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News Release
December 1, 2006

Grandmother in Amazon receives inaugural award for putting science into practice

Gloria Gaia of the Tocatins region in Brazil, a self-educated grandmother and farmer, is the inaugural recipient of the Science and Practice of Ecology & Society Award.

In the early 1990’s Gloria, a mother of five, managed her family homestead, collecting fruits, fibers, medicines and other resources from her woods, while surrounding families sold their trees to loggers. She experienced first hand the dilemma of providing for a family using the forest as their bank and the ever-present temptation to cash in their crops as timber. When she learned that a small team of scientists were in the area asking “Which is more valuable, our trees sold as timber or the game, fibers, and fruits that we collect from our forests?” she not only requested that they share their findings with the villagers, she made sure the information was presented in a way as to be understood by all, including those who were illiterate or lacked any formal education. “I use popular language to pass on scientific information so that rural communities can understand” says Gloria Gaia.

In the years that followed, the illustrated “traveling workshop” book that grew out of her collaboration with the scientists has helped to transform not only how many scientists conduct their research, it has transformed forestry practices and education in Brazil, and importantly, it has empowered rural villagers with knowledge that traditionally would have remained beyond their reach in academic journals.

The Science and Practice of Ecology and Society (SPES) Award is an annual award given to an individual or organization that successfully bridges the gap between the science of ecology and society and its practical application. The award, which consists of one thousand Euro and an article about the recipient’s story published in the online journal Ecology & Society, is meant to “identify innovative practitioners so that their story can be an example for others” says Dr. Marco Janssen of the Foundation for Scientific Symbiosis which sponsors the award.

Dr. Janssen was motivated to create the SPES award through his experience as a researcher. “As a scholar studying the governance of social-ecological systems I have experienced frequently that science derives important insights but is not able to make a difference in practice. Scientists might not always be the best translators of their work to practical applications. On the other hand I have seen practitioners who do great work in applying scientific insights in practical ways. Therefore it is important to identify those persons and organizations who are champions in bridging science and practice, and tell their story so that we all can learn from it.”

With nominations for the award coming from all around the world, Dr. Janssen says he was struck by “the fact that Gloria Gaia as a self-educated grandmother and forest farmer from a small town in the Amazon taught scientists how to communicate the real values of forests to people in the Amazon and abroad.”

Gloria was nominated for the award by Dr. Patricia Shanley, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and one of the scientists from the first expedition to Gloria’s village. Dr. Shanley co-edited the first book Frutiferas da mata na vida Amazonica (Fruit trees of the forest in the lives of Amazonians) that Gloria distributed to villagers, traveling by logging road, canoe, and foot to conduct workshops in remote and often conflict-ridden regions. At these workshops Gloria presented data about the ecology, markets, and management of several important Amazonian tree and palm species using cartoons, sketches, and stories.

Dr. Shanley recounts Gloria’s story in the current issue of Ecology and Society, from their first journey together to a distant village to international forestry meetings, and a request from Brazil’s Minister of the Environment to expand the Frutiferas book. The book now describes in plain language and cartoon illustrations, the research of 90 leading Brazilian and international scientists covering 21 plant species.

On honoring Gloria with the SPES award, Dr. Shanley says “I am grateful that the work of a knowledgeable, humble midwife fighting for equity in the forest is recognized internationally. Her award is a welcome affirmation. For many years we were the only women presenting at forest management meetings and the only presenters focusing on fruits, medicines and fibers instead of timber. In these ensuing years, the rising value and interest in forest goods and multiple use forestry, suggest that the bumpy path we chose may be a valuable one.”

Echoing Dr. Shanley’s sentiment, Gloria says (translated from Portuguese) “Another magnificent advance of the work is recognition of the important role of women and the key role they can play in decision making. This is marvelous. Women are repositories of knowledge regarding forest use, which offers a rich contribution in the construction of a new model of development - sustainable development.”

“Gloria was thrilled to receive the award” Dr. Shanley says, however, after learning of it her mind immediately turned to work. She had received a message from Dona Ana and other mothers from the Capim River region, asking if she could return to offer a medicinal plant workshop. Many of the children were falling ill with flu, fever and skin diseases. So she began planning where to secure medicinal plants and oils and to figure out how to travel there cheaply”.

“She loves the forest and this award gives her additional impetus to fight to see that it stands. Living somewhat precariously without regular income, the award also means that she can begin to make her dream of a home medicinal plant garden become a reality. Her great hope is to be able to continue traveling by boat and logging road to reach remote villagers in the hopes of strengthening their knowledge base about forest value” says Dr. Shanley.

For more information:
Professor Marcus Janssen, Arizona State University, (480) 965-7671

Dr. Patricia Shanley, CGIAR, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Jakarta, Indonesia

Allyson Quinlan, Communications Director, Resilience Alliance, (819) 360-9934

Full article citation:
Shanley, P. 2006. Science for the poor: How one woman challenged researchers, ranchers, and loggers in Amazonia. Ecology and Society 11(2): 28. [online]

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