Was it a COP-out?

After a year’s delay, COP26 has now been, and gone. And the next Conference of the Parties, the 27th gathering of the 197 countries who make the decisions on how to fulfil the goals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which they all signed up for), is already being talked about. Next year, each nations’ negotiators, and their support teams, will meet in Egypt to share what they’ve been up to over the last year; what practical actions and/or policy changes and/or plans they’ve made to stick to their ‘promise’ of reducing their country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and by the amount that scientists think is needed in order for the world to stave off dangerous increases in temperature.

Are we not already beyond the dangerous increases stage? I think most scientists would say that the imperative of maintaining temperatures to 1.5°C is already unachievable. And misses the point. Certainly, the details of the agreement of nations made at COP26, to essentially “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of fossil fuels, will not accelerate our approach to limiting temperature rise to the mythical 1.5°C. But progress was made, I have heard.

Reflecting on the various conversations I’ve had with people much more involved in COP26 than me, and on reports I’ve read from the event, it seems that ‘nature’ and (some of) the voices of (some of) the people who aren’t normally given space at these talks, were considered. Big business is also, necessarily, supporting the development of fora between trading nations and of tools to more accurately monitor supply chains, especially for products coming from countries with vast areas of forests and peatlands, vulnerable to the power of the global commodities trade. The Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) dialogue is one fora. And Sainsbury’s are one ginormous business having a go at leading the way.

There were numerous individuals attending the Conference who were also leading the way. A great number walked to COP26 from across the UK. One very special guest walked to COP26 from Syria. Little Amal made the journey (with a bit of help!) to tell the “unpalatable truth” about the challenges faced by so many refugees. Michael Morpurgo gives a moving Point of View on the inspiration behind this brave girl. And her presence at COP26 also reminds us of the growing injustice wrought by climate change, in addition to the injustice that has gone into creating it. But I cannot talk with any authority on that subject. On the subject of peat however, I can.

Through my role as the Coordinator of the Expert Group on Peatlands and Biodiversity, of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Peatland Society, I had the opportunity to give a whistle-stop tour of the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon to the audience convened by the Global Peatlands Initiative. The UN-led Initiative is a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to coordinate and share information and expertise with the goal of promoting the conservation and sustainable management of the world’s peatlands. I presented the work of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium to the audience of the Peatland Pavilion at COP26, within the Peatland Partnerships in Climate Change Mitigation and Nature Recovery session, organised by the International Peatland Society. Intact peatlands are increasingly being acknowledged as a key natural way of mitigating against (through absorbing carbon) and preventing further increases in (if not drained & transformed) atmospheric CO2. It was evident from the extensive engagement that the Peatland Pavilion achieved (Michele Obama even popped by, apparently!) that peat is becoming acknowledged as one of the “superstars” of nature-based approaches to achieving Nationally Determined Contributions.

Promising words. Now to action.

The highs of boggy flows in 2020

To kick off what has already been an incredible year on many fronts (!), I was tasked with writing a post for the International Peatland Society’s blog, in my role as the Coordinator of the Peatlands and Biodiversity Expert Group within the organisation. Mark Harrison joined me in extracting some positive news about peatlands from 2020, to inspire us to keep speaking up for swamps in the year ahead. (The piece below is being reposted from the IPS blog, accessed here.) Onwards, and bog-wards.

As we say goodbye to 2020, to what has been an incredibly and unpredictably challenging year in many ways for many people, it is important to sift through the muddy (swamp) waters for positive news. For peatlands, the last 12 months have provided many sources of hope. Various happenings have brought the societal relevance of peatlands further into the public eye, and shone light on some of the great work of peatland scientists and practitioners across the world. Here are a few highlights (hopefully you also know of many more!).

There is a passionate campaign underway to make The Flow Country into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced in July that it will support the bid to UNESCO to consider this vast area of blanket bog as a significant jewel in humanity’s crown. If The Flow Country peatlands, which cover 2,000 km2 within the region of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, are given World Heritage Site status, they will enjoy increased resources for their protection and restoration (supporting further excellent work such as this), and helping the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets. The campaign team are busy working on the nomination materials, which will be reviewed by the UNESCO Committee in 2023. In the meantime whilst we await their decision, the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve continues to provide access to this wonderful site (in the absence of Covid-restrictions!).

