Contributed by Evelyn Roe

Workshop participants at Paro airport

The polite rain of south-west England taps on my window. I lift my eyes from the keyboard and soft memories of the ISE Congress arrive like mist over Dartmoor. Bhutan is a far-off place, and the workshop just a dream: a dream of friendship, culture, learning, and un-learning.

But, as I inhale again the tangy, pine-filled air that claimed me as I stumbled out of the coach on that first, dark arrival at the hostel in the mountains, my mind sharpens, and I am back in Lobesa in an instant.

Dawn on our first day in the new hostel at the College of Natural Resources: I turn over in bed to peek at the pale light barely reaching over the mountain-tops, and tiptoe out on to the balcony. My gaze stretches through the cool air, which breathes me in. There is nothing that looks, smells, tastes, or sounds familiar, but my heart feels completely at home. This feeling settles in me throughout the four days of the workshop, kindled by the warmth of my fellow ethnobiologists and enhanced by the graceful hospitality of our Bhutanese hosts.

The International Network of Emerging Ethnobiologists (INEE) was founded in Canada in 2010 at the Tofino ISE Congress, with the aims of fostering international connections between emerging ethnobiologists, and establishing a support network of mentors. In 2012, in Montpellier, the INEE workshop provided a rich and enjoyable experience of how students and mentors can nurture reciprocal learning in an informal setting; the success of this event encouraged the INEE student representatives to plan a third pre-Congress event for Bhutan.

The Lobesa workshop was certainly international, not only because of the diverse origins of the participants, but also from the geographical range of our research projects. It was an A-to-Z of ethnobiology: from Australia to Zambia, with nearly 20 other nations in between!

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the epithet, Emerging. It suggests qualities of curiosity, inquisitiveness, and expression of potential; unfolding, exploring one’s new world, coming into the light, becoming visible, revealing oneself, entering the picture. These qualities and gestures were much in evidence as we shared our early experiences of academic inquiry and fieldwork, and expressed our hopes for the future.

View from the CNR hostel at dawn

Alain Cuerrier’s session, ‘Supporting a new generation of ethnobiologists’, provided a structure for exploring these hopes. He invited us to examine our individual attitudes towards, and experiences of, different research and work environments. To facilitate this, each of us placed our name on a large chart to represent where we imagine ourselves in the future. In an academic institution? Independent consultant? Working with NGOs, perhaps? Or, the least popular choice, within a commercial environment. This led to lively discussion, with a thought-provoking contribution from Gary Martin who suggested that independence from institutional and governmental funding may allow for a more creative environment for inquiry and well-being.

This session also brought deep reflection about our potential roles in those different environments. Of course, being ethnobiologists, we mostly perched on edges; and some, like Verna Miller, placed ourselves outside all the boxes!

Verna’s session on indigenous research methods and protocol was insightful and, as always, she spoke from the heart, and from her personal experience of what it means to be indigenous. She gave us an important reminder that observation and experimentation are found not only in mainstream Western science, but are inherent in indigenous science, too.

Jon Corbett began his presentation dressed untypically in a collar and tie and a rather uncomfortable jacket. To our great relief, as he progressed through his talk he took off the jacket and threw away the tie! Point made: pay attention to how you present yourself in different contexts. The theme of his session was ‘Balancing academic and practical research outcomes’ and, after introducing the concept of ‘gatekeepers’ within societies and institutions, Jon gave us the opportunity to share our own experiences as students and researchers. This was a very valuable activity, as everyone had much to contribute and the quality of listening was high.

Listening was also an important feature of Kelly Bannister’s session, ‘A relational ethics approach’. Rejecting the mindset of those who view indigenous communities as sources of knowledge and resources, Kelly, and others who work with the Ethics Committee of the ISE, are raising awareness, codifying ethical guidance, and creating practical tools to address the interests and rights of all research partners. In her session, she helped us feel our way into what an ‘ethical space’ might mean, bringing awareness of the issues into the heart of our own projects. Kelly believes that ethics is the capacity to know what harms or enhances the well-being of others, and reminded us that mindfulness is at the core of the ISE Code of Ethics. Perhaps, in a future workshop, we could also address the issue of the interests and rights of plants as fellow living beings.

Plants were certainly appreciated – and consumed (gratefully, of course!) – in Gary Martin’s delicious ‘Ethnobotany Break’, in which we tasted food brought by participants from different countries. We dipped Japanese crackers into chilli pepper sauce from St. Lucia and spooned Gary’s Moroccan rose jelly down our hot throats; we crunched manuka honey biscuits from New Zealand and ginger snaps from England; and washed it all down with Hungarian tea!

It was hard to distinguish students from mentors, as the boundary was dynamic. The broad age range, warmth of friendship, and the focus on genuine dialogue, rather than on a one-way flow of information and instruction, all contributed to the sense of a strong support network. Nemgyal, one of the Bhutanese students who joined us on the workshop, commented, “I’m really enjoying the interaction between mentors and students – there is no hierarchy and all are mingling, young and old alike!”

We enjoyed a unique perspective on Bhutan from Om Katel, an enthusiastic lecturer with the Department of Forestry in the College of Natural Resources (CNR), which is part of the Royal University of Bhutan. His research relates to conservation and management of natural resources, of which he has a global view, having travelled to more than 30 countries while doing his PhD in Thailand. He presented his insights from recent visits to Norway and Switzerland.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering how many more activities to describe: astonishingly, there were also field trips and guided walks, further presentations and group sessions, and a birthday party and wine-sampling, all in four days! Other participants have written about some of these in their blogs, but I have just two more experiences I would like to share.

The workshop was framed beautifully by two different ‘book-ends’. To open, we had a captivating and inspiring speech by the Director-General of the CNR, Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, who quietly posed the question, ‘Why are we always striving for more, and when will we feel that we have enough?’ To close, we had a rowdy dancing circle in the hostel kitchen, where we sang our hearts out, and hugged each other and the wonderful Bhutanese people who made us feel so at home. One event was mindful, the other playful…but both created a feeling of abundance, of having more than enough, an appreciation which has stayed with me to this day. Thus, I give my warmest thanks to Jigme Dorji, Anna Varga, and Olivia Sylvester, for making it all possible.

I’ll end with an entry from my journal, which I wrote as we travelled together from the workshop to the Congress venue, a full day’s drive from Lobesa to Jakar, Bumthang.

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For further details about the International Network of Emerging Ethnobiologists, please visit the INEE website.