Stepping towards a more environmentally conscious community

At the STEP Environment Camp (SEC) 2021 held in November, 100 youths aged 17 to 19 years old from 10 Southeast Asian countries and China gathered virtually to discuss issues focusing on the theme of biodiversity conservation. The camp, organised by the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory and co-facilitated by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum with support from Temasek Foundation, aimed to nurture and deepen passion for the environment among youths through lectures and workshops conducted by experts in wildlife conservation and habitat protection in Asia.

Guest-of-Honour Mr Alvin Tan, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, as well as Trade and Industry, spoke at the SEC 2021 opening ceremony on how championing for environmental issues had to be an international effort. He also elaborated on the many global agreements and declarations that addressed biodiversity. In particular, he highlighted UN summits such as COP-26 and COP-15 Part One which “aim to change how we understand and relate to biodiversity” and “achieve a way of living that is in harmony with nature”.

Experiencing nature and the local community online

The camp programme, which was held entirely online due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, included virtual field trips where participants explored various ecosystems through an interactive platform with pre-recorded 360° videos. Patiparn Sittinisaisuk from the Institute for Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology in Thailand, expressed how these virtual field trips inspired him to visit Singapore’s shoreline and mangrove forests to learn about the differences in the marine environments of Thailand and Singapore.

The online experience also allowed the students and teacher-chaperones to have interesting exchanges on their unique local backgrounds. A common topic that came up during the breaks was the local food the students were having for lunch. While these were light-hearted conversations, Assoc Prof Kayan Ma, a teacher-chaperone from Sun Yat-Sen University in China, took it as a time to reflect. She said, “There’s a Chinese saying that those who live near the hill eat from the hill, those who live near the sea eat from the sea. We can really see that when the participants from Southeast Asia talked about their local cuisines. Food is important, but overexploitation can lead to species extinction or even collapse of ecosystems. That’s one of the biodiversity crises we are facing. So, I hope our students can learn to eat sustainably.”

Learning about environmental issues in the region

The students had the opportunity to gain insights from the experiences of environmental experts in Asia. One of whom was keynote speaker Dr Tries Blandine Razak from Institut Pertanian Bogor University, Indonesia, who shared about her research on reviewing reef restoration projects carried out in the last 30 years. Participants learnt about the damage caused by dynamite fishing in Indonesia and how the lack of relevant expertise led to poor attempts to restore the reefs and wildlife.

Professor Gopalasamy Reuben Clements from Sunway University in Malaysia, gave an engaging and poignant talk on his research experience and firsthand encounters with poaching. Xavier Choo from Nanyang Junior College in Singapore said, “Prof Reuben shared his experience of meeting a three-legged tiger whose leg got detached from snare traps. Looking at how it struggles to walk was heartbreaking, and it opened my eyes to how much more we need to do to ensure we protect our environment, both in Singapore and globally.”

Making a difference

SEC 2021 closed with a Youth for the Environment Symposium, where participants presented solutions to conserve specific animal species or habitats, using the lessons they had gleaned during the camp. The winning presentations focused on the conservation of turtles and mangroves.

At the end of the five-day camp, the students expressed their interest in sharing the knowledge they have gained, not just due to their personal fascination with the topics discussed, but also in the hope of educating others about environmental conservation, and raising awareness of climate change and human impact on the environment.

“Knowing there are people who would go the extra mile - whether it’s in the field or laboratory - to protect our environment, like the SEC speakers, makes me feel hopeful that we, the youths, are able to do it too,” said participant Siti Aisyah Binti Haji Abdul Jalal from Science, Technology and Environment Partnership (STEP) Centre in Brunei.