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Eastern hosts 'Humans and the Environment' symposium

Published on April 05, 2023

Eastern hosts 'Humans and the Environment' symposium

Guest lecturer Manuel Lizarralde discusses his anthropological research on indigenous tribes.

Nohemi Huanca-Nuñez, postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Environment and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies

Margaret Gibson, former poet laureate and professor emerita at the University of Connecticut

Four Connecticut-based scholars described the ecological impacts and anthropogenic changes that humanity has had on the environment at a symposium at Eastern Connecticut State University on March 24.

“Humans and the environment: sustainability across disciplines,” began with remarks from President Elsa Núñez and Patricia Szczys,  executive director of Eastern’s Institute for Sustainability. Their introduction was followed by lectures and presentations by four scholars whose work and research focus on environmental sustainability and ecology. The symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring the four scholars.

“This symposium demonstrates that understanding human impacts on the environment—and mitigating those impacts—are not the sole purview of the natural sciences, but that the social sciences, arts and humanities play a vital role as well,” Szczys, said. 

Eastern President, Elsa Núñez

“There comes a time in each of our lives where we ask ourselves, what kind of world will I leave for my grandchildren?” Núñez said. “Based on what we’ve learned in the past 50 years, it is you who have the greatest opportunity to make meaningful progress to achieving environmental justice.”

Each of the four presenters brought a different disciplinary expertise to sustainability concepts. Their professional areas of interest spanned multiple ecological regions and historical periods.

“We were specifically interested in scholars and writers whose work is relevant to Connecticut,” said Dean Emily Todd of the School of Arts and Sciences. “By choosing ‘sustainability’ as a unifying theme, we aimed to demonstrate the interdisciplinary nature of building a sustainable future.”

Guest lecturer Manuel Lizarralde has been a professor of ethnobotany at Connecticut College since 1998. The focus of his research deals with the botanical and ecological knowledge of indigenous tribes in the rainforest.

Lizarralde’s lecture was titled, “Amerindians Sustainability in the Americas.” He discussed the interconnected nature, reliance and appreciation that indigenous people have of the environment — from the Barí of Venezuela to the Mohegan of Connecticut. Much of Lizarralde’s work focuses on the Barí, an indigenous tribe that was uncontacted by modern humans until his father discovered the tribe in the 1960s.

While he was conducting anthropological research on the Barí culture and society, Lizarralde said that an indigenous tribe member told him, “A Barí without a forest is a dead Barí.”

He described how capitalistic exploitation of resources — like deforestation — has not only degraded their local environments, but their traditions, cultures, ideologies and fundamental ways of life.

Guest Lecturers answer questions during the group panel discussion.

Bradley Camp Davis, Eastern professor of history, discusses the colonialism in Southeast Asia.

Manuel Lizarralde

“The very Earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice,” Lizarralde said. He suggested that Eastern should contact the Mohegan and Pequot tribes of Connecticut to discuss feasible means of preserving the environment. In doing so, he said the lives and traditions of the indigenous people can also be preserved.

Margaret Gibson, another presenter, is professor emerita at the University of Connecticut. She was the poet laureate of Connecticut from 2019 to 2022. Her 13 published works have garnered national acclaim, including “Waking up to Earth: Connecticut poets in a time of global crisis.”

“I write a lot of poems that warn and grieve, but I also write poems that humor, relieve and remind us of how precious (the Earth is),” Gibson said.

Patricia Szczys, executive director of Eastern’s Institute for Sustainability

Gibson’s presentation included a selection of readings from “The Glass Globe,” her most recent book of poetry, published in 2021.

During the reading, Gibson said that poets in ancient cultures are thought of as truth tellers. In today’s world, she said, “we are called to be more indigenous,” and “all of us have a calling to speak for the environment and against crisis.”

Nohemi Huanca-Nuñez is a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Environment and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. She has been conducting research to further explain the ecological factors and systems that promote biodiversity in old-growth forests. She has been studying and observing the regeneration of landscapes that have been perturbed, or diminished, due to human activity.

“Humans and the environment are connected,” Huanca-Nuñez said. “We need to maintain that connection for generations.” She said that one way society can help preserve the longevity of the world’s forests is by adopting sustainable practices.

“If you are purchasing a product, check if they are an industry leader in deforestation around the globe,” she said

Bradley Camp Davis, Eastern professor of history, combines historical analysis with environmental themes. His work focuses on the environmental and ecological evolution of East Asia and Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. In 2022, he edited “The Cultivated Forest: People and Woodlands in Asian History.”

Davis’ lecture outlined a plethora of evidence suggesting that French colonialism and imperialism did not truly incite large-scale economic development and classism in Southeast Asia.

However, he said French colonialism greatly exacerbated the exploitation of Asia’s natural environment by introducing plantations to mass-produce cash crops.

“Historians should open their eyes and reconsider our accepted history,” Davis said.

The symposium concluded with a Q&A-style roundtable discussion, which was led by the four lecturers. Each speaker came to a consensus that society needs to become more cognizant of the atrocities we have committed — and continue to commit — against our environment. They urged the audience to begin taking action in their own “backyards.”

“Maybe what we should start asking is, what’s good for the planet?” Szczys said. “I think we need to start thinking as a planet.”

Written by Jack Jones