In a small state called Ceará in Northeast Brazil, far from the lush Amazon, arid conditions are often followed by floods. Subsistence farmers struggle to provide food for themselves and local residents. Hardships like these weigh against achieving a higher quality of life for many – farmers focus on simple survival.
Rosimeiry Portela was born in this community, where her grandparents toiled alongside their neighbors on the land.
An Eye for Inequality
Portela’s family moved to various regions of Brazil as her father’s surveying career demanded. Eventually, her family settled in the western part of Brazil, close to the Amazon, where resources were rich and export-import businesses drove the economy. Appreciating the differences between the two settings, inequality among people became a theme motivating Portela’s career as an academic. Her goal has been to figure out ways to improve peoples’ lives.
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Today, as the Senior Advisor for the Global Change and Ecosystem Services at Conservation International (CI), Portela’s work is mostly behind the scenes. She coordinates with the scientists at CABS and other world-renowned experts to carry out research on biodiversity’s benefits to people—a theme that provides the necessary foundation for effective and sustainable conservation strategies at CI.
In fact, her team has just been awarded CI’s Chairman’s Council Award for a published study. The research concerned the most cost-effective and efficient ways to target Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) for the protection of high biodiversity areas that provide multiple ecosystem services to people.
A Career Linking Nature and People
Portela began her career as an engineer working on various infrastructure projects for the Brazilian government in the state of Mato Grosso. However, her interest in conservation blossomed while working with Brazil’s burgeoning environmental agency on a World Bank loan for natural resources management. She began piecing together how her ultimate goal of assisting human-well being was directly affected by the protection and conservation of natural resources, particularly with Mato Grosso’s three resource-rich -biomes.
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At the University of Maryland, her doctoral dissertation focused on ecosystem services in the Amazon forest and their contribution to human economy and welfare. Results on her research were highlighted in EXAME; a magazine devoted to economics that reaches a broad audience in Brazil.
Professional and Personal
Each year, Portela and her family travel to see her extended family in Brazil and her husband’s family in Finland. “I love being a mom with a son who is full of life and loves exploring and learning,” she says of son Matti. “It’s amazing what I learn from him and the unconditional love we give each other. It’s fun and it makes me so proud.”
Matti is keen on the wildlife and the landscape he sees in the Cerrado and Pantanal areas of Mato Grosso. In Finland, they enjoy going to Lapland, both in the summer and winter, when long and short days alike are always an excuse for a good Finnish sauna.
Of all the places Portela has traveled, Madagascar has truly captured her scientist’s heart —especially the playful lemurs that inhabit the island nation. Shortly after Matti was born, she traveled on business to Madagascar.
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”The uniqueness of not finding anything else like it on Earth, with the poverty and so many children…I could appreciate levels of poverty that I had never seen before and very young mothers, teenagers really, having children,” she says.
Social Models for Conservation
Portela is always looking to social components for models of conservation, noting the differences in Brazilian and Finnish conservation efforts. Brazilians, for example, are increasingly aware of environmental issues, but development concerns are still at the forefront of their political agenda, and inequality remains one of the worst in the world. “There is very little inequality in Finland and a high level of agreement among politicians for conservation,” says Portela.
Describing herself as “low-key,” Portela is content in “having the respect among my colleagues and with CI, but not necessarily the attention.” Portela believes that in the field you are doing the best you can under time constraints. “Behind the scenes,” she says, “you have more time to think and look at things in a more neutral, focused way.”
“Whether you are taken seriously or not (as a conservation organization) is if you have the science supporting and backing your initiatives,” says Portela. “Working with other organizations that follow your lead and accept you as an equal partner is a great indicator of how far we’ve gone and how well we’re respected in the field.”
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