This year has seen noteworthy articles published that raise awareness of the importance of peatlands as an irrecoverable carbon stock (Goldstein et al., 2020), highlight the importance of better understanding peatland carbon dynamics and incorporating them into global climate models (Loisel et al., 2020), evaluate the relative impacts of incentive vs. deterrent interventions on peat fire outcomes (Carmenta et al., 2020), and assess the value of understanding people’s engagement with peatlands and the reasons behind “caring for Cinderella” (Byg et al., 2020). In addition to these, and of central relevance to this year’s main news story, Harrison et al. (2020) published an article describing the role that tropical peatlands play in the context of global disease pandemics.

Covid-19 has touched us all, including the communities living in the World’s peatlands. Working with an international team of co-authors (including us both), Harrison et al. (2020), make apposite connections between the current Covid-19 pandemic and tropical peatlands drawing attention to the consequences of neglecting this globally important ecosystem in these challenging times. We describe how tropical peatlands could prove a potential source of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the future, with wildlife harvesting and habitat degradation bringing people into contact with potential animal vectors. Of more immediate effect, we describe the likely/ensuing impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is already having on communities living in and around tropical peatlands. Food security, health provisioning and livelihoods have been compromised by the interruptions to transport resulting from the pandemic within the peatlands of Borneo and the Peruvian Amazon. Peatland research, restoration and conservation have also all been disrupted, increasing the susceptibility of already degraded peatland areas to fire and illegal activities. On a positive note, the article concludes by providing specific recommendations on how tropical peatlands can be managed to mitigate the risks of this pandemic and potential future ones. Hopefully these recommendations will be heeded.

Buenos Aires, Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon
Urarina indigenous groups

Many tropical peatland areas are vulnerable to the impacts, whether directly or indirectly, of Covid-19 (Harrison et al., 2020). A remote tropical peatland community in Buenos Aires (upper image), within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon, which is accessible only by boat. People living here and in neighbouring communities rely heavily on resources extracted from the surrounding peat-forming Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps. Urarina indigenous groups living in peat-rich areas, harvest palm leaves from which to make textiles (lower image); important both practically and culturally for these isolated communities. The palms also offer plentiful food for wild fauna and thus the palm swamps in which they grow are important hunting spaces for people, providing bushmeat in locations far from the nearest market. Photo credits: Lydia Cole.

Finally, the UK Government has been put under further pressure recently to ban peat compost for amateur gardeners. The UK aimed to phase out peat compost for home use in England this year, but the target was only voluntary, meaning political will is limited and enforcement non-existent. Campaigns drawing attention to this Government failing are helping to ensure it does not go unnoticed.

Despite these ‘wins’ for peatlands in 2020, there remain many challenges to protecting these invaluable ecosystems sufficiently from degrading human activities (for example in the Congo basin and Indonesian Borneo). Continuing to bring peatlands into public view and onto national and international policy agendas is vital, and one that the International Peatland Society is committed to as we dive into 2021.  

Dr. Lydia Cole, Coordinator IPS Biodiversity Expert Group
University of St. Andrews

Dr. Mark E. Harrison
University Of Exeter, Cornwall

Making an impact….in UK environmental policy

On 6th March B.C. (just before lock-down), I organised an event at the snazzy, “gold-standard of sustainability” British Ecological Society Offices in London, to let ecologists know how they can Make an Impact: Understanding the ways they can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy.  The event was held jointly by the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group and the BES Policy Team.  We had an excellent bunch of speakers and a room-full of engaged attendees.

I thought I’d post some of the resources from the day here:

Now over to you/me/us.  And perhaps now is the time to think about what changes are possible, what a different world could look like A.C. and how we can influence that.

Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

The Jungle Book Part II: Still no Paddington

I return to tell a few tales of my recent stint of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project: Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands: an Interdisciplinary Challenge.

In early December, I returned to a cold and dark Scotland after two months in a warm and sunny Peru. Although, after spending weeks in mosquito-ridden swamps, it was a relief to at least leave them behind. The warmth and sunshine, less so!

Since early October, I had been based, along with Luis, another postdoctoral fellow from the University of St Andrews, and Charlotte, from the University of Edinburgh, in the central Amazonian town of Iquitos; the largest city without a road connection to the rest of the world. We spent several days there in between trips, organising the logistics, equipment and food for each period of fieldwork. All of our work is done in collaboration with, and would be impossible without, the fantastic team of ecologists and anthropologists based at IIAP (Instituto de las Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana).

This recent trip upstream to the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin was the second of two that we made as a group in 2019. I wrote a bit about the previous one here. Earlier in the year we didn’t have time to visit all of the four communities we intended to, so returned to spend time in and collect data from the final two: Nueva Pandora (on the Tigrillo tributary of the Chambira River) and Jenaro Herrera (on the larger Ucayali river). We also revisited the two communities we’d got to know back in May and June of 2019: Veinte de Enero (at the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Park) and Nueva Union (on the Chambira river), to fill in some data gaps and to train more community members in how to use a personalised data collection tool, ODK.

