believe that they owe it to their ancestors to maintain and protect what they inherited from them; namely, a healthy vibrant ‘çountry’. The idea that they treat the land as their pantry and the sea as their fridge was exciting to students, and was a further demonstration of the fact that indigenous people have high regard for natural resources. They view the ‘country’ as consisting of the land and the sea, which demonstrates their appreciation of the connectivity between landscapes.
In order to gain greater understanding of the connectivity between landscapes, students made a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). They did not simply visit the GBR as tourists. They first attended a pre-GBR visit lecture where they learned about the marine biology of the reef from experts. By the time they got into the glass bottom boat to tour the reef near Green Island, they had sufficient knowledge to be able to identify different types of corals and fish. They understood the impacts of human activities on the GBR, including the effects of non-point pollution and some of the measures being taken to protect the reef.
All these activities and more – and they are only in their 4th week. The good thing is, they all seem to be very excited and ready to learn. Hopefully, by the end of the semester, we will have provided them with a great and thoroughly satisfying study abroad experience.