“Nature lovers will always connect with each other”| Interview with Yongyi

Translator: Xiaowen Zhang

Editor: Yinan Ding

First published on Animal Dialogue Wechat Platform 2019/12/13

Written by Jiaze Li

Profile: Yongyi has a Ph.D. in environmental science at Fudan University. She is also an environmental education program director at the One Earth Nature Foundation (OPF), as well as a director of the National Nature Education Network in China. She contributes herself as an education committee member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), China Forestry Association, as well as a consultant at Alibaba Public Welfare Foundation and Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) Foundation.

“Nature lovers will always connect with each other!” Yongyi left this closing remark in the first Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Nature Education Forum. This is Yongyi’s belief that brings her into nature conservation, inspires her throughout more than ten years of her career path, and guides her to interact with fellows that have the same passion for nature and enjoy working for what they love. 

Created with heart and built with action

Since no colleges or universities in China offer bachelor’s degrees in environmental education, the majority of people working in this field do not have a related educational background. Yongyi is no exception. 

Yongyi is a nature lover. Her passion stemmed from childhood and kept growing in her mind. After graduating from high school, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and specialized in urban ecological planning at Fudan University, one of the top universities in China. At that time, she aimed to apply what she has been learning into practices to improve the environment around her. 

“Instead of managing pollution as it occurs, environmental issues should be considered in city construction and future development from the beginning.” This thought inspired Yongyi to continue her passion for new possibilities. 

During the 6-7 years of pursuing her master’s and doctor’s degrees, she was lucky to participate in a great variety of projects related to urban ecological planning in multiple places, such as Shanghai, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Guangxi. She was delighted to see her professional improvement from these valuable experiences. At the same time, she realized that, from the early stage of design and planning to the final project implementation, this entire process involved many uncertainties and was time-consuming. Are there other ways she can make contributions to nature conservation as a practitioner?

In 2006, a regional office of WWF was planned to be launched in Shanghai. She took part in strategic planning for the Yangtze River Delta as a consultant after her academic exchange from Europe. From the experience of discussing and designing this project, she realized that this could be a potential career choice for her. This idea becomes clearer and impregnable to her after working for several months. By the end of 2007, she decided to give up the teaching position at Fudan University, which is considered a “steel bowl”, the Chinese idiom describing regular salary and a stable job until retirement. Instead, she joined the international team at WWF without any hesitation and became a practitioner for nature conservation. Although this job is not as respected as being a teacher in university, it is what she desires and willing to devote herself to. To others, it was a risky and confusing decision, but she never felt regret since this decision was created with her heart and built with her action. 

Yongyi started working on the Yangze River Conservation project at WWF. ©WWF-China

She did not start with working as an environmental educator when initially joining WWF. She worked for the nature conservation project in the Yangtze River Delta from 2007 to 2013. From this experience, she was able to form deep insights into nature conservation, accumulate relevant working experience, and expand essential social networks. Though the work was hard, she felt happy with all the efforts that she made and all the goals that she achieved. 

Moving forwards, regardless of how hard it is 

The year of 2013 was unforgettable and full of uncertain changes. Even though Yongyi was still able to cope with different challenges from her work, there was one project that made her feel extremely heart-breaking. However, she realized the necessity of promoting environmental education to the public in China. 

 This project was established to reintroduce one of Cervidae animals that used to be widely distributed in Shanghai — roe deer. However, in this century, roe deer was barely detected in this city. Back in 2010, WWF worked with the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry and other institutional partnerships to launch several ecological restoration projects to recover the population of native species. Under the collaborative efforts made by these organizations, roe deer were successfully released to the wild from Nanhui Dongtan in Shanghai. This historical moment illustrated the local capacity in a modern city, such as Shanghai, of creating the possibility for rewilding activities. This achievement received nationwide attention and positive feedback because of its impactful efforts for nature conservation. WWF Netherland further rewarded it as one of the greatest restoration projects in 2010.

WWF was the only international NGO that was invited to 2010 Shanghai Expo©WWF-China

However, in 2012, a city development program was launched in Nanhui Dongtan – urban development was prioritized over the new habitat of roe deer. Unfortunately, Nanhui Dongtan was not legally protected as a nature conservation area. Only in a few days, a large area of tidal wetlands was destroyed by the engineering intervention. Nanhui Dongtan is one of the key areas in the Yangtze River Delta for WWF’s conservation projects. It also provides habitats and transit depots for migrative birds and a great variety of wild animals including the roe deer.

How the public reacted to this conflict made Yongyi even more frustrated. A media interview showed that the public value urban development more than preserving this seemingly barren field. This perception from the public to some extent stands for the general social voice, which greatly deflated Yongyi and the whole team. “Things are not seen as important simply because you believe so but require the acceptance and endorsement from the majority. This problem is not that we have an unprofessional technique or are the minority. It is due to insufficient communication between scientists and the public” said Yongyi. Causes represented by the minorities are usually unknown or arcane, thus are not supported by the majority.

