Feeling at home: Accessibility in US parks; rights for Thai forest dwellers


This week we see governments removing barriers for underserved people, ​including in U.S. parks. There’s also ​new hope for cleaning up vast amounts of plastic waste from the oceans.

1. United States

Nature parks and recreation centers are becoming more accessible for visitors with autism. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards says 87% of families with someone with autism spectrum disorder never go on vacation, and those that do tend to stick to cities. For many people with autism, the unpredictability of nature – the bugs, strange noises, changes in weather, lack of safety barriers – can ruin a family trip. IBCCES has designated 450 Certified Autism Centers around the world, most of which are hotels, museums, and amusement parks, but a growing number of nature sites are seeking CAC designation. This requires at least 80% of community-facing staff to be trained to support families who have autism-specific needs, and a comprehensive review of site facilities including recommended accommodations and sensory guides for park visitors.

Why We Wrote This

In our progress roundup, institutions take a harder look at people’s rights to both private and public lands. In northern Thailand, ancestral claims to forests are honored; and in the U.S., accessibility to vacation spots is improving for visitors with autism.

The Mesa Parks system in Mesa, Arizona, was the first parks and recreation department to achieve this certification. It provides sensory guides for its parks, pools, and convention center and established low-sensory areas as a refuge from overwhelming weather or other stimulation. Visit Visalia – the organization representing the gateway city to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – earned CAC recognition in September. IBCCES says it’s currently in talks with the National Park Service, which has had an accessibility task force for nearly a decade.

Gary Kazanjian/AP
Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree is featured in the park’s video series describing accessibility information.

National Geographic, IBCCES

2. Pacific Ocean

A new net designed by The Ocean Cleanup nonprofit successfully removed nearly 20,000 pounds of trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a breakthrough in tackling marine debris gathered by the North Pacific Gyre between Hawaii and California. Dutch inventor Boyan Slat has attempted this experiment before, but the latest device – nicknamed Jenny – is larger and more flexible than previous versions. Two boats pull a barrier and funnel-shaped net through the ocean at a creep of 1.5 knots, collecting floating debris ranging from fishing nets to microplastics a few millimeters in size. A team extracted the device in October without breakage or malfunction. 

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP/File
The Ocean Cleanup stopped in Vancouver, British Columbia, during a 2019 trial of their technology. The nonprofit sells sunglasses made from the plastic waste, a fundraiser for its work.

Not everyone sees Jenny as the Pacific’s savior. Recent studies show much debris actually rests on the ocean floor, out of the net’s reach, and some argue that stopping plastic waste at its source is the best way to address the Garbage Patch. But The Ocean Cleanup estimates a fleet of 10 Jenny devices could collect up to 44 million pounds of plastic every year, preventing the floating trash from breaking down into microplastics and mitigating its harm to the ecosystem.

Business Insider, National Geographic

3. Spain

Churra lebrijana sheep have been rescued from extinction – and now a few woolly ambassadors are helping tend to San Jerónimo Park and buoy support for the rare breed. Native to Andalusia, the sheep population was already declining due to habitat loss when mattress-makers stopped using their coarse wool as stuffing about 30 years ago. Producing little milk and poor meat, the species suddenly had no economic value, and numbers plummeted. Antonio Siles, a veterinarian based in Seville, tracked down farmers with a total of 20 sheep and brought the animals together to grow the population to 400. Eight years ago, concerned that the single flock made Churra lebrijana vulnerable to disease or another wipe-out event, Mr. Siles started looking for “people who had a soft spot for the breed.” That’s how the Seville branch of Ecologists in Action relocated six sheep to an urban farm in San Jerónimo Park.

Anna Elaas/Agefotostock/Newscom/File
Churra lebrijana sheep, pictured in Andalusia, Spain, in 2018, are typically skittish around people.

The group says boosting the public’s appreciation for this little-known and largely unprofitable species is essential, but challenging due to the Churra lebrijana’s skittish nature. However, a few lambs that were bottle-raised by humans last year appear to have lost their fear of people, and every day the group brings these sheep out to San Jerónimo Park pastures to graze and greet guests. “The sheep cut the grass, fertilizing as they go, reducing the need for noisy and polluting machines, while we promote the recovery of this breed,” said Juan Cuesta from Ecologists in Action.

The Guardian

4. Mozambique

In the rural town of Mangunze, a “solar giraffe” is helping communities charge their phones and stay connected. Designed with input from local partners such as the Mozambique Women of Energy, the community hub features a radio and cellphone charging station installed beneath a solar panel and roof, which together resemble the shape of a giraffe. “Cellphones contribute to the improvement of rural livelihoods and, consequently, to poverty reduction,” said Ruben Morgado, the lead architect. Organizers plan to add other services to future giraffes, including a computer and internet hot spot.

The solar giraffe benefits residents without electricity or whose smaller solar panels struggle to charge during cloudy conditions. Financed by the Irish Embassy in Mozambique, the solar giraffe charges an average of 280 cellphones per month and is maintained by the community. “The Giraffe, for us in Mangunze, came at a time when we needed it,” said Sabastião Moiane, a solar giraffe user. “It was very difficult in rainy weather to use solar energy. With the Giraffe, we have two to three days of charge, without sun.”


5. Thailand

In Northern Thailand, a thriving community forest is proving that community management is possible and sustainable. Like in other countries, contentious debates over forest rights have pitted Thailand’s Indigenous communities against government and conservation authorities. Despite community forestry bills introduced in 2007 and 2019, officials have been slow to issue legal titles. It took the residents of Mae Tha 20 years to win the lease for the forest area surrounding their seven villages, which the community says their ancestors settled more than three centuries ago. The group partnered with academics and architects to draft a land-use plan that “enabled government officials and local communities to find a common language,” said an architect who worked on the project. The plan helps prevent trespassing arrests, while residents have decision-making power and can sustainably harvest timber and crops.   

Farming opportunities are also encouraging eco-minded young people to remain in their communities, rather than seek work in the city. A group of 20 young villagers has set up a home delivery system for produce, and is pushing for Mae Tha to go 100% organic. “Young people have new ideas about the environment, sustainability and food security, and they want to contribute,” said community leader Matthana Abhaimoon. “They feel more ownership, and have more of a role in the community now.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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