Mangrove conservationist Camille Rivera joins the Global Landscapes Forum Digital Conference from a remote hilltop in the Philippines, near where she conducts her work. Photo: Aoibheann Gillespie-Mules

Digital conferencing: our best new tool for addressing global crises?

The Global Landscapes Forum's digital conference breaks ground on climate, social and knowledge-sharing benefits

On 3–5 June, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) made its online conference debut with the GLF Bonn Digital Conference. A bumper crowd of almost 5,000 participants – compared to 600 at last year’s physical event – tuned in from 185 countries to explore ways to rebuild the planet’s food systems after the coronavirus pandemic, exchanging 25,000 messages and arranging 130 virtual meetups in the process.

The power of digital

The virtual format made for a more accessible and climate-friendly event, said Tony Simons, director general of World Agroforestry (ICRAF). “We couldn’t do analog because of COVID-19, but in a way, that’s kind of good: the ‘Global Lockdown Forum’ is saving those airfares and carbon footprints, so there’s a positive that has come from this crisis,” he said.

From cooking shows to data science workshops, the GLF also experimented with a range of new formats to engage its digital audience. Chef Ada Parellada introduced viewers to arròs amb conill, a traditional Catalan rice dish with rabbit meat. Made entirely from locally-sourced and seasonal produce, the dish is designed to be made from leftovers to ensure that no food goes to waste.

Ghanaian musician and activist Rocky Dawuni made a quick cameo, performing an acoustic rendition of his latest song, “Champion Arise”. “It’s a song about all of us harnessing our individual and collective power to push forward and become catalysts for positive change around the world,” said Dawuni.

Participants were also treated to a Zoom-powered tour of mangrove ecosystems on the Philippine island of Negros, guided by local conservation expert Camille Rivera. Local community members are working to reforest the area and prevent illegal fishing, as shown in Hidden Heroes, an accompanying short documentary by filmmakers Michael Du and Justin Davey.

Ghanaian music artist and UN Goodwill Ambassador Rocky Dawuni plays in the digital conference. Courtesy of GLF
Ghanaian music artist and UN Goodwill Ambassador Rocky Dawuni plays in the digital conference. Courtesy of GLF

Tales from the climate frontline

These forms of immersive visual storytelling can be a vital tool to project voices from marginalized communities in the Global South, said journalist Viktorija Mickute. Her work with Al Jazeera’s virtual reality platform AJ Contrast involves training grassroots journalists in 360-degree filming, enabling them to bring their stories to a global audience.

“Not many people can travel to these faraway places where we can see climate change happening every single second,” Mickute pointed out. “Virtual reality helps us transport the viewer to that story so that they can see with their own eyes what that change actually looks like.”

And in their role as the interface between scientists and the public, journalists and other communicators need to make climate stories understandable to the average person, said former Guardian environment editor John Vidal. “The environmental movement chooses words which nobody understands, like ‘biodiversity’, or ‘sustainability’,” he lamented. “Our job is to listen, to act as a vector, to interpret and to make them more clear.”

Storytellers also have a duty to challenge damaging status-quo narratives, argued author and climate activist Bill McKibben. “The question that we asked for the last 50 years was: will this cause the economy to grow faster or not?” But in the face of the combined crises of COVID-19, climate, biodiversity and inequality, “does this increase our chances of surviving or not? For the first time, the survival of our civilizations is not to be taken for granted.”

Viktorija Mickute, a senior producer at Al Jazeera Contrast, presents about virtual reality's role in shaping narrative around climate change. Courtesy of the GLF
Viktorija Mickute, a senior producer at Al Jazeera Contrast, presents about virtual reality’s role in shaping narrative around climate change. Courtesy of the GLF

Connecting the dots

McKibben believes another key to successful environmental storytelling is drawing connections between multiple issues, such as climate justice and racism. “‘I can’t breathe’ is what people say in huge swaths of the world because there’s a coal-fired power plant next to them,” he said, referring to a slogan used by the Black Lives Matters movement. “These stories are profoundly related – we’re in a crisis of legitimacy, authority and survival now.”

Echoing McKibben’s words was 15-year-old U.S. climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor, who stressed the need for solidarity between movements for climate and racial justice. “The climate crisis will disproportionately affect people of color and low-income communities,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to have those people heard and at the forefront. Black Lives Matter shows how important it is to have people of color in the climate conversation.”

Likewise, Walelasoetxeige Suruí, an Indigenous youth activist from the Brazilian Amazon, urged listeners to pay particular attention to the rights of women and Indigenous communities. “We end up suffering more because it’s our land that’s being deforested and invaded,” she said. “The forests that are left are where Indigenous people live. Indigenous women have an important role in maintaining those forests because of the traditional wisdom they hold.”

The vast inequalities in climate vulnerability are strongly linked to inequalities in exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to David Nabarro, special envoy to the World Health Organization. “Not all of us have the freedom to be able to adjust our lives so we’re not at risk,” he emphasized. “Look at where the virus is really causing trouble right now: in the places where people are poor. It’s becoming an endemic disease of inequity.”

Young chefs Max La Manna and Louise Mabulo (top left) speak from the UK and the Philippines respectively in the event. Courtesy of the GLF
Young chefs Max La Manna and Louise Mabulo (top left) speak from the UK and the Philippines respectively in the event. Courtesy of the GLF

Building back better

As UNEP chief for wildlife Doreen Robinson pointed out, “human activity drives most of today’s emerging zoonotic diseases” through seven main factors: intensive agriculture, changes in food-supply chains, wildlife exploitation, land-use changes, extractive industries, increased travel and transportation, and climate change.

Given the connections between climate, biodiversity, public health and inequality, could it be time to adopt a more holistic concept of health? Veterinarian Bernard Bett of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) thinks so. “Human, animal and environmental health are interrelated,” he stressed. “We need professionals from all three disciplines to work together to identify the drivers of these diseases and how they can be managed.”

Change at the individual level will also play a crucial role in recovering from COVID-19, whether it’s through reducing our food waste or rethinking our cultural habits. “Buy less. Buy wonky veg – ugly produce that supermarkets throw out,” suggested celebrated young chef Max La Manna, noting that one-third of food produced for human consumption is ultimately discarded.

“Nature is imperfect. We are all imperfect, and we need to embrace that.”



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