By Mylene M. Santos, Downstream Communications Manager, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation
“If you get killed by a rhino in the forest, you’ll be famous”, Simon Amos of the UK based FieldSkills expedition training company (www.fieldskills.com) bluntly remarked to an amused group of participants during the Health & Safety Briefing on Day 1 of the Business Planning Training for World Heritage Sites programme.
A sobering instance, since not only are rhinos typically not inclined to approach humans but, more importantly, they have become greatly endangered in recent years. Very few rhinos now survive outside protected areas (PAs)1, including natural world heritage sites – a stark reality that depicts serious biodiversity2 challenges facing our world today.
Tropical rainforests are critical for “the biodiversity they support, the weather patterns they influence, their part in water cycles, the carbon they take up from the atmosphere and store and, most importantly, how these and other factors interact to support global ecosystem functioning”. Forest ecosystems hold the vast majority of the world's terrestrial species and yet, ironically, these same ecosystems are under the greatest chronic pressure from human activities, particularly agriculture and urban development.
An absolute paradox is that while remaining forest areas continue to decline, the reliance on these same shrinking forests for products, both timber and non-timber, continue to increase and compounds the tensions.
Increasing populations and rising incomes largely caused many sensitive and biodiversity-rich ecosystems to come under threat, resulting in unprecedented drops in animal and plant species. Twenty percent of tropical forests and 50% of global wetlands have been destroyed in the past 50 years and in 2008, around 17 thousand species are threatened with extinction globally up from about 11,000 in 2000.
In the Philippines, a large number of endemic species in our tropical rain forest and the forest itself are now threatened with complete destruction, making the country a “hot spot”, or an area where there is a high probability of species extinctions. Quite a worrying state, as human survival largely depends on biological diversity, which together with ecosystems, underpin a wide range of support functions such as food production, soil formation, water purification, climate and disease regulation, primarily since 75% of our medicines are derived from plants, animals and microbiotic organisms.3
To reverse this alarming trend, a new mindset, new technologies and ‘new ways of working’ are required. In line with this, Shell continues to work together with various partners to help protect biodiversity and promote conservation, being the first in the industry to come up with a biodiversity standard, which includes a commitment not to explore or produce oil and gas resources within Natural World Heritage Sites, which are known to be home to some of the most threatened and spectacular species in the world.
Together with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.org), an internationally recognised conservation and training organisation, Shell helped begin implementation of the "Business Skills for World Heritage" programme in 2009. The five-year programme, funded by Shell and implemented by Earthwatch, is based on the successful "Business Planning for Natural World Heritage Site Managers" pilot project previously carried out between Shell Foundation and UNESCO, in the Philippines, Uganda and the Seychelles.
It is based on the principle of applying 'business thinking' to solve development and conservation problems, and the new 5-year initiative looks to bring this to a larger scale, creating a broader impact to selected world heritage sites while providing development opportunities for Shell staff.
As part of the programme, a total of nine site managers from Kinabalu Park (Malaysia), Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Philippines) and Ujung Kulon National Park (Indonesia) were selected to be part of the 11-day Expedition at one of the largest, most important and best-protected expanses of pristine lowland forest remaining in Southeast Asia, the Danum Valley Conservation Area on the island of Borneo, in Sabah Malaysia in October 2009.
A team of three Shell business planning specialists, including myself, and two Earthwatch professionals camped at Malua (within Danum Valley) to deliver classroom training to WHS participants on business planning skills, helping them develop or improve their respective business plans for the effective management of the world heritage sites.
Together with my two Malaysian co-mentors Szu-Li and Yew Wah, we set off on a month-long preparation beginning with a four-day ‘Train-the-Trainor’ course in September, needed to consolidate our business and mentoring skills and deliver the Business Skills Transfer Toolkit, which over the course of the following year will be used for giving virtual support to the WHS as they implement their plans.
Reading through the Expedition pack, sent a month prior to the actual expedition, I begun my journey to Malua filled with child-like excitement and anticipation towards having a first-hand experience living in a pristine rainforest, and going through a different type of volunteer opportunity.
I will later on realise that the Expedition will give me so much more, not just in terms of enabling myself as a Shell employee to make my contribution in providing real examples of how we live out our sustainable development commitments, but much more importantly, in helping broaden my personal perspectives and aspirations towards making a difference.
Amidst the lush environment and bonds forged while at the Malua camp, I gained a deeper understanding not just of the importance of forest ecosystems but the immense value of collaboration in the work of environment conservation. Having lectures while basking within the beauty of the forest, taking a three-hour trek and dirtying one’s hands (and legs!) with actual digging work and readying the ground for subsequent dipterocarp tree planting provided a perfect venue for learning.
The forest also teaches valuable lessons on diversity and inclusion (D&I), which are best applied in the workplace and society in general, e.g., learning that the littlest creatures like termites, more than the larger animals such as monkeys or elephants, have critical roles in maintaining the forests’ ecosystems. Living with my co-mentors and partner participants brought these learnings to life, as each came with diverse skills and experiences and the openness and generosity to share knowledge and trail blaze towards ensuring the future of the world heritage sites and the planet.
Nothing could have been more rewarding than besting one’s self in terms of surviving the rough forest environment, but hearing positive comments from the participants.
James Mendoza, Park Director for the Puerto Princesa Subterreanean River, which I will be mentoring for the next year, gratefully said that "this training will help me in overall management of the park", whilst Dr. Maklarin Lakim, a senior manager from Sabah Parks in Malaysia, commented that "We can use our learnings on almost anything, whether research or project management. We had a long history of business planning, but mostly ad hoc, we can employ this and benefit from it."
As my co-mentor Szu Li said, "conducting training sessions in the jungle has been a challenging, yet strangely enough life-enriching, experience. Going through this with my World Heritage site team has helped develop our relationship to a level which a traditional method of training may not have achieved."
For my part, the Expedition has been one life-changing learning experience, and which inspired in myself a deeper resolve to make a difference, while realising that more things are achieved by working together. I am optimistic that through Shell’s work in Malua, the World Heritage sites will reap the benefits of the training in the years to come. SWP
1 Protected Areas are places where special measures need to be taken to protect natural resources, primarily for sustaining viable populations of species and for the purpose of sustaining the flow of ecosystem goods and services to support indigenous and local communities’ lives and livelihoods.
2 The variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. (www.biodiv.org)