It’s not the usual university setting for students of the international degree programme “Tropical and International Forestry”. Rather than sit in the classroom, they fly to the tropics to investigate forests and develop their sustainable land-use plan. Soon these future ecologists at the University of Göttingen will be heading to Vietnam.
Last year, 20 students in the Tropical and International Forestry programme spent four weeks investigating the rainforests on the small island of Leyte in central Philippines. The tropical forests on Leyte are incredibly diverse – a very impressive natural resource that also happens to be endangered. The students from Göttingen are developing a concept that will help protect the biodiversity of these forests.
Field work is an integral part of the two-year Master’s degree programme, which brings together aspiring forest ecologists and forestry scientists from around the world. “Two-thirds of our students come from developing countries,” says Professor Dirk Hölscher, who is director of the international degree programme and also serves as the project’s coordinator.
Using the spade instead of the laptop
The students get involved in planning and organising the research trips months in advance. “We also call the project ‘Students’ Project’, because the participants are largely responsible for organising the travel and the research themselves,” says Hölscher. One student serves as “Health Minister”, for example, informing the others about the necessary inoculations. Then there’s the “Visa Commissioner”, who helps organise the paperwork involved in the application process.
The most recent research area was a lowland rainforest near the Philippine town of Silago, which was accessed during road construction. Following a visit to Visayas State University, Göttingen’s partner university in the Philippines, the students began their field work. In small groups they counted the trees, measured them, analysed the soil layers and gathered data on air moisture and temperature. “Working so closely and intensively with fellow students from so many different countries was a big challenge,” recalls participant Maria Montés from Colombia. “But in the end, we were able to overcome cultural barriers and we became a big family.”
Conversations with village residents
Contact with the local population was also part of the project, since creating a forest conservation/management plan must always consider the real-life needs of the people living there. “The forests are the source of their livelihood, which is why limited timber harvesting should be allowed in buffer zones, as well as environmentally friendly cultivation of coffee or cocoa,” says Hölscher. “This is something that needs to be integrated into the plan.”
Maria Montés and her fellow students used a questionnaire to identify the needs and opinions of the villagers. “The residents shared with us everything they know,” reports Montés. “They were open, friendly and generous with their hospitality and in the end we all felt very much at home.”
Back in Germany
Back in Germany, the students evaluated their data and recorded their results in reports, which then formed the basis for the comprehensive forest management plan. After the professors reviewed the plan they then sent it to the communities and the partner university in the Philippines.
The plan contains recommendations on how to protect the rainforest over a ten-year timeframe, including sustainable cultivation of dedicated buffer zones. Only rarely do the ideas actually get implemented. “Our main goal is to teach the students how to create this kind of land-use plan,” says Hölscher. Nevertheless, the hands-on teaching method makes a lasting impression in the countries visited. “A few years ago we were in Indonesia. The university there was so impressed with our results that it has now created a very similar project,” says Hölscher.
The next field trip will take students to a rainforest near the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. At the University of Göttingen, preparations for the Vietnam tour are already in full swing.