Six action-packed weeks were spent up-river altogether, splitting our time between each community. As before, each day involved squelching out into the surrounding wetlands. Our goal was to learn more about the types of forests that the community uses or in some way interacts with, and what the belowground environment and aboveground ecology was in each location. We were guided to areas of importance (appropriate for surveying) by a community member, seeming to effortlessly navigate the sucking swamps. Meanwhile, we would stop to tip out the sloshing aquarium in our wellies every few hundred metres! If our community guide told us it would take 30 minutes to get to a certain site, we knew it would take us double that, minimum.

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Some of the incredibly strong women in Nueva Pandora, who were carrying kilos of palm shoots that they’d just harvested in the leach-infested swamps, back to their homes 30+ minutes away, without wellies. We stood and watching in awe as we set up a plot, in wellies.

Each location contributed a new angle to the story of lowland peatland development and ecology in the Peruvian Amazon and gave us food for thought on how people use this challenging landscape. Each location also yielded a novel short-term challenge, whether it be swarms of incessant bees, mosquitos who pay no attention to clothing or repellent, thigh-deep water, buckets of water being poured down from the heavens, snake super-highways, or ants who somehow turn up in your pants. Character-building at best; madness-inducing at worst. To my surprise, I left the jungle this time with a new love of the Amazon and its many wonders.

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Bees – many and everywhere.

With the majority of the fieldwork now complete, it’s time to find out exactly what’s inside the many bags of samples that we brought back with us (peat or organic matter-rich mineral soil?) and explore the ecological and social survey data we collected. One major goal of the project is to produce a cohesive output that combines the quantitative ecological data with the qualitative social survey data, which will tell the story of the local value of the variety of wetland ecosystems in the PMFB. This will be a challenge, as is often the case in interdisciplinary work, but one that we are primed for.

Another major goal is to return to each community with the relevant results of our study and of the interactive studies that community members are carrying out with ODK, in order to enrich their knowledge, where relevant, and thus capacity to manage their relations to their environment, the people they interact with and the State.

And of course, we have to return to defend our title on the football pitch. And to find Paddington.

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Our visiting Jiiri team posing with Nueva Pandora’s home team, the Leuuakus, after a long football match (and a long day in the swamp!). I am indebted too all of these people for their help and kindness over many days in the jungle.

Sucked in (to the swamps)

About a month ago, I got back from my first ever trip to the continent of South America.  And the reason for my visit?  Peat, of course.  Here is a blog post I wrote for my new(ish) research group, the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, on my recent adventure to the “chupaderas”, or sucking swamps, of the western Amazon. 

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A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

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Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

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The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot.  Spot the agile one up the tree.  Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease!  (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

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Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.

 

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?

Las turberas de Peru

I learnt a new word this week: turberas.  In about three weeks’ time, I’ll be off to Peru’s turberas.  In case you hadn’t guessed, turberas = peat.  My new gig is on a project entitled Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands.  I’ll be heading out to Iquitos, a city (inaccessible by road – for better or for worse) within the Peruvian Amazon, which will be the base from where a crew of us researchers will be heading into the swamp forests this side of the Andes.

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Talking shop with the team, at the edge of a bog.

There are still a fair few questions to answer on the exact details of the research and the associated fieldwork that we will be doing, but we made huge head-way this week at our first project meeting.  We were fortunate to have four of our Peru-based colleagues join us (all from the Instituto de Investigaciones Amazonía Peruana) for three and a half days of intense discussions.  And my, it was frazzling.  (I have a new-found respect for the MPs of the UK Parliament after two+ years of what have effectively been intense interdisciplinary discussions.)  This project is the first truly interdisciplinary one I’ve been a part of, i.e. much more than just lip-service is being given to the notion of working together, across disciplines, to answer some multifaceted questions.  I’m re-learning the importance of patience, open-mindedness, clarity, humility and perspective: all immensely valuable skills for any project, and any well-lived life.

I will write more about the project as the days fly by, but at this point, one of the persisting aspects of it (whilst others seem to come and go with the wind!) is that we’re interested in finding out how and why people are interacting with their environment, notably the boggy bits of it.  For me, it’s such an exciting project, and certainly as interesting as it is challenging.  And it’s such a privilege to work with a team of passionate Peruvians, and an engaged UK-based crew, spanning the social and natural sciences.

