Iara Vicente is an Amazonian policy analyst who received her BA in sociology at the University of Brasilia. During her professional journey, she worked with some of the most important Brazilian environmental non-profits – The Socioambiental Institute (ISA), known for its advocacy in forest and indigenous peoples’ rights; and at the Esquel Group Foundation. After which, she started a micro-consulting company where she worked on research, design and providing technical assistance for public policy formulation. She is also a founding member of Brazil’s first political party, Rede Sustentabilidade, devoted to defend sustainability. MPA ESP intern Megha Kedia interviewed Vicente to learn about her fascinating story.
Did you have a background in environmental policy before you started the MPA-ESP program?
I was born and raised in the State of Acre, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. During my childhood, social-environmentalism in the Amazon was blooming and since my parents were activists, I watched the movement grow very closely. I attended meetings, protests and political campaigns headed by several of the greatest historical environmentalists at the time including Marina Silva, former minister of the environment and Marcos Afonso, former presidential candidate. Talking to them and observing the development of their political projects enabled me to learn a great deal about the shaping of forest policy, its ethics, and the implementation challenges. I always wanted to honor the legacy of this environmental movement in my professional activities. My first attempt at this was a collective effort to safeguard forest assets that brought together rubber tappers, their descendants, politicians who fought for democracy, scientists and artists to shape forest identity.
While pursuing my bachelors degree, I worked in leading Brazilian non-profits geared towards promoting environmental sustainability – The Socioambiental Institute (ISA), known for its advocacy in forest and indigenous peoples’ rights; and at the Esquel Group Foundation. It was while working in advocacy and policy monitoring at these institutions that I came across two very important causes for my political activism: denouncing social and environmental harms that would be caused by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and the voting of Brazil’s New Forest Code.
At some point, I realized that understanding what drives environmental issues was not enough to ensure advances in environmental policy. As a trainee researcher at the Amazon Institute for People and The Environment (Imazon), I was able to engage more actively in policy making by translating scientific data in to actionable knowledge. During my work here, Marcelo Marquesini, former Greenpeace member and pioneer on co-management at forested areas, and Jakeline Pereira, Calha Norte specialist at Imazon, gave me the opportunity to write a policy proposal for the state. I loved the feeling of actually operationalizing policy, instead of just analyzing it. While working in policy formulation I wanted to create data driven, transparent and realistic policy for long term impact. I realized the urgency to systemize my practical training with formal knowledge in policy development.
What was your motivation to study MPA-ESP at Columbia University?
When I first considered applying to graduate school, my biggest goal was to conduct research in the political theory of the Amazon. I wanted to revisit environmental policy solutions championed by Amazonian environmentalists, thereby revisiting my experiences in the Amazon rainforest. However, my professional activities kept leaning towards more executive matters – policymaking, media strategy and cultural production. Therefore, focusing my graduate education on science and policy eventually became a priority.
This program provided me a much-needed balance between building public administration capacity, scientific proficiency and a deep understanding of ethical and political implications. It is a program that has a clear objective: to promote sustainability worldwide and it teaches its MPA candidates to contribute to this agenda through a highly pragmatic, data-based, scalable approach, which is both empowering and results-oriented. The MPA-ESP program allowed me to conciliate both my interests – science and policy – without having to chose one over the other.
The ESP Program works as a crash-course in all fundamental areas of environmental governance. We are graduating to be, if not proficient, at least well-versed to critically understand issues with tools ranging from environmental chemistry, climatology and toxicology to financial management, public speaking and ethical issues. It is an intense workload – even more intense if you decide to take advantage of extracurricular activities, but is definitely worthwhile.
During a discussion with Professor Adela Gondek (ESP faculty specialized in ethics and political theory), she accepted me as an advisee for my independent study that I am conducting here at SIPA. Much of Amazonian political strategy, social technology and co-operation techniques are still unwritten, safeguarded only by oral narratives within Amazonian cities and forest communities. I believe that this knowledge is fundamental to help Brazil contribute to fight climate change. My research, “Restorative Politics: a toolkit to protect the Amazon,” is going to be a policy solutions index based on over 40 hours of interviews with leading Brazilian environmentalists. My advisor embraced my comprehensive research idea and helped me take it to the next level, allying feasibility, interdisciplinary and philosophical relevance on the curatorship of themes approached. Using assignments in several classes as a way of approaching subjects I wanted to cover in my research turned out to be an excellent idea, which resulted in many diverse outcomes (from maps to policy analysis). It also helped translate institutional classroom theory into the Amazonian context which was material to my agenda.
One of the most valuable things that I got from the program was the opportunity to do pro bono consulting for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. We are developing a statistical model to measure upstream greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural gas. It has been an honor to contribute to Sierra Club’s work, whose advocacy platform I have admired for years. It has also been proof that our program’s initial semester of science definitely works, as my skills as a social scientist would not have been sufficient to contribute to this kind of task.
What extracurricular activities did you do?
First, it is important to mention the wonderful opportunities that being a Lemann Fellow brought me. Besides the opportunity of studying at Columbia University, for which I am very grateful, being a fellow connected me with several like-minded Brazilian social entrepreneurs, non-profit professionals and researchers, which will surely reflect in my following years of professional activity.
Along with some friends we also founded an environmental policy discussion club (Environmental Policy Over Coffee – EPOC), where we hosted several discussions regarding environmental policy and election results in the United States, legal pathways to de-carbonization and nuclear power. We even started a speaker series named after my research, the Restorative Politics series. The first event of this kind included one of my interviewees, philosopher and former congressman Marcos Afonso, who discussed how the legacy of Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes (assassinated in 1988) shaped Brazil’s environmental policy.
What is your plan after you graduate?
My ultimate goal is to make a robust contribution to the implementation of sustainable development in Brazil. In my opinion, investing in South America’s cultural heritage is a strong tool to ensure durable sustainability advancements. The legacy of forest communities in the Amazon is precisely that; to establish coherency between discourse and policy, between real life and politics, and that is made through the preservation of regional identity, self-esteem and a sense of belonging.
A lasting environmental policy reconciles not only government proxies with ecological boundaries, but also citizens with their original environment, restoring bonds with nature. Translating that into concrete goals, it would be to continue developing environmental policies for state and local levels in Brazil – continue to improve policy making by creating learning tools and environments for decision-makers to support business ventures that are sustainable and culturally relevant. Also, I will continue my civic activism through my political party, Rede Sustentabilidade, of which I was the co-founder and a national board member. My goal is to contribute to a less-polarized political culture in Brazil, and to help candidates committed to building and executing government plans that help Brazil be a more just and sustainable country.
What advice do you have for the incoming ESP’rs?
Take advantage of university resources. There is a world of possibilities and you can customize a lot of this one-year experience to fit your ambitions and interests. Also, keep an eye open to the wonderful experience that is living in New York City and being one subway ride away of some of the most influential non-profits, politicians, researchers and artists of our time.