Leah Barclay | Huangshan Dialogue, China
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Huangshan Dialogue, China

Huangshan Dialogue, China

There are over 1,800 UNESCO designated sites around the world – World Heritage sites, biosphere reserves and UNESCO Global Geoparks – which are facing the impacts of ecological crisis, and can play a significant role in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

These were the key messages from the opening day of the Huangshan Dialogue a global forum on UNESCO-designated sites and sustainable development hosted in China in September 2016. The conference was organised by HIST (The International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage) under the auspices of UNESCO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In the opening address, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stressed the importance of the event as a contribution towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as towards the development of UNESCO’s new updated Strategy for Action on Climate Change.

The founding director of Biosphere Soundscapes, Dr Leah Barclay, was invited as the Australian representative to deliver a presentation on interdisciplinary creativity and mobile technologies in changing climates, with a particular focus on environmental sensing and acoustic ecology in UNESCO biosphere reserves.

This invitation came after Dr Barclay’s keynote address at the 4th World Congress of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Lima, Peru earlier this year that featured outcomes from Biosphere Soundscapes – an interdisciplinary research project underpinned by the creative possibilities of acoustic ecology and rapidly emerging fields of biology concerned with the study of environmental patterns and changes through sound. The World Congress of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves was the first event acoustic ecology was included on the UN agenda as a key interdisciplinary field for community engagement around cultural and biological diversity.

During the Huangshan Dialogue in China, the possibilities of acoustic ecology were showcased through Biosphere Soundscapes, which launched in the Noosa Biosphere Reserve in Australia in 2012 and now operates internationally in countries including India, Cambodia, Mexico, Brazil and Peru. Professor Shahbaz Khan, Director of the UNESCO Regional Science Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, believes acoustic ecology presents a dynamic and engaging way for local communities to engage with the environment and understand ecological changes through accessible means.

Biosphere Soundscapes is delivered through immersive residencies with artists and scientists, research laboratories, intensive masterclasses and a diversity of creative projects spanning four continents. The project sits at the intersection of art and science, with the recordings providing valuable scientific data for biodiversity analysis and incredible source material for creative works that bring awareness to these environments.

During the Huangshan Dialogue, Dr Barclay showcased a series of these creative works including Rainforest Listening, which brought the sounds of the Central Amazon Biosphere Reserve to Times Square in New York City for Climate Week 2015, and the Eiffel Tower for COP21 in Paris. The presentation also introduced the history of acoustic ecology and provided delegates with a series of tools for community engagement, including sound walking and deep listening activities.

The Huangshan Dialogue included presentations, panel discussions and video demonstrations from participating experts, representatives of UNESCO’s secretariat and field office network. Discussions focused on how the impacts of climate change on UNESCO sites interact with other factors, and on the use of remote sensing technologies and other innovative approaches to understand climate change at a local and global level.

The bioacoustics approaches we are using in Biosphere Soundscapes are dynamic, non-invasive environmental monitoring techniques that allows us to learn about environmental changes in new ways. We have been building these into community engagement programs that introduce acoustic ecology and explore the social, cultural and ecological contexts of our sonic environments. This has proved to be a very rewarding way to engage communities in climate action and inspire a culture of listening.

In the context of biosphere reserves that are seeking to reunite the conservation of biological and cultural diversity, acoustic ecology is an ideal field to experiment and implement interdisciplinary approaches that can be driven by the local community. New mobile technologies for ecosystem monitoring have become increasingly accessible and affordable, so empowering local communities to engage with our sonic environment and undertake the fine tuned mapping of environmental change is realistic and possible.

The Huangshan Dialogue brought together more than 150 participants – including 46 experts from countries around the world who discussed new research, cooperation and new initiatives that link UNESCO-designated sites to strengthen the global understanding of climate change.

Many of these participants were not aware of acoustic ecology and are now actively developing programs and initiatives. This has resulted in the possibilities of forming a WFAE affiliate in China and potentially India in the future. The new Biosphere Soundscapes community mapping system will launch in early 2017 when programs will be expanding into new sites in Portugal, Iran and the United Kingdom. The Biosphere Soundscapes team are extremely inspired about how receptive UNESCO has been with the possibilities of acoustic ecology and are looking forward to more collaborations unfolding in 2017 and beyond.

Image from left to right
Dr. Miguel Clusener-Godt, Director of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, with researchers Dr. Andrew Mason, Dr. Francesca Cigna, Dr. Leah Barclay, Professor Shahbaz Khan (Director of the UNESCO Regional Science Bureau for Asia and the Pacific), Professor Wang Changlin, Professor Kyung Sik Woo, and Professor Fan Xiangtao.
Photo: Yuyang Geng