Believing in themselves and the future: Youth at the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum

Photo: Youth in Landscapes Initiative
Photo: Youth in Landscapes Initiative

By Corey Watts

What do a Ugandan lawyer, a Mexican engineer, a Nepalese agriculture student, a Canadian policy advisor, and an Italian forest scientist have in common? They are all young, they are all innovators in their field, and they are all passionate about people and their environments.

They are also all part of a group of 50 similarly talented young people selected from around the world to take part in the Youth in Landscapes Initiative ahead of the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Paris. The Initiative got underway on 1 December, ahead of the GLF, with four days of intensive workshops designed to inspire “collaborative, compassionate and courageous” leadership for landscapes.

Fun and energizing, the program saw the youth go deep into the thorniest problems facing landscape professionals. By bringing together diverse participants from all over the world and creating a safe space, the workshops enabled participants to take risks, connect with one another and build an inclusive community.

Michelle Kovacevic, a science communicator and one of the Initiative’s organizers, says the program challenges young people to find solutions and faith in themselves. “When young people are given the chance to really apply their passion and their minds to these problems some truly interesting sparks are set flying.”

The work not only challenged young people to focus on the problems but also sought to equip them with the networking, negotiation, pitching and facilitation skill essential to implementing the landscape approach. It also allowed them to see just how important those skills are – to see results.

In the case of one young Ethiopian man, a casual conversation with a co-participant from Costa Rica led to an introduction to the Costa Rican Minister for Agriculture, Luis Felipe Arauz.

A Peruvian woman who took part in the program in Lima in 2014 was motivated to design a similar curriculum for rural youth in her country. Good ideas have a habit of spreading and a Rwandan participant already plans to adapt the Paris program to young farmers back home.

During the four-day program, the young people worked on key challenges tied to each of the themes of the GLF: rights and tenure, finance and trade, restoration, and measuring progress, together with education. They were mentored by senior professionals.

Their work culminated in a “Dragon’s Den” event at which they had to pitch their solutions a steely-eyed board of directors drawn from the likes of the World Bank, the Global Water Initiative and Danone.

Scared and inspired

One pitcher described the Dragon’s Den as “scary but inspiring.” Having been taken to the limit and taken seriously, however, participants’ belief in themselves and each other rose dramatically.

And, by making themselves vulnerable in a supportive environment, participants were transformed and transformed the process itself.

Kovacevic speaks of a young Colombian woman with ambitions to enroll in a master’s program in the United States, but who found herself struggling to engage in the English proceedings. Clearly upset, she was encouraged to seek support from her team and, over the workshop, built up the confidence to pitch at the Dragons Den.

That same confidence was overflowing when youth representative Salina Abraham delivered her closing speech – one of the most refreshing and exciting of the whole GLF. “To us,” said Abraham, “this wasn’t just an exercise. It wasn’t just a game. These could be real-world solutions to real-world challenges.”

Indeed, the Rights and Tenure Challenge, for example, asks youth to come up with new ways to ensure the rights of local people and their knowledge are properly integrated into REDD+ safeguards.

Abraham called for the integration of youth into the work being done on landscape sustainability in institutions around the world. “I’m asking you to consider youth like you consider regional diversity, consider youth like we consider race and ethnicity, consider youth like you consider gender,” she said.

Match-making for sustainability

Not content with waiting for that to happen, the organizers of the Youth in Landscapes Initiative are piloting a long-term mentoring program – a kind of “match-making” between young and senior professionals.

“For young people who have never at attended a high-level international event like GLF, diving into a conference of people 3,000 strong is scary,” says Kovacevic. By pairing them with senior professionals drawn from partner businesses, governments, NGOs and research institutions, young people will be able to start small but with potential for enormous growth.

Amy Duchelle, an expert of rights and tenure at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said mentoring was one of her favorite things in Paris this year. “Spending even just an hour with these young professionals left me feeling energized and inspired. I can’t wait to follow the careers of these talented people!”

A small subgroup of mentors and mentees were selected to co-design the mentoring program in ways that work best for them and that could serve as a model for others. In this way, emerging and experienced professionals will continue to learn from each other, deepening their relationships and broadening their reach.

Investment in young people is investment in landscapes

Youth were strongly represented in the GLF itself, with around 600 young professionals – about one for every five senior participants – many of them from the developing world.

The case for listening to young people and putting youth at the heart of landscape institutions is compelling. They not only have the biggest stake in the future, but their immersion in landscape thinking and practice is an investment sure to pay off.

Sustainable landscapes, by their very nature, demand long-range thinking. As Salina Abraham put it, “We cannot make the critical progress that we truly need without and inclusive and intergenerational effort.”

Crucially, it is at forums like the GLF that young people will forge the relationships needed to cross-fertilize ideas within and between landscapes. Ultimately, the global impact of these young landscape leaders is immeasurable and invaluable.