Planting on a farm in São Paolo, Brazil, where Sakiyama spent her youth. Adriano Gambarini, WWF-US

4 questions with Melina Sakiyama – and 3 pieces of advice for all young conservationists

The Midori Prize winner on the role of youth in saving global biodiversity

Ten years ago, young Brazilian biologist Melina Sakiyama attended the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan. Sakiyama met another young environmental activist, and together they co-founded the Global Youth Biodiversity Network to help their generation play a bigger and more effective role in pivotal processes – such as for the very negotiations they were witnessing on the global biodiversity goals known as the Aichi Targets, which were adopted at the CBD COP that year.

The deadline for the Aichi Targets came this year in 2020. Only six of the targets were partially achieved, and none were achieved in full. In that same decade, the Global Youth Biodiversity Network grew to encompass 1.2 million members and organizations in 145 countries, who use the Network to educate and empower their voices in policymaking, awareness-raising and project implementation processes. This year, Sakiyama was one of three recipients of the prestigious Midori Prize, in honor of all she’s built, and in growing recognition of the fact that reaching global environmental targets cannot be done without the help of young people such as herself.

Courtesy of Melina Sakiyama
Courtesy of Melina Sakiyama

What does “biodiversity” mean to you?

Biodiversity means life, in the past, present and future – all of the living inhabitants that have ever lived on this planet and the infinite layers of dynamic and complex interactions with each other and with the environment. This web of life keeps us nurtured, inspired, healthy, safe and connected to each other and to the whole, granting us the possibility of continuity, of evolution and of future existences.

Was there a particular moment that inspired you to focus your early career on biodiversity?

I cannot recall a moment in my life when I was not intrigued or fascinated by biodiversity and all of its facets and layers. But I believe it has to do with the fact that my parents were constantly taking me to the countryside, to the sea, to the forest. My dad’s hometown is a village in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and he also spent a lot of time in his life in the ocean, and I now realize that my experiences in these places growing up had a huge influence in shaping my values, beliefs and my relationship with biodiversity.

However, living in Brazil, you also experience all the inequities and conflicts threatening not only our livelihoods but also this fine balance nature provides us. From an early age you learn about colonization and how this was the first form of environmental disaster, how this has decimated the forests, the cultures, and the lives of the peoples that originally lived in Brazil. You also understand that even though 500 years have passed, this oppressive relationship with nature and with each other has not changed so much, and those in power still smash all these invaluable layers of life, culture, knowledge and future possibilities, and convert it all into monocultures – of crops, things, ideals and ways of life.

I believe this contradiction of the sheer wonder, diversity, balance and wholesomeness of nature in opposition to the crudeness, unfairness and ruthlessness of the way we are operating on Earth just pushed me into action, into founding the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, into doing anything in my power to change this relationship.  

What role does youth play in biodiversity conservation?

We play a huge role, perhaps the most important of all roles, even though it might not come with the power and resources needed to fulfill this role smoothly.

Young people of this generation might be the ones tasked with transforming and redefining our relationship with all our fellow siblings in this web of life. In this globalized, complex and interconnected world, conserving biodiversity alone is not enough anymore to grant us a future. We will need to redefine our values and priorities and reform our systems, institutions and practices. We will need to transform the whole of our society.

And in this context, young people occupy a special place because they are the ones already suffering from unemployment, pollution and waste, pandemics, food insecurity, conflicts… And they will suffer even more the consequences of our failure in addressing this systemic transformation, together with the poor and marginalized people in this unjust system.

But young people also have advantages that might equip them in being the ones suited for this challenge. Ideas such as diversity and interconnectedness are more widely understood and valued among younger generations, as well as the idea that material achievements are not anymore the only measure of success and self-satisfaction. Recognition of youth as important stakeholders is increasingly seeing young people occupy decision-making spaces in all sectors, where they are already infusing their own values and beliefs and promoting important cultural shifts in certain communities. 

In this context I see young people as the ones that will be able to shift our path of materialism, consumerism and egoism, and rather infuse institutions, communities and practices with values such as sustainability, equity, diversity, collective, empathy and tolerance.

What advice do you give to young people working in biodiversity conservation?

It is my personal belief that in the conservation field, young people should: 

  1. Shake the establishment: question current practices, engage in unusual partnerships and activities, and enable different types of dialogues between different silos.  
  2. Be aware of the challenges they will face in their journey: Young people are marginalized, dismissed, tokenized and used as cheap or free labor. Most institutions, organizations and communities still don’t truly grasp (or care about) what meaningful youth engagement is and are unable to design and implement actions that are youth-led, or co-designed and co-produced with young people. Therefore young people need to educate and empower themselves in order to understand their rights and their role, so they can push for it. 
  3. Build their confidence in order to survive being constantly “boxed,” “silenced” and “tokenized”: They need to build or join like-minded “safety” communities, where they can empower themselves, care for each other, and share experiences, knowledge, strategize and mobilize. They need to find nurturing environments to help them develop their ideas so they can help transform our society. 

Article tags

activismAichi Biodiversity TargetsbiodiversityCBDConvention on Biological DiversityGlobal Youth Biodiversity Networkpolicyyoung peopleyouth

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