Because of this environmental conflict, the team realizes the fact that it is extremely important to gain support from the public if they wanted to materialize conservation projects and move further. Moreover, they started to rethink about how to adapt their strategies to the current social conditions in China, and how to engage citizens in supporting nature conservation. 

The old plank trail at Nanhui Dongtan, Shanghai©Xiaodong Sun WWF

Thanks to the increasing public awareness and civic stewardship in recent topics of environmental protection, WWF decided to highlight ‘public participation’ as one of the key goals in new missions. Building on this, Yongyi started to feel the urgency of conducting an essential transformation, which integrates environmental education, such as nature schools, into conservation projects. In 2013, WWF officially established environmental education projects, and from that time, Yongyi fully devoted herself to the fields of environmental education that she felt strongly connected to. 

Meticulous progress made by persistent efforts

Jenny Goodall once said, “Only if we can understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help; Only if we help shall all be saved.” In many cases, the public cares less about nature only because they are not fully aware of the potential effects that their behaviors could leave on the environment, nor do they truly understand the meaning of environmental protection. Therefore, to gather more people with the same passion and love for nature is a big step to move forward. Nature conservation offers opportunities of not only connecting people with the same goals but also encouraging more active public participation in nature education and conservation. This was exactly what Yongyi and her team would like to strive for. “It is unavoidable to encounter obstacles when you are pursuing the best scenery” says Yongyi.

“Only if we can understand, can we care; Only if we care, will we help; Only if we help, shall all be saved – Jane Goodall” © Adventure.com

Environmental education is not about right or wrong. The goal of environmental education is also not only spreading knowledge but also altering attitudes and encouraging behavior change so that people can take real actions. This process entails education-based thinking, communicating, and acting. 

Recently, “Earth Hour”, an event managed by WWF that encourages people to turn off all the unnecessary lights and other electrical appliances, has gained increasing popularity worldwide. Even though public participation is very active, an endless debate persists about its effectuality for protecting the environment. However, Yongyi wishes to understand it from a more positive and sustainable angle. Since 2007, the accumulated efforts on this global event “Earth Hours” have become more meaningful. As an individual participant, you can choose to turn off the light or do something else that is beneficial for the environment. There is no strict requirement about what you should do. More importantly, by participating in “Earth Hour”, you may feel connected with others and get to think of the way how you live your lives. 

“Earth hour” promotion banner ©WWF

“As a non-government organization, we meant for leading the public and insist on doing right things”. Yongyi highlights that ways that people choose to celebrate this event can be simple, however, an increasing number of people from government departments, schools, communities, and even companies decided to be engaged. More and more institutions and individuals are willing to take the initiative. They try to showcase what they value by celebrating Earth Hour, which makes it to be a global environmental-friendly festival.

“Individuals can still make impacts, no matter how much the effort is. We should hold a firm belief that people would agree on what we work for as an NGO, and finally reflect on their values and behaviors.” Yongyi also highlights the long-term benefits of environmental education, which is about the created values and the right choices that the young generation would make. She hopes that education could make them more responsible and impactful so that their children can receive the right messages and make even wiser choices. 

2019 “Earth hour” event ©WWF-China
Beyond the passion for nature

While WWF was launching environmental education projects, Yongyi drew a diagram to illustrate the relationship between education and nature conservation, which represents her perspective and reveals the key role of education in conservation work. “If we see the career of nature conservation as a tree, education is the root that keeps absorbing the nutrients and growing its branches. Its ultimate goal is to help the tree grow stronger. As a practitioner for nature education, we are surely acting as the root. We are a group of people who introduce positive changes and create the possibilities of materializing our goals and expectations.” Said Yongyi during the first Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Nature Education Forum.

Promoting conservation through education © Yong Yi WWF

Yongyi further denotes the barriers that beginners in the nature education industry will face. Many people started their career in nature conservation with passion, even a sense of idealism. However, some of them may be deflated by obstacles and not willing to step out of their comfort zone when facing new challenges. They may find differences between reality and their conceptions. Therefore, they unconsciously refuse to acclimate their obsession with solving practical problems and acclaim themselves as being unwilling to give in to the secularity. 

Yongyi concluded that nature education can be initiated with love for nature but has to be developed professionally and sustainably. This is the common mission for people who work in nature education fields: to integrate their love and passion into actions. Accomplishments in nature education also require continuous efforts. Yongyi gives her considerations and expectations, “the industrial development in nature education should be built on technological support and expert engagement, together with developing guidance, standards, and norms targeting relevant industries. It is also important to build capacity in project designs that combine international collaborations and local practices.”

Looking back at her career development in the past more than ten years, she has never regretted the “risky” decision she made a couple of years ago. She is looking forwards to embracing any new adventures in the future. “Nature lovers will always connect with each other!” She hopes to see more joint forces from the ambitious young generation and even more positive progress in the nature education industry. 

Yong Yi with kids at Panda Studio at WWF ©WWF-China

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