Between saving nature and documenting its end
In the “Women in Conservation” project, Chilean-Brazilian journalist Paulina Chamorro and Brazilian photographer João Marcos Rosa travel through different biomes to accompany the work of female scientists and activists in their fight for the conservation of flora and fauna. The result is a series of reports, documentaries, and podcasts that reveal stories of determined individuals working to save what remains of nature amidst so much news of environmental destruction.
By Miguel Vilela / Photographs by João Marcos Rosa
In the Brazilian Pantanal and Cerrado, a 27-year research project has already cataloged nearly 200 tapirs and has contributed to defining precise conservation strategies. Also, another project initiated in 1990 in the Pantanal helped the almost extinct hyacinth macaw recover its population from 1.5 thousand individuals to more than 6.5 thousand. On the only atoll in the South Atlantic, Atol das Rocas, located in the middle of the ocean, a Brazilian environmental protection agency has been fighting since the 1980s to keep fishermen and other intruders away from its waters, which are now teeming with life, unlike few other places in the world. Women lead all these initiatives.
Patricia Medici, an expert on tapirs. Neiva Guedes, on macaws, and Zélia de Brito, a career official from the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity (the federal agency responsible for protecting biodiversity), are three of the eight women profiled by Chilean-Brazilian journalist Paulina Chamorro and Brazilian photographer João Marcos Rosa as part of the “Women in Conservation” project.
Since 2019, the two of them have traveled through different regions of Brazil to document the fieldwork of women fighting for biodiversity conservation. The project has already produced a series of mini-documentaries available on YouTube, in-depth reports published in various media outlets, including National Geographic Brazil, a series of podcasts, and now, a medium-length documentary that is being presented at festivals.
While urgent stories and news about the destruction of biodiversity abound, there are also heartwarming stories of determined individuals working to conserve and regenerate what is still left of nature. These are the stories that “Women in Conservation” tells.
To achieve this, João and Paulina immerse themselves, sometimes literally, in their subjects’ universe. They have spent days silently accompanying the capture, sedation, and measurement work of tapirs, the largest land mammal in South America, and pygmy anteaters, the smallest anteater in the world. They have spent nearly two weeks isolated and diving with sharks at the atoll, three kilometers in diameter in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They have climbed sandstone walls in search of Lear’s macaw nests and used scuba gear to photograph groupers, marine fish weighing up to 300 kg.
In an interview in Portuguese, Paulina Chamorro shares what she has learned during these four years of the project and talks about the importance of documenting positive stories about the environment.
In her first opportunity to work in the field, Neiva Guedes channeled her passion into one of the most successful initiatives in Brazilian conservation history: the Blue Macaw Project. Today, after three decades, they have managed to reverse the situation: since the 1980s, the population has increased by over 150%.
“These women are not there to save or study a macaw or a tapir just to win awards or money. They are there because they believe that every individual, every living being, must be protected. And when you protect a living being in the web of life that is biodiversity, you protect the entire biodiversity.”
How did the “Women in Conservation” project begin? Can you tell the story of it?
It started from a perception of João’s and later mine that women, especially those most successful, have long led many significant wildlife and flora conservation initiatives. So, João approached me with this idea, which could have been a book or journalistic article at first.
But then, realizing that the central point was the lack of visibility of these women, we understood that the best way to address it would be to tell these stories in different formats, such as a web series, a podcast, and a series of articles, in addition to the project’s social media.
So, in 2019, we set out to try how to use all these tools with just two people in the field, a photographer and a reporter, doing many things. But then, during that first trip to the Pantanal to portray Patricia Medici and Neiva Guedes, we understood it would work.
The idea was to shed light, as if it were a sticker album so that boys and girls could be inspired by stories of women working and fighting for nature in Brazil. This idea arose from that desire and the perception that we have a very large and significant number of women leading successful conservation projects.
For over 30 years, Patricia Medici has been the guardian of one of Brazil’s most prominent mammals: the tapir. The project she leads, the National Initiative for the Conservation of the Brazilian Tapir, has cataloged hundreds of tapirs, requiring capturing, sedating, and collecting blood and other markers to define precise conservation strategies.
Is there something you have learned, a new perspective, or something you have understood better after starting to accompany these women?
It is essential to mention that the project started a few months before the pandemic but already in the context of a government that openly opposed the environmental agenda in Brazil, the Bolsonaro government.
So, when we went to the field before the pandemic, something that helped me a lot during this period was understanding the resilience and strength of these women. Despite everything that was happening regarding environmental destruction, they remained steadfast in the field, not abandoning their research or care for the communities. They continued doing science.
