Looking for a unique way to ‘pay it forward’ and add to your resume with your sustainable travels? The Columbia University climate science program applies responsible tourism practices with practical scientific research.  The Bidoup Field School, which is supported by Columbia University, will be holding a special 2-week program in January for budding researchers who want to combine their sustainable travels with the opportunity to contribute and advance tropical forest research.  

Located within the Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park in Vietnam, a newly named UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, researchers will first spend 9 days touring Vietnam with Dr. Nhu Hoa Le, bi-lingual guide and leading expert on sustainable tourism in Vietnam followed by a week of environmental research.  

I had an opportunity to ask Dr. Brendan Buckley, who is the Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University, some questions about this important program.

Columbia University Climate Science Catalyst for Bidoup Field School

The idea for the field school was born almost as soon as we began our research at BDNP (Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park) several years ago. We sensed that the security of the amazing natural resources of the park would be compromised without bringing far more public awareness about what was here (hence, what might be lost).

The park directorate and I brainstormed on ways to accomplish a sustainable model for developing the research and education components of what we were already doing and it developed rapidly into the idea of ICTHER (the International Center for Tropical Highlands Ecosystems Research). There is so much that we don’t currently know about these endangered environments and here we had a natural laboratory for study.

Bringing in researchers and students (both graduate and undergraduate) to collect and analyze as much data as humanly possible became our driving force. Many are likely to develop into full-time researchers who may wish to follow up with continuing research in the park, thus ensuring the future of this vital research program. 

Video Copyright (c) Matt Baguinon 

Plan for next Bidoup Field School session

Our first field school (January 2015) saw nine countries represented and that led to some amazing friendships being formed. Our second field school (January 2016) will be even more diverse because of a brand new tourism component. Its purpose is twofold: first, to raise public awareness of the park and its programs; and second, to generate an additional source of income to purchase field and lab equipment, subsidize needy students, offset operating expenses and put money aside for a dedicated field school facility. This so-called ‘Research Lite’ group will embark on an exciting one-week pan-Vietnam tour before meeting up with the researchers at BDNP, where they’ll embark on guided biodiversity, birding and other tours, interact with the scientists (including a dinner lecture series) and make stimulating day trips to local communities. Participants will be very much like the typical international visitor to the park. Hugo de Beuckeleer, for example, is a retired biology teacher from Belgium who has visited the park three times since 2014. His main interest lies in nature exploration, however, he’s also interested in visiting cultural attractions, which are heavily featured in our pan-Vietnam tourism program.

Measuring Tangible Differences in Communities

One of our partner organizations from the beginning has been JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), who have been instrumental in developing infrastructure in the park, including the Centre for Ecotourism and Environmental Education. They have made a supreme effort to engage the local indigenous populations, and it has been through their dedicated hard work that we are able to see the difference BDNP and ICTHER have made in the community. We have that as one of our central directives – the integration of the local population into everything we do, including the field school.

As part of its pilot Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) initiative, JICA targeted five villages in the environs of the park. One of these, Dabla village, is included in the tourism itinerary for 2016. Situated in the Danhim commune, Dabla is home to 126 households of the K’Ho Cil ethnic group. While some villagers continue to earn their living from Arabica coffee cultivation (a tradition since the 1860s), many valuable practices such as basket and textile weaving have been lost. JICA gave the Dabla people technical support to revive these practices and improve their standard of living. In one project, eight women took training courses in basic and advanced weaving and were later provided with weaving tools and sewing machines to produce marketable goods. In another project, JICA trained community guides in environmental interpretation, thereby making their indigenous knowledge accessible to tourists.

The Research Lite tourist group will also pay a visit to K’Ho Coffee, a socially responsible cooperative composed of dozens of K’ho Cil families living at the foot of Lang Biang Mountain. This social enterprise was founded by American Josh Guikema and Rolan CoLieng to help preserve the unique K’ho Cil culture and the ecology of the central highlands through responsible practices.

Project Anecdote from the 1st Bidoup Field School Sessions

It is really too early to say that any new projects have been successfully formed (i.e. funded), but we have gone full steam ahead with the ecophysiological analyses of tree species. We have already learned things about species response to light and temperature that we didn’t know before, and this is directing some new research queries.

One thing to change about Ecotourism

Tough question, because I can look at it on several levels. First, the fact that we need to encourage tourism that is anything other than ecologically sensitive saddens me greatly. It is clear that a large portion of the global community that has the necessary resources to travel doesn’t see the greater picture that we are part of an entire ecosystem. By trashing one environment we create downstream consequences that eventually land in our backyard. The problems we face are far too numerous to list, but they surely originate with the overpopulation of our own species, and the absolutely profound impact we have on the world around us. So, if I had all the power in the world I would look for a gentle way of alleviating the population burden on our planet. Since I lack such power I aim to educate as many of our population as I can about the need to respect the great bounty that we have been blessed with on this amazing planet we have been gifted with.

Vision & Goals for Bidoup Field School 

Initially, I just want to see the field school succeed with the modest pilot we are running. By that I mean I hope we can draw enough interest to fill the roster with eager minds that help us collect reams of high-quality data for analyses. Then I would like to expand the operation to have two international seasons – dry season (January) and wet season (July) and have double sessions for each. To follow up on each of these it would be great to have copies of these courses conducted entirely in Vietnamese for the local population. Along with the field school, we are also developing a trekking trail system that we hope to connect with the neighboring national parks, Chu Yang Sin to the north and Phuoc Binh to the south, opening up opportunities for expanding the field school in both directions. And finally, I am working on bringing a major university to conduct a field course at BDNP. With the facilities we already have in place we can safely and comfortably serve several dozen students, but things can always be improved. That is why we have committed to rolling back a percentage of the proceeds into maintenance and building new and better infrastructure.

View Our Vietnam Tour