This interview is available in Portuguese here.
How did you first become interested in ecology?
JF: I guess the roots of ecology were within my soul since I was very young given my enchantment with and curiosity about nature. I was born in the savanna, in the rural countryside of Brazil, and all my early memories are related to the rustic setting, and the natural cycles of the savanna vegetation. As a child, I was curious about the remarkable contrast between the dry and wet seasons, the bird songs such as the fogo apagou (extinguished fire) dove that is so typical of my region, the massive purple and yellow flowers of the typical tree species – these explosions of colour stood out from the dry savanna background and attracted my attention from an early age. Later on, living in a small town, I discovered I really enjoyed my science classes, which led me to select an undergraduate degree in biology. And then, at the beginning of the 1990’s, environmental issues become prominent in Brazil with the Rio 92 meeting. I believe all of this came together to consolidate my interest in Ecology, beginning in the Brazilian savannas and then later on in Amazonian forests. But without doubt, my interests are rooted in my infancy.
What challenges did you face when establishing your career?
JF: My family history has been marked by many difficulties, but also by resistance. I come from a rural family – my grandparents did not have any formal education, and my parents only had very limited opportunities to study. However, my mum always encouraged me to study, as she was a teacher and a rural leader in the countryside. In fact, I was born and raised within a school where my mum worked and lived. I studied in a state school, which in Brazil often means having a more precarious education. However, one day I won a scholarship to a private school after participating in an essay competition. At that time, universities didn’t exist in my region -the nearest was about 800 km away. But in the beginning of the 1990’s a state university was finally established nearby, after the creation of a new Brazilian state – Tocantins. This finally provided the opportunity for me to start my undergraduate course, even though there were no public policies at that time encouraging the inclusion of minorities and people from poorer backgrounds – breaking down all these barriers depended much more on individual efforts. For example, I worked since I was very young as a schoolteacher’s assistant, and continued to do so up to going to university. Anyway, to arrive to where I am today has taken a lot of persistence, and being the first person of my family to go to university was a massive achievement.
What led you to take a different path to so many researchers, and commit to spend so much of your time communicating and discussing your work with others?
JF: During my PhD at the University of Brasilia, my research was carried out in protected areas, and political questions linked to land use change were not part of my studies. Immediately after concluding my degree, though, I began to work at Embrapa and soon realized that I could not be restricted to working only in protected areas anymore. This is because in Brazil there is a significant area of natural vegetation in private lands, and many of these are very degraded in the Amazon region. Working in such areas required the establishment of dialogue with many different actors and stakeholders; without these conversations, it would be impossible to carry out any ecological research. The interaction was not always easy, particularly in some regions such as Santarém, in the Central Brazilian Amazon, were we have long term studies. The replacement of dense forest by soybean fields was marked by many rural conflicts. In 2010, along with some British colleagues, I founded the Sustainable Amazon (RAS) Network. Since the beginning, we have a principle to maintain a dialogue with local and regional actors, helping us to understand their perspectives, as well as helping us apply the results of our research to influence and transform society.
What has been your most rewarding experience in engaging decision makers around your research?
JF: I have had many positive experiences across my career, but perhaps one of the most rewarding involved advising and supporting the development of state legislation that led to the protection of regenerating forests in the Amazonian state of Pará. This process took a long time, more than a year after the creation of a working group, and involved a lot of interactions between scientists, decision makers and practitioners. We analysed an extensive ecological dataset in order to find solutions that would be both simple and robust, enabling their implementation in the field. Besides this, I was also delighted when we published a policy perspective piece in Science highlighting the overlap between mining requests and conservation units, mainly in Amazonia. This work resulted in an invitation to a debate in the Brazilian senate, and further meetings at the Brazilian mining federation. Although it was very challenging, it also proved to be very rewarding.
What have been the most frustrating and challenging moments?
JF: I would say I am experiencing frustrating moments in the last year because I see a step backwards in the dialogue between environmentalists and rural actors in the Amazon. Around a decade ago, we were participating in an increasingly positive dialogue, where farmers were aware of the importance of engaging with ecologists and were seeing us as allies enabling them to achieve environmental compliance. Unfortunately, parts of this positive dialogue are being lost today.
Many people view environmental concern as a political agenda. In working on these issues are you sometimes labelled an activist rather than a researcher? And how do you navigate answering such questions?
JF: Indeed, it is not uncommon to be labelled as an activist, but in my view, this is not completely incoherent. When you work in a region full of conflict such as the Amazon, you often face issues of inequity, environmental justice and human rights. As such, I feel pleased that my research contributes to the conservation of nature, and can potentially help the empowerment and protection of vulnerable social groups. During my work, I engage with different groups, such as traditional riverine communities, indigenous peoples, agrarian reform settlers, etc. It would be impossible to study the ecosystems while ignoring these people. In fact, they often look to research and researchers to support them in getting their voices heard. As such, it is not possible to navigate through the Political Ecology of the Amazon without working for environmental causes, but obviously always guided by scientific evidence and principles.
What advice would you give to young researchers starting out on their careers now, who want to do more than ‘just research’?
JF: Above all, I would suggest that early career researchers contextualise their research in the bigger picture, always asking themselves how their research could contribute to the wellbeing of humanity, independently of the scale of observation. It is always important to understand the context within which your research is embedded. Sometimes, researchers that focus on individual parts of the puzzle can find it hard to step back and understand the context. However, once they try to make the links and connections, then the socio-political context begins to emerge. Dialogue is essential to understand the situation, and to contribute to better decision making that can help society as a whole. Of course, being attentive and willing to contribute are fundamental parts of this.