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'An intermediary between public policy and science'

July 15, 2020

Clara Baringo Fonseca in a forest
Photo: UNEP/Aidan Dockery

Clara Baringo Fonseca is a biologist and Senior Analyst for the GEF-supported Brazilian Biodiversity Information System (Sistema de Informação sobre a Biodiversidade Brasileira – SiBBr). In an interview, she reflected on the power of data to inform decision-making about biodiversity protection and the value of field work to connect with and learn from traditional communities.

When did you start to become interested in global environmental issues?

I became interested in global environmental issues while studying for my bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Barcelona in my home country of Spain – a five-year program that covered a wide range of environmental issues, including studying organisms and their habitats and the relationships between organisms in different ecosystems.

After graduating, I decided to concentrate on climate modelling and scenarios and extreme weather events in order to better understand the impacts of climate change on conservation and natural resource management. My Master of Science research focused on extreme weather events in climate variability in the Brazilian Cerrado, the second largest biome in South America and the most biodiverse savanna in the world.

Before joining the SiBBr team, I worked with the German development agency GIZ and the University of Brasilia on integrated fire management projects, working together with traditional communities in the Cerrado. Today, as biodiversity data manager at the Brazilian National Education and Research Network (RNP), my work largely focuses on collaborating with the many institutions that hold biodiversity data for publication on the SiBBr platform, as well as organizing partnerships and training courses so that they can effectively contribute to the system.

What is the project you work on and what does it aim to do?

The GEF-supported project I work on is Improving Brazilian Capacity to Conserve and Use Biodiversity through Information Management and Use – known in Brazil as ‘SiBBr’, which is led by UNEP in coordination with the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology. The project is now in its final phase, and the National Biodiversity Database has been launched, bringing together more than 200 biological collections and 15 million records on Brazilian biodiversity.

Brazil is among the world’s 18 megadiverse countries. It is home to between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s biological diversity, with more than 120,000 species of invertebrates, about 9,000 vertebrates and more than 4,000 plant species. With this comes huge potential, but also a huge responsibility. It is crucial that we understand the nation’s biodiversity if Brazil’s natural assets are to be used sustainably. This is all the more important in light of recent fires that have ravaged several museums in Brazil, destroying biological collections.

Given the vast size of the country and the number of different institutions engaged in biodiversity research, storing all this information in a useable manner is an enormous challenge. The Brazilian Biodiversity Information System brings together data and information from over 230 institutions, from universities to research centers, museums, state agencies, botanic gardens, and zoos via a single portal coordinated by the Ministry of Science and Technology and operated by RNP.

Clara Fonseca walking with a man on a dirt path
Photo: UNEP/Aidan Dockery

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your approach to work?

Our entire team is working from home with daily online meetings. We are using agile methodologies to facilitate our work, as well as using new and old technologies for online meetings.

Taking into account the importance of face-to-face events in some cases, it has been a readjustment, but we all hope that these isolation measures will be effective so that in the near future we will be able to stop this pandemic, as well as to learn from it about how we need to reorganize our society, and identify the weaknesses in how we relate to each other and our planet.

Is there a person or community you have met through this work that had a lasting impact on you?

Working on this project has given me the opportunity to work in an environment where ethical and social values ​​are key to good coexistence. Working in a public ministry has been a daily learning experience, and I’ve also learned a great deal through being in regular contact with other GEF project teams around the world.

Being engaged with reference institutions and specialists in conservation and research has been inspirational – including José Marengo’s research on climate and impacts of extreme events with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the work of former Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity Braulio Dias on harnessing the knowledge including traditional communities in biodiversity conservation and monitoring.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

Due to my role as a data manager, I have very diverse roles, where I need to seek support from various sectors, from ministry managers and IT experts, as well as the UN and communication staff. In this way I have learned from a multidisciplinary team on all levels.

Of course, I remain thankful to my university ecology and project coordinator Isabel Schmidt and to Ludivine Eloy, who introduced me to the field of fire and ecology research and the importance of relationships with local communities.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

One of the greatest lessons has been the importance of my work as technician in acting as an intermediary between public policy and science. I’ve also seen that field work with traditional communities is very important – especially in terms of learning from them and scientifically validating their knowledge, so that it can be included in the management of the environment. It’s also vital that any use of this knowledge must safeguard their rights so that any commercialization of traditional knowledge is protected and remunerated.

In addition, my work has made clear to me the importance of science and technology for the development of society, and the role of applied sciences in supporting public policies and decisions. Finally, there is no current "off-the-shelf" recipe for managing conservation and environmental issues, and it’s necessary to adapt our decisions to suit the place and situation. We need to include all types of societies, minorities and communities, with dialogue as one of the most fundamental tools to improve the wellbeing of all.