A Whole-Society Approach to Nature Protection: The Italian Way…

It was love at first sight. An electric sweep of positive vibes ran through my being the moment I saw the conference theme: Nature in Mind! There was something unique and uplifting here. The organisers were the Carabinieri Corps in tandem with the World Environmental Education Congress. The invitation to speak at this high-pitched event came from the head of the organising committee, a general in the Carabinieri.

My initial wonder at why the Italian Army was involved in a sphere which has traditionally been the exclusive domain of forest or environment-related bodies in the government or civil sector soon gave way to a reaffirmation that an area as all-encompassing, as high-stakes and as vital as the health and well-being of our all-giving Mother Nature is indeed a whole-society responsibility.  

And, that was why this two-day international conference that took place in the incredible Italian capital city of history-laden Rome, on May 19-20, 2022, witnessed the participation of the highest officials in the Italian Ministries of Defence, Agriculture, and Education, the Commander General of the Carabinieri Corps, the President of the Constitutional Court, Secretary General of the World Environmental Education Congress, representatives of the Vatican, academics, researchers, thought leaders, film-producers, civil society, youth, mass media, influencers, innovators and change-makers from around the world. 

“Nature in Mind”, with particular focus on biodiversity and education, engaged speakers from the Italian Government and from countries near and far and participants from across the Italian society to highlight the looming catastrophe facing our ailing planet and to explore pathways to avert the impending crisis. A vision-gift of Bhutan’s King of Destiny, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the holistic development model of Gross National Happiness, and the Green School approach to authentic education were observed by the participants as being particularly relevant and compelling to respond to the urgent needs of our time.

It may be noted that a special Forestry, Environmental, and Agricultural Units Command was established in 2017 with the merger of the Carabinieri with the State Forestry Corps to ensure an integrated and efficient system dedicated to ‘environmental protection, natural landscape and cultural goods, agriculture, as well as the fight against illicit waste trafficking and eco-mafias in general’. Among several other vital biodiversity-related activities, the Carabinieri look after 130 natural reserves and 19 state-owned forests. Besides, the Carabinieri are actively involved in environmental education, research and international collaboration.

It is instructive to remember that in the writing of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, His Majesty, the visionary Great Fourth, a deeply committed Champion of the Earth, ensured that at least 60% of the country remain under forest-cover in perpetuity and that succeeding generations of Bhutanese citizens be the custodians of our natural environment for all times to come. It is estimated that the current green-cover is over 70%. The present and succeeding generations of Bhutanese citizens will do well to do some deep soul-searching and keep the royal vision in our hearts and work accordingly.  

The ancient land of empire builders, the home of Caesars, Dante and Virgil, Michael Angelo and Da Vinci, Marconi and Meucci, Volta and Jacuzzi, Marco Polo and Columbus, Remus and Romulus, the Colosseum and the Parthenon, the cradle of the European Renaissance, the birthplace of great geniuses in diverse fields, the domain of mighty sporting clubs and film stars, and indeed the original oven of pasta and pizza, is charting out a new path of collective environmental responsibility at a time when the fate of humanity and the well-being of our beloved planet are at a critical crossroads.

On the sidelines of the sessions-packed programme and quintessential Italian dinners, our hosts arranged for the conference participants to go on a guided tour of the centuries-old Roman amphitheater, the giant Colosseum, reminiscent of the blood-chilling gladiator-fights and animal hunts, built in 70 A.D, and a rare audience with His Holiness Pope Francis who received the delegates at the Vatican Palace and addressed them as ‘Dear friends’ as the Pontiff spoke of a ‘culture of harmony’, ‘integral education’, and a ‘global village of care’, in which ‘education becomes a bearer of fraternity and a generator of peace between peoples as well as dialogue between religions…’.   

It was indeed most gracious of His Holiness to receive a copy of “Bhutan at Her Best: Sunrays through the rain”, and a copy each of the Italian edition and the English version of “My Green School” as well as a milk-white traditional Bhutanese Khadar with the Eight Auspicious Symbols imprinted on it.   

Twenty-first century Rome bears witness to breath-taking monuments and milestones, timeless embodiments of the marvels of Italian imagination through the millennia, as do the world-famous trading cities of Venice, the architectural wonders of Florence, the incredible university-city of Bologna, that prides itself on being the birthplace of the first university in Europe, as do all their counterparts that charm and enchant visitors from around the world. 

The world has received much from the Italians in every branch of knowledge, including its ancient Latin heritage. On a personal level, I have benefitted immensely especially from two Latin roots that speak directly to my public role as a teacher always and as a minister once. ‘Education’, for instance, comes from the old Latin root ‘educare’, meaning to ‘draw out’ as the true purpose of learning.

During one of my many visits to schools across our beautiful country, the Latin root of ‘minister’ came in most handy when a little class four child stepped aside from her morning assembly line and asked me ‘What does a minister do?’ If I didn’t instantly recall that ‘minister’ comes from ‘ministrare’, that is ‘to serve’, my role would have been significantly divorced from its soul.

‘My role, as a minister, is to serve you, my children, my fellow-teachers and fellow-citizens, my king and my country’. The child looked visibly pleased and satisfied, as were my fellow-educators in attendance. This is the way I looked at my role and served, anyway. There is no other way.

‘Which part of the earth does not know our tears?’, Virgil, the supreme national poet, had asked. And, as the world writhed in agony with the onslaught of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic, Italy was among the worst bearers of pain and loss in the initial invasion of the invisible enemy. We witnessed in agony, on television screens, heart-breaking scenes of massive army trucks dumping anonymous bodies in unceremonious mass graves for days that wouldn’t end.

I was guilty of breaking the oldest Roman law many times by faithfully wearing my facemask even as most of the Italians have moved on. Life has returned to near-normal, entry laws have been made easier, visitors are pouring in, and a post-pandemic new dawn is on the horizon for this extraordinarily resource-rich and resilient nation gifted by the Mediterranean.

In the meanwhile, Pawo Chonying Dorji’s Oscar-nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is making its rounds among excited Bhutan-fans around Italy. I was invited to speak about my own travels to Lunana and the big lakes at a cinema in Turin on the sidelines of Pawo’s acclaimed movie but time was just not in my favour. My travelogue had already been translated into Italian and published though! 

I am most grateful to General Raffaele Manicone for his gracious invitation to speak at the important conference, to Dr. Mario Salomone, Secretary General of the World Environmental Education Congress, for his constant care and brotherly support, and to Ms Annalisa for taking care of every detail of my maiden visit from end to end with exceptional grace, goodwill and efficiency.

I record my deep gratitude to all other kind souls who made my visit to this extraordinary piece of our good earth ever so meaningful and memorable. Thank you, Carabinieri, for being my incredible hosts, and my best wishes in your most monumental mission…

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Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.