Advising the president and engaging local communities: An interview with Adjany Costa
Ethno-conservationist and marine biologist Adjany Costa never expected to be in a political position, but she can now impressively introduce herself as Adviser to the President of Angola for Environmental Affairs and, in her previous position, the youngest Minister in Angolan history. We discussed her job responsibilities, motives for working in conservation and work with local communities.
What steps did you take to get to the position you are in now?
The first step was working very, very hard! I built up the skills that allowed me to be at an advantage and to be part of the presidential team. The main thing that shifted was being nominated as a Minister last year, but finding a balance between a combination of the practices, practicalities, and applications of legal frameworks with onsite conservation experience, alongside the political background, allowed me to get here.
Was this position something you always saw yourself doing?
Absolutely not! I am a field person, and there is this conception about conservation that you have to focus on one thing and stay with that until you die. I think that is a misconception, especially if you want to push forward change and contribute to the improvement and application of policies, because if you only have field experience then you won’t be able to bring that into influencing policymakers.
If you only have political experience, then you have no idea what is required in the field. If you only have scientific experience, then you won’t know how to apply that science, both in the field and in policy.
I’m a field person and I will always be a field person, but having that combination of skills really helped me to improve what I do in the field. And it doesn’t mean you have to have these skills at the same level. I did not want to be in politics, but it has been a great experience because it’s changed my perception of fieldwork and how to do what I want to do.
What is a typical day for you?
Each day is completely different to the next. My job involves three different facets.
Firstly, I receive projects on environmental affairs that reach the President and, if the President needs an opinion or if he wants a more practical point of view, he sends it to me and asks what I think. It doesn’t mean I will change his mind, but he asks what I think of it as the environmental person in Presidency; he asks ‘What do you think this entails?’, ‘What are the pros and cons?’, ‘What are the benefits?’, ‘Will it have impacts that are not worth it?’. That is the direct counselling part.
Secondly, I can propose topics or visions – I call them articles of opinion – to bring awareness to certain things that I think the President should be looking at, such as aspects of projects that have not been evaluated with an environmental eye. It could be transportation or agriculture but, if you think of it environmentally, there can be benefits.
The third, which is the most hectic, is participating in pretty much everything that is related to the environment by representing the Presidency whenever the President cannot come or was too senior to be invited, and by being the point of contact for the Presidency. This is mainly national because of Covid, but also international when I participate online.
What did you do prior to your current role?
I was the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Environment. In 2019 I realized that my scientific background was a little bit lacking, and I was missing a lot of the academic vision of on-site conservation, so I started my PhD.
Last year I was nominated as Minister, and my role was to create the new ministry. As soon as it was created, they needed someone political, so I came in as a technical adviser. When I was invited for this I thought, if there’s one thing I am actually lacking skill-wise, it’s politics. It’s definitely been a learning curve to understand the system from within, but it means that when you propose change you know exactly the path it is going to take, so I think it helps to smooth out the journey.
When you’re in the field, you tend to create projects that I call ‘pink cloud’ projects that are ideal conservation, but ideal conservation doesn’t exist. We must always be aware that any conservation space is a range of components: it’s not just about biodiversity, it’s not just about the local communities (which I’m very engaged with), it’s about the whole set of economic and law-based components that we as field biologists usually have no clue exist!
You must understand how the project will affect the different components around it to make it a more balanced project rather than an ideal. Ideal projects are pretty on paper, but when applying them you realise that you forgot that people don’t just live off plants and animals, they live off other things.
There has actually been a shift over the past decade in the mindset of conservation because the ideal conservation projects that have been applied for have found an obstacle in real life, and real life is a combination of all of these components. So, I think having an understanding of these components helps to create more robust projects that are not ideal but are applicable.
Do you enjoy working in conservation?
It really depends on the day. One has to be very honest about it because in conservation you could be working on one aspect for a decade then one day everything is ruined. It’s a very grey world where you have to focus on everything that has been accomplished in the field because that’s what brings you hope moving forward. It’s a lie to say that every conservationist hasn’t had a moment of asking, ‘What am I doing with my life?’. It’s about finding the strength to keep moving forward more than anything else.
“What motivates me right now is the local communities that I work with. Looking at the small steps they have taken by themselves without a proper plan motivates me to help them further.”
What started me in conservation is completely different to what keeps me in conservation. As one grows, obstacles along the career path will shatter the dreams you had, but help you to create a different dream. I call it ‘adult dreaming’. What motivates me right now is the local communities that I work with. Just engaging with them and looking at the small steps they have taken by themselves without a proper plan motivates me to help them further and contribute to that change. That’s what motivates me now, but if you asked me 13 years ago when I started this it would have been a completely different answer.