Another thing I learned is the meaning of something bigger, which falls into the concept of deep ecology. These women are not there to save or study a macaw or a tapir to win awards or money. They are there because they believe that every individual, every living being, must be protected. And when you protect a living being in the web of life that is biodiversity, you protect the entire biodiversity. The importance of maintaining the diversity and multiplicity of species on the planet became very clear to me through the example of these women.
As they work to save one species, they keep the entire tapestry of life, including the human species. If we manage to save other species, who knows, perhaps our human species can be saved from the chaos it has placed itself in.
Zélia de Brito has been the head of the Atol das Rocas Biological Reserve for over 30 years. During this period, she almost got shot when confronting fishing boats approaching to take advantage of the abundant marine life in the atoll, the only one in the South Atlantic, located 270 km off the Brazilian coast.
“It’s a matter of choosing which side to look at. There are people telling stories about the destruction of the planet, which are important and must be told, but there are far fewer people telling the stories of those trying to save the planet.”
In a TED talk, Patricia Medici says she sometimes doubts if her work is saving biodiversity or just documenting its end. Do you feel this way? Do you believe you are conserving biodiversity or just documenting its end?
This is a question I often ask women, as it’s profound and allows us to talk about purpose and which side you want to look at. And in response: I feel like I’m working to conserve the planet, the environment, and the people, for conservation in general.
In the same period, two things are happening: on the one hand, people are deforesting, killing 10,000 sharks for their fins, but at the same time, women are working to conserve the planet.
So, it’s a matter of choosing which side to look at. There are people telling stories about the destruction of the planet, which are essential and must be told, but there are far fewer people telling the stories of those trying to save the world.
These people give me hope and make me believe that I am also working for conservation by shedding light on these stories, which can inspire more people. I am working in conservation.
Beatrice Padovani, a full professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco, is an expert in coral reefs, marine reserves, fish population dynamics, reef fish, and artisanal fishing. Besides diving, she works closely with local fishing communities, who are the ones that can truly save marine biodiversity.
During all these trips, were there any particularly standout moments? Is there a story you would like to share?
Our method in the field is to accompany these women to observe their subjectivity silently. And that has allowed us to experience extraordinary moments. For example, I learned that a critical scientist in the world of primatology, Karen Strier, uses intuition in her research. We also observed how they treat and manage their teams and behave in the field: perceptions that are not revealed in a simple, coldly told interview.
As a reporter in the field, observing these subjectivities, and with João also bringing that sensitivity to the images, we become more honest with the true story of these women. After all, we have a great responsibility; we are presenting them to a large audience that mostly doesn’t know them.
We accompany them for several days in the field, going through difficulties together, enduring heat, cold, and rain. We can see someone from the team bringing good news and, notice their reaction, observe how they create solutions to challenges in the field. All of this changes the tone of the questions we ask in the interviews and the tone of the answers they give us. Therefore, this intimacy, while always maintaining journalistic rigor, has become a language and a characteristic of the “Women in Conservation” project, which is about telling the love they feel for nature, not just about the science, the species themselves, or the results. We are talking about purposes and motivations.
Veterinarian Flávia Miranda dedicates her life to studying xenarthrans, one of the oldest mammals in the Americas, which emerged more than 60 million years ago and is represented today by anteaters, sloths, and armadillos. In recent years, she has been researching the behavior of the pygmy anteater, the smallest in the world, measuring just over 30 centimeters in length.
And what are the next steps for the project? Do you have plans for more things?
The project continues. Nearly half of the characters in the documentary are from the ocean, women who work in marine biodiversity, which sets our production apart from most nature documentaries in Brazil. We have greatly emphasized this ecosystem, the primary and largest one we have, which houses the highest number of species on the planet. We have also included the Caatinga, a poorly documented biome, and the Pantanal.
So, the documentary, in addition to documenting these women, allows people to discover and learn about more biomes and ecosystems rarely seen in Brazil. We are moving towards a third season, and we couldn’t leave out the Amazon. For the upcoming episodes of the web series, podcasts, and reports, we will have “Women in Conservation” of the Amazon, a complete season dedicated to the Amazonian biome, once again with the support of the Toyota Foundation of Brazil.
Moreover, the Amazon, a biome shared with other countries, opens the door for us to unite the nature of all of South America. We have shared biomes and significant conservation projects led by women. That’s why we hope the Amazon will be that gateway to telling the conservation stories of Latin American women.