2022 Women of Discovery: Q&A with Citlalli Morelos-Juárez

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. Mexican primatologist Dr. Citlalli Morelos-Juárez works in the Ecuadorian region of the Chocó rainforest – one of the last coastal rainforests in the world and a global biodiversity hotspot – as the Director of the Tesoro Escondido Reserve. She researches and helps to protect over 20 square kilometers of primary rainforest, the habitat of at least 7,000 species of plants and animals – a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth – and an area highly threatened by timber extraction, monocrops, hunting and mining concessions. Citlalli also set up a parabiologist program that trains, employs and empowers local women to learn about the forest’s ecosystem and sustainability in ways that benefit their communities and offer leadership positions.

Dr. Citlalli Morelos-Juárez in the Ecuador’s Chocó rainforest, one of the last coastal rainforests in the world

DR. CITLALLI MORELOS-JUÁREZ: Ever since I was very young, I liked nature. I liked places with trees and rivers, and walking in the fields close to my house in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I grew up watching National Geographic VHS tapes of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and many others that introduced me to amazing places and species, but also their conservation challenges. I wanted to go abroad and explore and work in these places. I don’t think I ever considered any other career.

I can happily say I have the job of my dreams. During my undergraduate studies in Mexico, I was into molecular biology, which I liked a lot, too. However, as soon as I learned about the Master’s degree in conservation biology at the University of Leeds in the UK, I knew that was my path.

During one of my projects in India, while looking at human-elephant conflict, I realized that I wanted to do something related to conservation integrating local communities as key actors. I was very lucky to find a great Ph.D. project involving two of my favorite things, primates and conservation, and an amazing Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Mika Peck at the University of Sussex, who allowed me to grow professionally and find my own path in conservation, supporting me along the way. The forest of the Chocó in Ecuador, and Tesoro Escondido in particular, stole my heart and I stayed, working in different ways to conserve this forest in the long term with the support of the local communities.

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

CMJ: I would like people to know that everybody can get involved in the conservation of rainforests, even if you don’t live there. It is important that everyone is aware of what is happening in the world, how we are losing primary forests at an alarming rate. Everyone can do something even from home, starting by knowing what they have in their own country, its importance and value, and doing what they can to protect it.

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

CMJ: I think a big barrier, at least in Latin America, are the roles assigned to women as a default – for example, raising children, taking care of the house. Institutions and systems do not recognize these roles nor provide support for them. High schools, particularly in rural places, need to start offering science as an option for women. Science needs to be something girls can think about as an opportunity and a career that they can follow to find their vocation and develop personally.

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning?

CMJ: I think every day brings new adventures and new possibilities to be happy and to contribute to this world. I wake up feeling grateful for all this. The thought that my work can make a small contribution toward helping mother nature, that my work can be a seed and an inspiration for the next generation to protect and care for the forests, particularly among young local women.

WWQ: What’s your next challenge?

CMJ: My next challenge is to make the Tesoro Escondido Reserve NGO sustainable and recognized within the Ecuadorian National System of Protected Areas to be able to protect it in perpetuity against mining activities. This challenge comes with continuing to discover all the wonders of the lowland Chocó forest and making this knowledge available for science and all local people. I want to bring more communities into our sustainable project network and to create new projects as economic alternatives, particularly for women. I also want to expand our environmental education program to more local communities, reaching as many children and young people as possible.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words

CMJ: Optimistic. Persevering. Dreamer. 

Dr. Citlalli Morelos-Juárez and team at the Tesoro Escondido Reserve

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