Two weeks ago, this column introduced Stefan Ottomanski as an educator who thrives on uncertainty. However, he is the first to admit that he did not acquire this trait by choice: It is simply a necessity in his classroom.
Ottomanski works for the Japan Wildlife Research Center in Tokyo, leading overseas training tours for Japanese students. Participants study marine and forest conservation practices in developing countries, side by side with local youth. These are immersion classes, and the environment provides a natural classroom.
For most people in Japan, knowledge of tropical forests and coral is limited to postcards sent by more intrepid friends. Ottomanski wants his students to understand that these natural wonders are more than simply features of an exotic vacation destination. For many people in the developing world, healthy reefs and forests make the difference between surviving and thriving.
“To residents of affluent countries, these two key ecosystems are known more for their aesthetic beauty and rich diversity of animals and plants,” says Ottomanski. “Both, however, play a vital economic role directly and indirectly in the lives of local people. Among other things, forests are ecosystems that play a huge role in conserving soil and water, without which farming and food production for millions of people becomes impossible. Coral reefs, too, are directly associated with the survival of many coastal people, providing an important source of food.”
This year, JWRC will conduct training tours in Leyte and Palawan in the Philippines, at several sites in Indonesia, and in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Ottomanski gave me a brief flavor of what participants will be learning.
Reforestation is often touted as a solution to deforestation, Ottomanski began, but replacing a forest is a delicate task. “We try to show our participants the basic steps of forest growth. By working with local communities and youth, we explore what the land means to local residents, with and without a forest.”
In practice, this means that JWRC participants are introduced to a number of basic concepts, including the difference between virgin and secondary forests; the role forests play in water conservation; the relationship between forests and soil preservation; the difficulties of reforestation; and how to enlist nature’s help in reforestation.
Elaborating on this, Ottomanski explains that for locals, forests mean water: “Water for irrigation, water for drinking and, in the rainy season, protection from too much water.” During tropical downpours, forests act like sponges, retaining water and preventing floods. In the dry season, the same sponge effect releases a steady supply of water that feeds springs and streams for drinking and irrigation.
“Soil, too, is crucial to local farmers,” adds Ottomanski. “People know that a forest won’t grow without soil, but once a forest is cleared, the soil disappears as well. To get the soil back, you need another forest. It is a chicken-and-egg problem.”
Given time and certain minimum conditions, nature will restore a forest. Unfortunately, the scale of degradation is often far greater than the forest’s capacity for regeneration. At these times, human intervention can make a difference. “By learning the basic rules nature follows to raise a forest, we can work with nature to rebuild the ecosystem,” Ottomanski says.
JWRC marine programs focus on the “forests of the sea,” though, as Ottomanski points out, the differences are considerable. “Coral reefs are far more ancient than our forests, and are not as accessible as terrestrial worlds.”
Before tourists began paying cash to see coral, locals probably spent little time contemplating the beauty of these crusty creatures. Reefs were far more valued for their bounty of food and the protection they offered from pounding waves.
Coral reefs are incredibly productive ecosystems, explains Ottomanski. Next to tropical forests, reefs are some of the world’s most biologically diverse and populous communities. They offer locals an abundant and varied food supply, and a marketable resource.
Coral is also the very foundation of much of Asia’s coastline and the islands that dot the Pacific. “The sand and the tropical coral islands with their coconut-palm-lined beaches were made by thousands of different calcium-producing animals on coral reefs,” explains Ottomanski. “Limestone mountains inland were also made by these animals, millions of years ago.”
An integral part of every JWRC marine conservation tour is a reef-check survey. After snorkeling among the myriad plants and animals, students begin to gain their first insights into how life on earth began. Ottomanski says, “For many people, the most appealing sea creatures are cute and playful species, such as dolphins, whales, sea turtles and sea otters, but all of these are latecomers to the seas: They returned after evolving on the land.” The organisms that wield the real power in the sea, he says, are the corals and plankton.
Ottomanski says he would love to expand opportunities for students to work and study abroad, but tours cost money and many students need financial help. Still, he is hopeful that government or foundation sources will offer support once they see the benefits of his programs. “What better way to invest in Japan than to create programs that train young Japanese, show them abroad at their best and aid people and the environment,” he asked me. What better way, indeed.