IWD 2019: Celebrating Women in Landscape Restoration

Today, Friday 8th March 2019, is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is all about balance: ‘Better the balance, better the world”. Balance is critical to the delivery of the Endangered Landscape Programme’s vision, of landscapes that are ‘enriched with biodiversity, establishing resilient, more self-sustaining ecosystems that benefit both nature and people’.

In this update we hear from some of the women at the forefront of ecological restoration in Europe, all of whom are involved in the delivery of our funded projects, from field-based restoration work to project management and communications.

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Melanie Newton

I am the Project Director of Summit to Sea, a landscape-scale restoration project funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme in Mid-Wales. The project aims to repair and restore natural processes, reconnect people with nature, and revive local economies and communities. I am a bilingual (Welsh/English), Wales born-and-raised Project Manager with over 25 years’ experience, mostly in the NGO and charity sector but also in enterprise development.

What interests you about restoration? 

In short, its potential to do what it explicitly states – to restore. Never have we consciously been at such a critical tipping point where our actions dictate the future. I am hopeful that through collective action, particularly by garnering the passions of the next generation, we can come together to restore natural equilibrium.

Why do you think a gender balance is important in your field?

I don’t think gender balance is more important in my field than any other. Gender isn’t a matter of two opposing poles somehow finding a way to meet in the middle, and by doing this achieving a perfect balance. The LGBTQ discourse has helped us to understand that nobody fits into a box or is truly comfortable with a label. It is essential that we achieve balance through embracing individuality, developing tolerance and understanding, and only then can we hope to occupy a world where we appreciate our individual differences and find a way to celebrate them together.

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m a Feminist with a capital “F”!

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Natia Javakhishvili

I graduated from Tbilisi State University with a bachelor’s degree in Biology, and Ilia State University with a master’s degree in Ecology. I have worked for SABUKO (Society for Nature Conservation) almost since its establishment date, first as a Conservation Project Officer and after three years promoted to CEO. SABUKO is a major partner in the ELP-funded project in Georgia.

Can you tell me about a female role model who has inspired you in your career?

In the nature conservation field, we have many examples of female role models who have influenced world wellbeing. One woman who has inspired and impressed me is Marie Sklodowska Curie, the Polish scientist who became the first person (and only woman) to win two Nobel Prizes. She was also voted as the woman who most changed the world in a poll by BBC History magazine. Biography books about her life describe all the difficulties and barriers in society that she had to cope with, but she never lost her passion and enthusiasm to follow her profession. Even now, when it is difficult to keep working, I go back to her stories to find strength and inspiration.

What would you say are some of the main challenges facing women conservationists in Georgia?

Being a woman in nature conservation in Georgia is a challenge, but we rarely speak about this. For instance, usually the target groups of our conservation projects are shepherds, hunters, poachers and wildlife traders, where men dominate. As a woman, I find it is not always easy to join them in conversation and influence their behavior. Being a young, female conservationist, it sometimes feels like you must work double the amount than men do to be similarly respected and acknowledged. I am, however, trying to practice and learn more about how to generate trust in a male-dominated world. Even though there are difficulties, I find that more and more girls are going into nature conservation and protection. They are strong, determined and ready to bring changes.

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Barbara Promberger-Fuerpass

I am Executive Director of Foundation Conservation Carpathia, a Romanian organisation focusing on creating Europe’s most iconic National Park – Muntii Fagaras – in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. As a wildlife biologist, my heart and soul are in protecting these species that are part of Europe’s wild legacy and preserving the remaining wild places they inhabit in perpetuity. Growing up in the countryside, nature and especially wilderness areas have always had an irresistible attraction to me and I feel very privileged being in a position that enables me to make a real change.

What barriers have you faced to get to your position? How did you overcome them?

Living and working in a post-communist country had its challenges on its own, especially as a woman. In the nineties, traditional gender roles would not consider young women roaming the mountains on their own, conducting field research in difficult conditions or even taking the lead in day-to-day decisions. Even driving the car with another man on board was considered at least a breach of etiquette. It always felt that as a woman I had to double the effort to be noticed and to be taken seriously in a domain which was at that time completely dominated by men. The only way to overcome this was to ignore any doubts, stay independent and persistent, and just do it. It might have taken a considerable amount of additional energy, but it also prepared me for the bigger and more important challenges in the conservation work that lay ahead of me.

What advice would you give to young women who are interested in getting into the restoration field?

Be prepared for the worst and grow a thick skin. In conservation, nothing is straightforward, so you need to be bold, have a long breath, stay flexible and adapt to different situations while always keeping your wider vision clear in your mind. The best way to get prepared for this is by volunteering/doing internships early on different projects, ideally covering a variety of topics from hands-on restoration and biological research to the human dimensions. Conservation usually is hard work and involves long hours, but it is the ability of dealing with people’s interests, from local stakeholders to politicians and funders, that makes the difference and turns a project into a real success.

