When Izabella Teixeira told her parents that she was going to work on environmental issues in the early 1980s, they were noticeably upset.
“They didn't know what it meant, they didn't think I could survive financially from it,” Teixeira said. “It wasn’t something people outside of science understood.”
But the former environment minister of Brazil, and current co-chair of the International Resource Panel, ignored her family’s concerns and accepted a job at the Secretariat of the Environment in the State of Pará (SEMA)—the precursor to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama)—to work under the renowned environmentalist Paulo Nogueira Neto.
“At the time it was very painful to go against my family,” she recounts.
Teixeira, who is today a UN Champion of the Earth for her policy leadership that spans 30 years, admits that the most valuable lesson that she learned for environmental protection is the importance of dialogue.
“I understood from Nogueira Neto that if you are looking for a solution you need to dialogue not only with those in your tribe, not only those converted, but with everyone,” she said.
That is why Teixeira has spent most of her civil service life placing different players together, from private business to indigenous non-governmental organizations. The efforts have paid off, sprouting into remarkable feats, such as the reversal of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest from an annual loss of 27,772 km2 in 2004 to 4,571 km2 in 2012. Her policies regarding land use also resulted in the creation of 250,000 km2 of conservation areas, or the equivalent of 75 per cent of the global forest safeguarded.
When Teixeira eventually became vice-minister for the environment, her mother came and congratulated her for having a vision that many people, including herself, only realized was important 30 years later.
Today, Teixeira is still fighting for the sustainable use of resources as well as trying to encourage political engagement in biodiversity conservation. And while these are tremendous tasks, she is optimistic that they will materialize, particularly because of the young people’s mindset.
“My generation grew up with the obligation to understand what pollution and environmental degradation means,” said Teixeira. “For this generation, protecting the environment is the default, it is part of their core values.”
The International Resource Panel co-chair says she is continually impressed by how young people package environmental protection into every part of their lives, such as not accepting jobs with companies whose values are not aligned with theirs.
“For my generation that would never happen,” she said.
Today’s generation understands that prioritizing the environment in policymaking is not only about protecting nature, it is ensuring that people lead better lives, that the economy thrives and that the planet remains healthy for future people, Teixeira emphasized.
Brazil’s present government has a new vision about how the country’s natural resources should be managed, which is largely based on giving states more power. Nevertheless, Teixeira says the public keeps environmental protection front and centre, demonstrated by the fact that the Bolsonaro government rescinded from pulling out of the Paris Agreement, despite the pledge he had made on his presidential campaign.
Teixeira was awarded the Champion of the Earth title in 2013. Six years later, she is still defending the planet doggedly.
“We as human kind can make the difference in a positive way by learning from our experiences,” she said. “I think being a Champion of the Earth means more than hope. It means acting to change based on the future.”
Champions of the Earth, the United Nations’ highest environmental honour, celebrates outstanding figures from the public and private sectors, and from civil society whose actions have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. If that is someone you know, nominate them to be our next Champion.