I interviewed awesome ecologists at the 2011 Ecological Society of America meeting in exchange for reader donations, which paid for my conference attendance. This is the last – but certainly not the least – in a series of posts about those interviews.
I met Ana-Elisa through the SEEDS program. Every year, ESA’s SEEDS program brings a group of undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds and interests to ESA. The SEEDS program has a lot of special events for the students and matches each student with a meeting mentor. The formal support of the program and the informal support from all the other amazing SEEDS students makes a big conference like ESA more fun and productive and way less overwhelming. Ana-Elisa is very involved in SEEDS at ESA and really brings the students together into an energized community. SEEDS isn’t the only place she does this.
She’s worked tirelessly to get protection for the Northeastern Ecological Corridor in Puerto Rico and inspired a great deal of community and political support. Some of her work on the NEC is detailed in this video, made when she won a Brower Youth Award in 2010.
As part of her effort to develop and save the NEC and to solve other ecological and environmental problems in Puerto Rico, Ana Elisa founded GAIA, sort of an umbrella organization to facilitate action by many smaller environmental groups. Impressively, Ana Elisa was just 15 when she started GAIA with a few other dedicated young activists. With her passion for Puerto Rico’s people and environment, GAIA has accomplished a great deal.
Despite all she’s accomplished, Ana Elisa is far from boastful and speaks candidly about some of the challenges she and GAIA have faced. She feels that GAIA lacked focus early on and tried to do too much at once. They were also ignorant of the rules governing nonprofits; the confusing maze of bureaucracy they faced limited GAIA’s effectiveness. With the experience of starting GAIA under her belt, Ana Elisa is approaching Puerto Rico’s environmental problems with vision and energy.
She has a strong sense of place and believes that local environmental movements are essential; we must know what’s happening on the ground to our own communities to come up with effective solutions. At the same time, local movements are small and disorganized and lack political power. This is where Ana Elisa and GAIA come in. Environmental problems are local, but everyone everywhere has similar problems. She believes we must work together at multiple scales and build coalitions. One of the challenges of doing this in the environmental movement is that there are all these urgent crises that need to be worked out at the same time that we need to focus on building coalitions so that we can actually solve problems. This isn’t an easy task – it’s like trying to set up a fire department while the town is on fire.
Ana Elisa combines her environmental activism with ecological research in the emerging field of action ecology, which explicitly includes humans and leads to both environmental and social change. For example, in a project with her advisor Helda Morales, Ana Elisa considered how different weed management strategies influenced ecological diversity and agricultural production and then worked with farmers to record and communicate their strategies, preserving and sharing at risk traditional knowledge. One of the things holding organic farming back is a loss or lack of knowledge of exactly this type [h/t Eric]. Now you can google it!
What does an ecologist do, anyway?
Last year at ESA, Doctor Zen pointed out how conflicted ESA seems:
Ecology seems to be a field locked in heated argument about whether it is an academic research science, or a mix of science and political action group. The society, and its members, seem to be utterly conflicted, from the point of view of this onlooker.
Ana Elisa and scientists like her may represent a possible resolution to ecology’s internal conflict – as long as we leave plenty of room for science that’s just for the sake of knowing.