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Sara Casado Aliácar

As a Conservation Officer for Rewilding Portugal, I’m responsible for planning and implementing practical conservation actions on the ground and coordinating the monitoring and evidence testing of the ELP project in Western Iberia. I graduated in Environmental Sciences from the University of Alcalá and earned an MSc Biodiversity and Conservation from the University of Leeds. I’ve been involved in practical conservation projects and research of habitat restoration, forest ecology, environmental education, management of protected areas, species conservation and connectivity in Spain, Nicaragua, Sweden, England and Portugal.

What interests you about working in ecological restoration?

It’s really motivating to work on restoration from a rewilding perspective, because it is about creating space for nature and living things to thrive. This brings well-being for human beings too. It is really interesting working from a holistic perspective that considers interactions and processes, rather than a focus on the individual parts.

Restoration is also a creative and challenging field – I love learning and keeping my curiosity alive. Working in restoration implies working from a long-term perspective, which is necessary in a world where many decisions are based on immediate outcomes.

What barriers have you faced to get to your position? How did you overcome them?

I would say one barrier is this big pressure that women have from an early age of having to show their value more than their male counterparts. As a child, young person or adult you receive messages like “you won’t be able to do that” or “girls don’t do that”. This can make some women really hard on themselves or stop them trying things out.

In order to overcome this, I think it is very important to firstly be conscious that this is a pressure coming from the outside and minimise the impact it has on you. Self-esteem and persistence in pursuing your goals are very important. In my case, I’ve also been really lucky having family members, teachers, friends and work mates that have been supportive and inspiring.

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Mei Abraham Elderadzi

I’m very proud to say that I’m part of the Rewilding Europe team; for me this is not just a job, it’s my heart’s desire. As a millennial optimist filled with hope for a better future, I have spent the last five years shouting out to the world about rewilding as a new conservation narrative, and communicating the tangible successes that Rewilding Europe is continually achieving on the ground. Aside from communications, I have also been heavily involved in the growth of the European Rewilding Network (ERN), a living network that currently comprises 68 rewilding initiatives from 28 European countries. As ERN coordinator, I bring these initiatives together to share knowledge, develop best rewilding practices and methodologies, and work collaboratively towards a “Recoverable Earth”.

Can you tell me about a female role model who has inspired you in your career?

My very first pay cheque went towards a diving course, and my first diving experience had me hooked for life. Sylvia Earle, the female Jacques Cousteau, was the role model of my youth. One of her quotes has always resonated deeply with me:  “Knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions”. If we humans as a collective can’t remember that we are nature – and not something separate from it – our ways will never change. My daily mission is to make people remember this, because once we feel reconnected with wild nature there is no way we can work against it. This is how I live and breathe rewilding.  

What could be done to encourage/support more women to work in restoration?

For women, the 21st century is such an exciting time to be alive. There is a visible merging of male and female ways in all aspects of life, and I’m talking about more than just genders. All known systems are always striving for a balance, doing a never-ending dance towards the equilibrium. I personally see rewilding and restoration as a “female” counterpart to the “male-dominated” sphere of nature conservation. I think that the growing rewilding movement, and the philosophy behind it, is therefore encouraging and motivating more women into the field.

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Elleni Vendras

Having undertaken several conservation projects, from counting endless fish species in the rich coral reefs off the New Guinea coast, studying the effects of forest conversion to industrial oil palm plantation on birds and struggling through the dense West African rainforest in search of Ghana’s last remaining chimpanzees, I decided to go back to Europe and to work in landscape restoration projects. I currently work as a Project Assistant for the Belarus Programme of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which is funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme through the Polesia project.

What interests you about restoration?

Europe’s landscapes are heavily degraded, but I feel there is still the chance for restoration to enable natural processes once again. It is of utmost importance for places like Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Belarus and Kampinos National Park in Poland, whose mires have been degraded in the last century. Melioration efforts have had tremendous effects on wetland-dependent wildlife, like the greater spotted eagle and numerous waterbirds. Without intervention, natural restoration of these swamps and mires would take so long that species might significantly shrink in numbers or even disappear.

Why do you think a gender balance is important in your field?

During my time spent in the tropics I observed how women around the globe use natural resources every day, such as water, fish stocks and timber. Involving women in conservation planning and activities, as well as their empowerment is proven to have a positive effect on the environment, effective water management or sustainable use of forest resources. Other environmental decisions are also influenced by women; countries with gender-balanced parliaments are more prone to sign environmental treaties.

In Belarus, I observe at every single meeting, seminar or conference that the conservation world here seems to be dominated by men. However, the background support in NGOs and national parks is provided mainly by women. I hope that in the future women will be more present also in high-ranking positions and introduce positive changes for endangered habitats and wildlife.