Stronger together: Interview with Elaine Hsiao – leader of IUCN World Parks Congress stream ‘Inspiring a new generation’

22 August 2014 | Article

Elaine Hsiao is Co Vice-Chair of IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas Young Professionals Group.  

How did you come to be involved with protected areas?

My first involvement with protected areas was as a visitor with my family as a young child. Later I would quit my first job out of college to volunteer in the protected areas system in Costa Rica. From then on, I knew that I wanted to continue working with protected areas and nature conservation.

Why are you passionate about protected areas?

My love is for nature, wildlife, big trees and all the wonders of life and this Earth that we are a part of. Sometimes we have tried to capture the most representative of these in protected areas. In a perfect world, these things wouldn't be trapped inside protected areas and protected areas wouldn't be the only or last existing strongholds of natural spaces. But for the moment, I am grateful for the ground they hold for us and our future ancestors.

In a way, protected areas provide and safeguard opportunities for us as a human species to figure our problems out – they are a space in which we can re-learn ways to live harmoniously with the rest of the planet and with ourselves, they are spaces that inspire us to confront how we are living our lives outside protected areas.

Why is your stream important?

This stream ‘inspiring a new generation’ deals with fundamental shifts. It confronts the issue of shifting power from one generation to the next, and in this process, the important transformation of sharing power across generations rather than limiting ourselves to the notion that any one generation must be responsible for all and that one generation's problems, systems and ways must be inherited by the next when they have had little to no contribution in shaping those inheritances.

It also deals with fundamental shifts in the world of conservation, how we perceive and engage in conservation and who is involved. Conservation has had its challenges and its critics, but there is a rising generation of young conservationists who see and go about things differently and are actively evolving a new generation of conservation.

The stream provides a platform for some of those young ‘evolutionaries’ to share their stories and to represent some of the collective voices, strengths and visions of young peoples around the world. In sharing the stories of inspired people, this stream seeks to encourage others to similarly connect, engage and be inspired by nature.

It takes a new approach to engaging the currently unengaged, by sharing positive stories rather than harping on the doom and gloom. The new generation of conservation will be about love, rather than fear, and this is critically important to the future of protected areas.

Why did you want to be a stream leader for the IUCN World Parks Congress?

Fundamentally, I saw this as an opportunity to provide a platform for so many amazing young people at the World Parks Congress and to allow for some input by young people in the core organisation of the event. It occurred to me that although there are many supporters of young people in the organising committees, there weren't any youth or young professionals (35 and under) and that this was a critical gap.

By involving young people as stream leaders, there is a greater possibility that young people will be more deeply integrated across the Congress and not just a side-event. As young stream leaders we are working towards this goal.

What do you hope the IUCN World Parks Congress achieves?

It is my hope that the IUCN World Parks Congress will demonstrate to the world that this is a new generation in conservation, something that started at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa over 10 years ago. It is time to take the statements that were made then and prove how we have accomplished them – hopefully, in innovative and inspiring ways.

This is one of the exciting things about the New Social Compact, potentially one of the greatest legacies of the Congress, if it is genuinely integrated across all aspects of the event's organisation, planning, attendance, funding and implementation. It will show that the protected areas community has actually reached across all sectors of society to engage everyone directly in all kinds of protected areas governance.

I hope that this Congress will also achieve its legacy objective to really become a capacity-building experience, where people come and learn new things that they can take back to their communities and teach to others. I hope that the Congress will demonstrate a genuine evolution in the protected areas world, one that draws its strength not only from the natural values within its borders but from a widespread culture of conservation outside its borders.

What’s been your most memorable experience within a protected area?

My most memorable experience within a protected area has been to take part in the world's largest 'Leave No Trace' event inside a national park: Burning Man. Living the principles of self-reliance, inclusivity/community, sustainability and gift economy in a sacred desert, once an ancient lake-bed, was perhaps the greatest gift of love by a collective group of humans that I have ever personally witnessed.

The desert reminds us of the vulnerability of life, the preciousness of water and the need for collective survival, and yet in the midst of all that, we found abundance, beauty, caring and sacred spaces. It truly renewed my hope in humanity and our ability to evolve a different future. In fact, probably every time I've ever been in a protected area, I have found myself renewed and reminded of my hope and my responsibility for this Earth and for that, I am grateful to the guardians of all protected areas of the world.