2022 Women of Discovery: Q&A with Adjany Costa

On October 19th, WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new Fellows during our 2022 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in New York City. In a special Q&A series, we are sharing a little bit about each honoree. Adjany Costa is a marine biologist and ethno-conservationist involved in the establishment of Angola’s first Marine Protected Area. She led the official kick-off intersectoral assemblies for its creation as a Minister to the newly created (Super-)Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Environment. At age 31, Adjany was the youngest Minister in the history of the country; she currently serves as the Advisor to the President of Angola for Environmental Affairs. In addition, Adjany is working at WildCRU, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, to develop a bottom-up Community Based Natural Resource Management Model tailored to the needs, beliefs, traditions and aspirations of the local Luchaze people in the Eastern Angolan highlands.

Wings WorldQuest: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and your field specifically?

ADJANY COSTA: My involvement in science and ethno-conservation is rather ironic and unlikely, to say the least. Having been born and raised during the civil war, I was never inserted into an environment that allowed much exploration or critical analysis of things as a child. I grew up in the capital, physically isolated from the rest of the country and deprived of any opportunity to explore and research. The society I grew up in had, obviously, more pressing matters to tackle rather than motivate science and protect nature. However, my father, who has spent most his life fighting in the war, did all he could to make sure we were immersed in something beyond all that and would take us to the beach every opportunity he could. The ocean and its wildlife became my refuge and ended up being more than a personal gateway. It became a source of curiosity, an infinite world filled with unknown, and sometimes scary, wonders. So much to learn, to explore and to unveil.

It was only when I was 19 that I had the opportunity to step out of the borders of Luanda into the “rest of Angola” and understand that those wonders and questions are everywhere, and that unlike what I thought previously, they are not separated from the human reality that was created. The rural communities in rural Angola were part of, molded and were molded by these wonders. But still, this was then just a fascinating remark, one that I never wanted to dive in or saw any path into. This was only translated into science and ethno-conservation after I completed my master’s abroad and got acquainted with the basic concepts, insights, and techniques of research, and participated in a four-month long National Geographic Expedition in the most remote area of Eastern Angola, with no access to communication and deeply affected by the 40+-year war. It started with Ichthyology, purely looking at the systematics and distribution of fish, but through the years it developed into the realization of the importance of ethno-conservation in the broad spectrum of the natural world and the role of science in decision-making and conservation planning.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to know about your field and work?

AC: Sometimes it is difficult to perceive how delicate, sensitive and not straightforward working with ethno-conservation is, especially when associated with science and policies. It is based on trial and error, it takes a lot of time to bring long-lasting results to biodiversity conservation, it requires consistency, empathy and mutual learning, and it is one of the most multi-disciplinary fields in conservation, thus intricate and complex, yet based in simple engagement and escalation. Another big misunderstanding about this approach is that it is not about the people (local and foreign), it is not about the policies, it is not about science, and it is not about biodiversity and landscapes separately. It is about all of these things simultaneously. It is about understanding that the current social, economic and environmental dynamics cannot be dissociated from one another, thus improving people’s lives, saving biodiversity, doing research and designing policies are all equally important and mutually uplifting. Undervaluing one will automatically impact and lessen the potential effectiveness of all efforts.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to more women working in science?

AC: Society teaches us from a young age that we should be female before we are people. That our gender differences come before our similarities and define the role we should play in our personal or professional lives. On one side, that sets a big part of society, of whichever gender, up to automatically assume the path they endeavor to take, thus defining gender-based opportunities. On the other side, a lot of women believe that personal and professional goals are mutually exclusive from a certain point in life and brace themselves when facing obstacles imposed to keep us on that gender-based mindset, giving up. For example, academia and conservation have always been largely represented by men, and most of the successful women who are on top of the pyramid in these fields have not pursued a family. Thus, a young woman entering the roughness and competitive world of academia or conservation, who looks up to the achievements of these successful women, gets to a point where she is made to believe that to achieve professional greatness she needs to give up the society’s concept of womanhood. Choosing a path other than what society has defined as for your gender comes down to a pivotal choice of one or the other because to be a respected and accomplished person, you need to give up on whatever you are supposed to do or accomplish as woman. In this mindset, there is no balance; it is always whether you are a female or a professional. 

I believe overcoming that myth is one of the greatest barriers, beyond inequalities in opportunity and undervaluing the self that exists beyond being a female. It is time we understand that the role we play in society is now a personal choice, and that choice does not define our gender. We are people before we are female, and thus should have the confidence to approach our careers independently of our personal choices. And only when we realize that being a woman is not a burden and we shouldn’t only be treated as one, can we realize that all the additional obstacles that our gender can and do bring, are just that: obstacles. Obstacles that can be overcome with the right approach and mindset and the right opportunities. 

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning?

AC: The feeling that I have the power, ever so subtle, to contribute, to the best of my ability, to improve the well-being of the world we share and are part of. The deep awareness that everything is connected, and thus every decision I make and action I take will somehow impact not only the society in which I live, but the area I work, the region it is in and the world it sits on. The responsibility of not taking for granted and wanting to give back the same amount, or even more of, everything nature provides me/us, which is pretty much everything we need and sometimes just want. It is the understanding that we matter individually and that our collective diversified effort can bring change, whatever that is defined as. And more recently, my unborn son who has already given me a broader perspective on everything I have done and everything we can collectively do to assure his and further generations are equipped with more and better information, tools and policies to make better decisions for our future. And to make sure he is proud of me, of course.

WWQ: What’s your next challenge?

AC: My next and biggest challenge is to create pathways between the different pillars of the projects, opportunities and skills I have gained through time to enhance and maximize the protection of the KAZA water towers. In other words, it is to create a bridge between the ethno-conservations projects I am involved with in the field, the scientific knowledge gathered through my PhD research and the political decision-making I am part of to create applicable and appropriate management policies that are ambitious, effective and yet realistic for the landscapes, biodiversity and people of this area alike, that can be scaled up to any similar dynamic.  Oh… and motherhood on top and above all of that. 

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words

AC: Adventurous. Inquisitive. Determined. 

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