SciLit Week: Dr. Agni Boedhihartono is helping her students lead with openness and curiosity

“You have to come in with your eyes open, your ears open and your mouth closed.”

This was a sentiment often felt by Dr. Agni Klintuni Boedhihartono throughout her lengthy and varied career. With her research requiring her to travel to and work with remote villages around the globe, Boedhihartono, an associate professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences, has learned to lead with openness and interest first.

Much of this was facilitated by her father, a medical doctor and anthropologist. As a child, Boedhihartono was brought on adventures in rural Indonesia and taken to committee meetings to better understand people’s cultures.

Despite this early involvement, a career in anthropology wasn’t always so clear cut.

Her various roles have taken her across the globe, from Africa and southeast Asia before finally landing her here at UBC.

Growing up in Indonesia, as a young adult Boedhihartono was faced with the difficult choice of what to study from her array of interests. She landed on her strongest passion, art, and enrolled in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, on a scholarship from the government of France.

“Because everybody knows that if you want to be an artist you have to go to Paris right?” she said. The city, she explained, was a wealth of knowledge and expertise.

After finishing art school and a brief stint in cinematography, she completed several degrees, culminating in a doctorate at the Paris Diderot University in Visual Anthropology. She describes the field as a combination of art, cinematography, ethnology and technology.

“Imagine being in Paris you have all these great anthropologists; really well known people like Claude Lévi-Strauss … It's a living library.”

Boedhihartono on a boat trip in eastern Indonesia, 2019.
Boedhihartono on a boat trip in eastern Indonesia, 2019. Courtesy Dr. Agni Boedhihartono

A career in conservation

The main goal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Boedhihartono’s employer for many years, is to conserve biodiversity around the globe. Yet this is not a simple task, considering the amount of people depending on ecosystems and their bounty to survive.

“People are living in this landscape … you need to be able to engage them and understand their views about biodiversity and conservation, and about sustainable development because whether you want it or not, development is coming,” she said.

She specializes in forest-dependent communities; groups of people who have traditionally been nomadic hunter-gatherers and rely on forests for survival. Many of these forests are now under siege from governments and corporations hoping to profit off of natural resources.

Boedhihartono doesn’t necessarily see the industrialization of ecosystems as a black and white issue. She suggests that it’s a multifaceted issue, and one that it is important to withhold judgement on until all sides of the problem are presented. In many developing areas, such as the Congo Basin in Africa, a lack of jobs can make the opportunities industrialization brings appealing.

“[When a] logging company arrives it gives [the] possibility of getting a job and then by having a company in the area, that means that the road will be made... and the logging company will maintain the road,” she explained. “And they have also schools because having all those infrastructure made means [the community is] opening up to different kinds of possibilities…

“If you want to preserve biodiversity you have to take into account the people who live there.”

On opportunities

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

This is a quote by Thomas Edison that Boedhihartono believes encapsulates the importance of taking opportunities whenever they are presented, to grow both your career and your mindset.

She attests to the value of learning by doing, and praises the ways that real world experiences can expand students' views and strengthen their empathy.

Since coming to UBC, Boedhihartono has been an associate professor for the Masters of International Forestry program, teaching tropical landscapes and livelihoods. The degree attracts students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

“In my class I always try to... get students from different countries, different disciplines, different backgrounds, because that's how you learn the most and … [open] up with different ideas, different visions.”

She believes that forestry is “not just trees,” and tries to imprint this upon her students, stating “it is people and behaviour of people and the culture around it.”

Boedhihartono and team in Huaulu village, Maluku, Indonesia
Boedhihartono and team in Huaulu village, Maluku, Indonesia Courtesy Dr. Agni Boedhihartono

Art as a boundary tool

For many years, Boedhihartono has been facilitating mural paintings at large international conferences, bringing together a range of people on a common platform. The murals are a harmonious medley of different abilities and perspectives, a perfect representation of the more than 150 people who contribute to each one.

“I think art is a really rich tool to use to be able to communicate with others and to understand each other,” Boedhihartono said. She describes art as a boundary tool — an interdisciplinary approach to bridging gaps in communication and understanding between various groups, such as different stakeholders, scientists, communities and Indigenous people.

She now utilizes her artistic background to facilitate visual methods of discussion.

“People have different priorities, and they have different ways of looking at the same landscape. The multidisciplinary background I have … becomes very useful.”

Presently, Boedhihartono is working on a project in conjunction with Emily Carr University and the New Frontiers in Research Fund. The initiative’s goal is to utilize art as a boundary tool in depicting sustainable landscapes. She describes a landscape approach as “trying to understand in a holistic way, how we can have a sustainable landscape culturally, economically and socially.”

Boedhihartono is tasked with tying the work together, like a weaver of loose ends. It’s a fitting role for a woman who has managed to combine conservation, anthropology and art into a successful and meaningful career.