What is it like working with local communities?
It’s very sensitive, but also very rewarding. I think one of the main reasons that projects usually don’t include communities is that it’s a very long-term approach. First, you have to build trust, then you have to learn to speak their language and dialogue. You have to understand what they think, what they know, how they see the environment, and only then can you start proposing certain concepts that they can apply to their livelihoods. That is something that takes a lot of time, a lot of human effort, and a lot of patience.
As conservationists we see degradation happening every day, so we are always in a hurry – we want things to happen right now. When working with communities you have to take a step back and include their point of view, which is not moving at the same speed as yours, because they have a life beyond what you dream conservation to be. It’s exhausting sometimes, but it’s very rewarding. When they do something, it changes everything because that’s a conscious decision that they have made and that’s much more sustainable. I feel very heartfelt whenever they make a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
Adjany and I then chatted about ‘A Climate Justice’, a book written by Mary Robinson (the first female President in Ireland) that presents case studies from communities suffering the direct impacts of climate change.
“Climate justice is a concept that really needs to be talked about. It’s not just that the people who are the most affected are the least included, but it’s also that they’re not the ones causing the impacts.”
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is being able to include the environment in topics that most people think are completely unrelated.
The other day I was given a project to review because the President will be participating in the UN conference in September. I was given his speech, and there was nothing on the environment in there. I managed to include climate change in pretty much every topic that was on that document, and they agreed.
Not only did they agree, but they asked me to write up something so that they could understand it. I was able to include a message about the importance of the environment to everything that relates to government and politics. It’s very demanding, but it’s the best part of the job.
“The best part of my job is being able to include the environment in topics that most people think are completely unrelated.”
What are your career highlights?
With all due honesty, whenever someone asks me what my highlights are, or what is the climax of my career, I say there is no such thing. Yes, I’ve won some awards, I’ve done some things, I’ve been to some places, but which one is the best? I’ve learnt from all of them. I wouldn’t tell you that X or Y awards were the best parts of my career; it’s actually the work that led me to those awards that are the best.
I think if I had to choose something it would be having created my own foundation, which is fully focused on ethno-conservation. It’s fully Angolan and is still in the early stages, but it has communities at the centre of everything. One thing that I can say I am actually proud of is overcoming all of the obstacles. So, it’s not the awards, it’s not the positions, it’s none of that, it’s the work that led to those accolades that I think are my biggest accomplishments.
You have a lot of experience in different aspects of conservation. What advice would you give to someone going into the field?
My first piece of advice is to enhance your skills. By enhancing your skills, even the ones you don’t like, you will understand how to do your job better. I’ve learned that everything is related to conservation, so gaining skills in all areas is a way to push forward as much as possible so you can mould yourself into the real world.
The second one is just to push forward, even on the bad days and the days where something terrible has happened and you think, ‘Why am I here?’. Sometimes we have to take a step back. That doesn’t mean that you have to stop moving forward, it just means that it might not be at the pace that you want, and that is very normal. So, find a motive and discipline yourself to move forward because discipline is much more important than motivation. Motivation helps, but if you are not disciplined, if you are not focused and have no goal, it is very difficult to keep going.
The third thing is to listen. In conservation especially, listening is a very important skill to have. In the current world we are very focused on having a voice, and having a voice is very important, but hearing the voices of others is even more important. Otherwise, you are just another voice. If you cannot hear the other voices and if you cannot understand what the other voices are telling you, then you are learning nothing. If you are learning nothing, then you cannot teach anything. It’s not just listening to local communities, at conferences and congresses, or university, it’s everywhere in life.”
Any final comments?
I usually end my speeches with a very cheesy quote that I’ve learnt through time, and for young people and young women especially, I think it really fits. It is, ‘The only person that can stop you is yourself’, and that is something I have carried through my career.
There are a lot of people who try to stop you for different reasons – because they don’t believe in you, or because you’re too young to be taken seriously, or because you’re a woman. It has happened to me several times, and I didn’t think it was possible until I entered this world.
One thing I tell myself is that, if you give up now you are not giving up because of others, you are giving up because of yourself. If you want to stop then that’s your choice, but bear in mind that it is never someone else’s fault, it’s never an obstacle, it’s never a situation, it’s you.
To learn more about conservation careers in conservation policy, community-based conservation and marine conservation, explore our Careers Advice Blog or dive deeper into our ultimate guide, Marine Conservation Jobs.
Author Profile | Emma Phipps
Emma lives in London and currently works in scientific publishing for a conservation journal. She will be studying for an MSc in Conservation at University College London in October 2021, with the hopes of moving into environmental policy in the future. She is a nature enthusiast and animal lover who enjoys hiking and reading in her spare time.