Science sisters of the Amazon

A mentor system is helping young women scientists in Peru and Brazil to break through barriers.
Like these Shipibo Konibo women, female scientists gain knowledge and confidence when they work together. Juan Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz/CIFOR

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A welcoming committee of tarantulas outside her tent hardly inspired confidence in Katty García when she visited an indigenous Shipibo Konibo village on the banks of Peru’s Ucayali River.

“I was a little afraid,” she says of the spider confrontation, which featured in what was her first ever trip outside of her hometown of Pucallpa, in Peru’s Amazon region.

But García persisted, gathering data with researcher Dawn Rodríguez-Ward of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in this small indigenous community of open-sided, thatch-roofed houses.

Immediately across the border in Acre, Brazil, Kaline Rossi teamed with CIFOR scientist Amy Duchelle to survey communities on the impact of interventions associated with Acre’s State System of Incentives for Environmental Services.

“Amy made me feel that our work could make a difference and that everyone was contributing to the results,” says Rossi. “That is really important for building a young researcher’s self-esteem and confidence.”


García and Rossi are among a number of young women researchers in the Amazon who have developed new capabilities and skills working with women scientists from CIFOR.

Those scientists, in turn, highlight the impact that women mentors have had on their own careers, creating a chain of learning and professional support that crosses boundaries of culture and language.

I’m always trying to open doors for hard working, dedicated young researchers

Amy Duchelle

Young women researchers still face discrimination in Brazil, according to Rossi.

“We have to deal with it every day,” she says. “We have to fight for better positions, better salaries and recognition for what we do, and not what we look like.”

In Peru, García and fellow scientists Lyan Mui Campos and María Luisa Vásquez were part of field teams led by Rodríguez-Ward, undertaking surveys on subnational initiatives as part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

The six-country study is designed to gauge the impact of subnational REDD+ programs and projects by comparing data gathered in communities before and after the initiatives are implemented, and by comparing communities with projects and those without. Analysis is ongoing, and results are expected in the next few months.

Working with more experienced scientists such as Rodríguez-Ward “was super motivating,” says Vásquez, who has a degree in forestry.

“These are women who are under 40 and have PhDs or post doctorates,” she says. “They’re doing research and are in the field with the people. They’re committed to helping people improve their quality of life.”

Mentoring researchers is a two-way street, says Anne Larson, a principal scientist at CIFOR.

“I learn a lot from women researchers who are going out in the field in the Amazon, from their own perceptions, which they bring to the field with them, and from the information they bring back,” Larson says.


Young women researchers can also look to more experienced female colleagues for guidance about issues that men might not recognize, such as cultural taboos about women interviewing men and personal safety, she says.

“Safety is an issue that women have to take with them wherever they go,” Larson says. “You have to have someone with you, you have to know where you’re going, and you need have a network of people who will take care of you along the way. It shapes everything else.”

That is a topic that CIFOR scientist Amy Duchelle emphasizes with her team. She’s currently leading the subnational component of the Global Comparative Study, and mentored young researchers while coordinating the study’s subnational initiatives research in Brazil and Peru.

Duchelle insists on the buddy system – always working in pairs and walking from house to house with another person, even if that is more time consuming than splitting up and doing the work independently.

“Finishing the work should not be at the expense of your safety,” she says.

Doing surveys in indigenous communities, which are often hours by boat from Pucallpa, the nearest city, poses particular challenges.

In these communities, health posts tend to be poorly staffed and stocked – if they exist at all – and school teachers may go away for days or weeks at a time, leaving students adrift.

“It’s important to go and see what people really think, and what they really need,” Campos says. “But I learned that they don’t always welcome you with open arms.”

Gaining the trust of community members can take time, Larson says. And that is where teamwork can help.

Duchelle says she is still learning from more experienced women researchers, especially those who, like her, are balancing careers and families.

And like others before her, she keeps an eye out for rising stars.

“I’m always trying to open doors for hard working, dedicated young researchers,” she says. “If I see opportunities for them, I try to make suggestions and help them plug into networks.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at A.Larson@cgiar.org.
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