Watch this space for more reflections on working interdisciplinarily (a word? – probably in the social sciences), and for news on how I fare in a real-life intact peat swamp.  A rare and wonderful space these days.

Coming to the end of Condatis

And at the times when I’ve not been doing burpies on the Docks in the dark (see this post), my last month has been filled with more flights than a whole forest could offset.  Mostly to get to places in the Tropics, in order to have meetings in air conditioned offices, about how to connect up landscapes for biodiversity under the influence of future climate change and habitat loss.  (I’m not sure yet how this common practice, even amongst conservation scientists, can be changed.  Thoughts welcomed!)

I’ve written a little bit about my recent trips to Ghana and Indonesia on the Condatis website.  Overall, it’s been a fascinating ten months in Liverpool for me, working on this Condatis project.  I’ve met some very great people, and learnt a huge amount from them and from my new experiences in work and play.  At the start of January, I’m migrating north, to the chilly shores of bonny Scotland (to work on PEAT!!), but hope to keep up my ties with Condatis, its great team, and the other cultures and kids I’ve gathered in Scouseland.

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One of the many beautiful forests I’ve visited this year, in the Heart of Borneo.

 

Action for all sorts, plus Conservation

Back in September, I spent five magical days with a bunch of 14 young people, on the beautiful National Trust Stackpole Estate in Pembrokeshire.  I was volunteering for Action for Conservation (AFC): a UK-based charity that started some three years ago, when one masters student (the inspirational Hendrikus) noticed a gaping hole in the secondary school syllabus when it came to environmental education.  It’s an ongoing privilege to be involved with the charity, and from the days of its inception; I watch, with pride, as it grows so unfalteringly, testament to its perceived, and real importance in society today.  I’ve written more about AFC in this blogpost.  If the next generation don’t feel any connection to the (semi)natural world, they will not work to protect it.  And if it’s not protected, wars and famines will likely be commonplace in the future, with the inequality we see today becoming even more extreme.  The recently published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC gives some insights (from actual experts) into what our future already holds.

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Contemplating conservation….

Vitally however, we need to spend more time and effort imagining positive futures (as a talk by Frank Cottrell-Boyce at the Liverpool Literary Festival reminded me last weekend) in order for them to become a reality.  And that’s what AFC encourages young people to do.  My week with AFC on the welsh riviera back in August, was a real privilege.  We spent five days exploring the different environments around the coastline; experiencing “sit-spots” in enchanted forests (slightly confusing the beach-goers when they spotted 20 silent elves lying in the leaves) and on wind-swept beaches under the stars; learning about the different constellations whilst reclining (accidentally) on cow-pats; searching for anemones in a rocky harbour; getting grass-stains playing stuck-in-the-mud, and imagining future landscapes that could accommodate wildlife and people.  The young campers came up with all sorts of incredible ideas, full of innovation, interdisciplinary thinking and understanding of how some kind of ‘harmony’ could be achieved.

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The lily ponds at beautiful Stackpole.

In essence, the goal of the AFC camps is to take young people outside (some of whom have never seen the sea before).  By exposing people to the wind and rain, sunshine and sea, mud and sand, they feel a connection with their environment that they increasingly don’t or can’t get in their everyday lives.  The campers are led through all sorts of exercises that teach them how to reflect on their internal situation and their external surroundings, to learn about and be aware of the perspectives and situations of other campers and to think about how they can improve things in their local environment.

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Tom’s sea-horse in the leaves.

At the end of the trip, I felt the children had taught me just as much as I’d tried to teach them.  Here are some of my main learnings, with all credit going to the inspiring young people whom AFC is proud to now call Ambassadors:

  • Child safeguarding – what this involves, and just how important it is today;
  • How much young people are already defining the future through their knowledge and actions;
  • How much we can learn from them (not just on how to attach rabbit ears to your Insta-face-gram), with every individual (inevitably) being a reflection of the adults they’re exposed to as they prepare to fledge their nest; and,
  • Most importantly, how essential it is that each individual is given the space to learn, to love and to develop their values, and all in an environment where they feel nurtured.

Without space to grow and learn how to be a responsible and compassionate person in this challenging world, young people, or in fact any people, are unlikely to give a **i* about the natural environment on which we all depend.  Fact.

~

Another privilege of joining the AFC camp, was waking up on the Pembrokeshire coast, with the sound of sheep munching in the next field, putting on my trainers and skipping down to the sea for a sunrise swim.  A magical place, and space.

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Skinny-dipping at sunrise.