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A school without borders

Quest students joining Ethical Explorations in effort to save forests of Borneo

Brent Loken was born and raised in Forest Hill, a small city in Iowa. Even though he spent the first 23 years of his life there, he was always thinking of a world beyond it.

"I thought there had to be something more than just corn and soybean in this world," Loken said.

His travels to Syria and Korea made him realize that world that lay beyond Forest Hill. Loken was committed to be a part of it and perhaps contribute to it in a useful way. He started teaching in international schools in Pakistan, Lopaz, Taiwan and Bolivia.

It was in Bolivia that he met Sheryl Gruber, a fellow American from Waukesha, Wisconsin. Gruber was in the South American country as part of the Food for the Hungry organization. Loken and Gruber teamed up and began the journey that would one day lead to Ethical Expeditions, a non-profit group that is dedicated to conserving the forests and raising awareness about the natural world.

The root of Ethical Expeditions can be traced to the couple's desire to create a "travelling field school" where students can directly experience conservation. It's a school that teaches students not through books, but by actual experience in the forest. Think of it as a school without walls, without ceilings, and without borders.

"Ethical Expeditions tries to create education and awareness by focusing on the biological and cultural diversity of our planet," Gruber said.

This year, they took students to the forests of Indonesian Borneo, learning about the web of social-economic problems that has led to the massive deforestation in that country, which threatens the bio-diversity of the region. The forest is home to some of the richest and most diverse tropical species, but that diversity is being threatened by logging. The land is being converted to agriculture to meet the burgeoning demand for palm oil.

This year, some Quest University students joined Ethical Expeditions on the trip, making the connection between the forces of commercialization and the fragility of the forest.

"The students travelled through the forest and documented it and came back to raise awareness of these issues in North America," Gruber said.

Now, the couple is preparing for their next ethical expedition in May. It goes into unchartered territory, quite literally. The organization is working with the Borneo tribal community Wehea Dayak to lead a detailed scientific study that delves into the bio-diversity of the forest.

In 2004, the Wehea Dayak people declared 38,000 hectares of forest to be protected land under their traditional law. Since the declaration, illegal logging has been reduced, incomes have increased and the project was awarded Indonesia's highest environmental honour. However, the land's legal status is still designated as productive forest and the Wehea effort is not legally recognized. The couple hopes the expedition will bring out critical information necessary to achieving permanent legal protection for the Wehea forest.

"It's the first of the hundreds of steps that we need to take to protect the forest," Loken said.

"Our history of conservation is terrible. We haven't been able to save tigers, the polar bear and the rainforests. We need to find new model, we need to conserve better."

The expedition, which will consist of four scientists, four Wehea rangers and five students, will just mark the beginning of a lengthy process. Once the information is collected on what exactly is in the forests, the next step would be create awareness of the findings in Indonesia, Canada, the U.S., and all around the world.