Robert Axelsson is a climate change strategist at the County Administrative Board of Västmanland, Sweden. He is also a chairman of the Board of the Western Visayas Integrated Learning Centre at San Joaquin, Iloilo, Philippines to deepen his engagement both for the environment and for the life-long learning. He took part in the Global Wellbeing Lab 2.0. Read the continuation of his story.
Robert has always been an optimist and an activist at heart with many projects and ideas in mind to play his part in making the world a better place. The participation in the Global Wellbeing Lab 2.0. helped him to develop “my very loose ideas into something more substantial”.
In his personal life Robert struggled a lot to receive support for his autistic son, Vinzent. During the Lab process in 2015 he went to the Philippines and there searched for a local artist who could share some of his or her skills with his son. This is how he met Marrz Capanang. “Just a message each direction confirmed that Marrz was an amazing person.” Robert and Vinzent went through a simple art training program which had an enormous effect. “About two weeks after returning home to Sweden when a friend who is a medical doctor visited, Vinzent showed his drawing to him and instantly started to talk. Before this he would say only one to three words. Now he formed 30-40 long sentences about one of his drawings.” Moreover, through Marrz Robert and Vinzent met a group of about 40 local artists in the Philippines.
Robert noticed the unique ability of the artists to create simple yet powerful messages, messages that “feel like a hard fist in your belly”. In 2018 a workshop about the sea and related sustainability challenges, that included shore and reef cleaning activity was organized for the artists in a small coastal lot just acquired by the Integrated Learning Centre. “This led to an environmental awakening for many of the artists. Most were interested before but now they connected with nature, learnt a lot and helped to clean the shoreline and our house reef. I saw how their eyes where shining, how they wanted to clean the reef so much so some of them almost drowned.”
Next to the artists two free-divers had been invited to participate in the reef cleaning. Robert felt they were genuinely interested in the cause of preserving the Philippines’ beautiful coastal environment. So the idea for the next step formed: to develop a team, learn about each other, each other’s life situations and define together a common goal. He was determined to create collaboration that everyone could benefit from as a group and as individuals. In 2019 a freediving training was organised. 20 non-swimming artists and young environmentalists (and a few swimmers) learnt how to free-dive in two days. The common vision started to develop.
“ I liked the artists very much as they were warm, idealistic and liked to improve the world. We discussed a lot using social media. An idea started to form. I have a lot of knowledge about sustainable development, the environment, human wellbeing and the like and the artists are extremely skilled in communication.”
The integrated learning centre is inspired by the concepts Folkhögskola (Folk Highschool) and Studieförbund (study association) that are an important part of the continuing education of grown-ups in Sweden. Robert especially emphasized how the Folkhögskola education aims to develop the participants personally aiming for societal sustainability. He and the co-founders of the Integrated Learning Center see the potential to create awareness and understanding for challenges around democracy, human rights and ecosystem services, developing solutions and implementing them.
“Each generation in the Philippines is better and better educated and more and more Filipinos have worked in and experienced other countries. My conclusion is that many parts are in place, there is a need to connect the ends and for some problem-oriented learning, then we should see positive development soon… I hope!”
With the acquisition of the neighbouring lot the project ground has recently expanded to a 6300 m2 beach lot. Robert and his team are planning to improve the infrastructure. During 2019 the facility got electricity and a new deep well was dug. To make this happen Robert is largely stepping in with his own funds: “I have managed to sell some properties here in Sweden so we intend to improve infrastructure and build a few more houses.”
As a next event, a weekend training course for autistic children and their families with art, music, swimming, freediving and sharing of experiences is planned around Christmas 2020. Robert is preparing his son Vinzent so he can be one of the art teachers. There will be a series of 2-3 training weekends, with 1-2 weekends also for the team of partners. The plan is that one of the friends from the Global Wellbeing Lab will join and assist
The long-term plan for the project is to expand and develop into a solid civil society player that can host first smaller and later larger projects. Next to smaller projects that will have to be organized with external funding, Robert aims at tackling also the more critical and bigger challenges in the Philippines such as climate change, severely degraded ecosystems, resilience and human rights/democracy. Given his background as a landscape ecologist, transdisciplinary sustainability researcher, the present work as a climate change strategist, developing larger climate change mitigation and adaptation projects is what Robert wants to engage in long-term. “We are also looking for opportunities for funding to buy a large part of a catchment, place it in a foundation, protect it forever and restore its ecosystem services as a demonstration site.” There is a strong need for people to think “landscape” solutions, Robert emphasises. “The mountains have lost their forest, are eroded, and silt comes out in the sea and damages the reef. In a few years we will be ready to run larger projects.”
The key partners at the Learning Center are the young artists, the Alima Community (a social enterprise working to empower women), the Artivism (an artist led initiative to create awareness about the environment) and the Iloilo Freedivers.
Robert still works as a climate strategist at the regional government of Västmanland and naturally tries to limit his trips to the Philippines to a minimum in favour of the climate. His role is to develop collaboration, collaborative learning and co-production for both climate mitigation and adaptation. The regional government hosts multiple projects, topics ranging from new data for climate adaptation to spatial planning to reduce greenhouse gases and to reduce energy to wind power development. Robert was elected as member of the board in the regional Förbundet Agenda 2030 and the regional Air Quality Management Förbund (~association).
The pictures were taken by Riza Ornos and other Artivism artists.