Getting back to the grassroots

Source:China Daily   Date:2012-09-25

At the age of 60, Natarajan Ishwaran is a well-known figure in the international conservation community- he has 30 years of experience in teaching and research in and building international partnerships for environment, conservation and sustainable development.

And he served as director of the Division of Ecological and Earth Sciences of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization until July 31, when he decided it was time for a change of direction.

Instead of sitting in an office and giving instructions to UNESCO staff members, he will now work at the grassroots at China's World Heritage sites and biosphere reserves, to influence changes that simultaneously help people's lives and the environment.

"In the immediate past, when I was a UNESCO director, I more often saw things from above, and had less chance to go to specific places to talk to local inhabitants, industry owners, NGOs, and to see what was happening there.

"Now I am going back to my past before I was the director, when my work was more directly connected to moving things on the ground," Ishwaran said.

Ishwaran is taking part in a government-funded program for foreign experts, which plans to recruit 500 to 1,000 high-end non-Chinese foreign professionals from outside China over the next 10 years to help spur innovation, and promote scientific research and international partnerships.

Each expert will be sponsored for three years' research in China, and Ishwaran is one of the first batch of 40 foreign experts who are already in the country.

"It is not difficult to have new ideas, but it is difficult to convert your idea into on the ground practices that can help both people and the environment. And China is such a good place to test my ideas," he said.

Ishwaran said he chose to come to China as it has numerous wildlife and heritage sites, an effective system to translate policy into on-the-ground action, and there are many sites and the necessary human and technical resources to experiment with improvements. .

Ishwaran recalled a story about China. In 1990 Huangshan Mountain in eastern China was included on the World Heritage List, but tourism increased too much in the following years, so UNESCO advised the local government to regulate the development of tourism in the area.

After consultation with UNESCO, the authorities decided to shift all tourism infrastructure development to areas outside of the World Heritage site. China and UNESCO also cooperated to implement training and other activities to strengthen employees' skills at the site.

"This is one of the best managed World Heritage areas for tourism. And the local government undertook actions it had to and which often would be very difficult in many other countries," Ishwaran said.

"China is so large and there are so many differences, and that is why we have to get down to the specific places to make changes taking place gradually," he added.

Hong Tianhua, deputy director of the International Center on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage under the Auspices of UNESCO, and Ishwaran's partner in the China program, said he will be of great help to the center's development.

"Ishwaran was an UNESCO director and has an extensive network in the international community, so he can surely help increase the visibility of our space technologies center.

"Also, the purpose of the government's foreign experts program, include importing first-class managerial talents from abroad, is to help us upgrade our own scientific research management, and Ishwaran is such a person," Hong said.

Having just arrived in China, Ishwaran is not yet able to tell how he will spend the next three years in China, though he plans to first use two months to choose a site to start with.

"I hope more young people in China will participate in the program, and that the project will last more than three years. I hope it to continue with or without me.

"Amid the slowdown of the global economy, environmentally friendly technologies may become a future direction.

"And science has a lot to do to make people visualize alternative futures; remote sensing technologies in particular can help scientists and planners to jointly construct land use and conservation scenarios for the future that are sustainable."