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Ready for »uncomfortable« work in Asia and Africa

67 students from 15 nationalities head to Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa for a field studies course they are guaranteed not to forget

40 degree celsius heat, torrential downpours, talking to villagers in a strange language, and interviews in a flooded longhouse in Sarawak, Malaysia, may sound like some kind of reality TV show.

But for the organisers of a field studies course this spring, Andreas de Neergaard and Torben Birch-Thomsen, it is just a chance for students to »widen their tool box«.

Since 1998 four departments at the University of Copenhagen, two departments at Roskilde University and ten universities from Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Southern Africa and Indonesia have collaborated on a problem-based learning field course, the Interdisciplinary Land Use and Natural Resource Management (ILUNRM).

See pictures from previous ILUNRM trips here.

In February 2011, 67 University of Copenhagen students, a large proportion of them international students, will head to rural communities in Malaysia, South Africa and Thailand for two weeks. They will conduct research on issues like agricultural intensification and the impact of palm oil cultivation.

Wake-up call

De Neegaard, from the Dep. of Agriculture and Ecology, and Birch-Thomsen from the Department of Geography and Geology, think the course is a wake up call for both students and the rural communities the students engage with.

»The communities are told all their lives that they are backwards. Then a group of 30 students come along and place value on what they are doing,« remarks de Neergaard.

Students are put in to foreign and uncomfortable situations where they are forced to make quick decisions about their research. However, Birch-Thomsen and de Neergaard think that the outcome of this pressure is an »absolute learning experience,« with both the villagers and the students having something to offer one another.

Hard-earned work

Over the course of his 9 years working with the course de Neergaard has become what he calls a »hyper-realist« in work with development. He recognises that geographical and cultural context define the choices that rural people make. One solution won’t save everybody, and he realises that it is essential to work with individual communities.

Birch-Thomsen’s eyes light up as he revels in his 13-year involvement with the course. He thinks back to the first time he interviewed a farmer in a rural Zambian village:

»The biggest pleasure is to give students a chance to see what I saw when I first started out,« he smiles.

Stay tuned

»Another big part of it is the hyper-enthusiastic people, staff and students. They are in it for the love of the subject. This course is the hardest earned credit you can get,« adds de Neergaard.

Stay tuned while we follow these 67 students on the ILUNRM field course.

Read more about the Sustainable Land Use and Natural Resource Management ILUNRM field course here.

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