“Women Move Mountains” interview series
Anyse Pereira (PhD), Fogo Biosphere Reserve, Cabo Verde
From gender roles to local economies, to science and policy, find out about how women are making a difference in better understanding and protecting mountains.
Today we hear about advocating for traditional knowledge, “wasted waste”, the vital link of the diaspora and women helping women from Anyse Pereira from Fogo Biosphere Reserve in Cabo Verde.
Anyse Pereira has been working in research for seven years. She is dedicated to community projects for biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation, with a keen interest for food security, gender roles and traditional knowledge.
She obtained her PhD in Conservation and management of floristic genetic resources under theTropical Knowledge and Management program,at the New University of Lisbon in 2022, after a Master’s in Molecular Genetics and Biomedicine, and a Bachelor’s in Pharmacy.
Inspired by her academic background, she is currently managing a project to valorise grape “marc” – crushed fruit pulp – resulting from wine production in Fogo Biosphere Reserve in Cabo Verde. In 2022, she received a UNESCO MAB Young Scientist Awards for this project.
Anyse Pereira is also involved in advocacy for climate change resilience and works at creating academic networks between Africa, Europe and the Americas, notably between Lusophone countries.
You recently finished your PhD, sharing your time between Cape Verde and Portugal. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you have been up to.
I present myself as a scientist and a researcher. That’s my passion, that’s my background.
I started to work on traditional medicinal plants for my master’s dissertation. I finished my PhD in Conservation and management of floristic genetic resources last July, working mainly on plants and the valorisation of genetic resources. That is when the conservation component came into it.
While I was doing my research, I started working with the joint office for UNDP, UNICEF and UNFPA, here in Cabo Verde, on the energy, environment and climate change portfolio. I discovered I loved working with projects and international partners.
I have also been doing my own projects. For instance, I was nominated Ambassador to the Next Einstein Forum for Cabo Verde, which meant that for three years I was responsible for promoting science and scientific education in my country.
So, yes, I have my foot in many worlds! I try to in integrate my research and project management. I need and I love integration. We are trying always to integrate community knowledge, traditional knowledge and Indigenous knowledge in project design. We need to see the impact in people’s lives.
How do you do integrate that knowledge? How does the relationship between academic and community knowledge work?
A big part of my PhD was about plants used in traditional medicine. So, I went to the communities to interact and learn about how they used nature for health.
As Western conventional medicine and the pharmaceutical industry arrived in Cabo Verde, people still had their own system, which has been working to the point where generations have lived fairly well and healthy until today. African traditional medicine is the oldest health system in the world and a majority of Africans are still relying on traditional medicine as their main source of health.
The goal is to identify areas where conventional and traditional medicines can complement each other, recognizing that traditional knowledge often predates and informs scientific inquiry. In this context, it is essential to give more visibility and value to traditional medicine. Because it has often been undervalued and left behind as scientific knowledge has advanced. By acknowledging and preserving traditional knowledge, we can maintain cultural diversity and ensure that valuable insights and practices are not lost. Furthermore, recognizing the complementary strengths of conventional and traditional medicines can lead to more integrated and effective approaches. It is widely recognized that traditional knowledge has served as a valuable source of inspiration and guidance for scientific research. Examples of the valuable contribution of traditional knowledge to modern medicine are abundant. For instance, aspirin, a widely used medication, was developed from a compound found in the bark of a tree, which has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Similarly, treatments for malaria have been developed from traditional knowledge of plant-based remedies. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the iboga root, which has been used for generations in traditional healing practices, has potential in treating addiction. These examples highlight the importance of recognizing and preserving traditional knowledge, which can offer valuable insights and solutions to modern medical challenges. One of the primary issues that arises when traditional knowledge is brought into the academic domain is the commercialization of research findings through pharmaceutical companies or laboratories, which often fails to acknowledge the Indigenous communities from which this knowledge originated. This lack of recognition not only perpetuates the historical marginalization of traditional knowledge systems, but also undermines the ethical and equitable collaboration that should be at the core of any research initiative. Furthermore, failing to acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous communities to research and innovation perpetuates a knowledge hierarchy that privileges Western scientific knowledge over other knowledge systems, which can result in biased and incomplete research outcomes. As part of our advocacy work, we aim to ensure accountability of companies and researchers by raising awareness about the need to acknowledge and respect the role of Indigenous knowledge in research discoveries. This includes addressing the question of ownership and providing Indigenous communities with appropriate recognition and compensation for their contributions. By promoting ethical and equitable collaboration, we can create a more just and sustainable research ecosystem that values and respects diverse knowledge systems.
In your research, how do you advocate?
You have to be honest! First of all, in scientific papers, we must recognize and specify the role of local people who took part either as authors or providing access to information, with their consent of course. Most often, it’s just mentioned that the community played a role. Even in the pictures, we don’t systematically mention the members of the community. It must start with each individual.
Otherwise, we take all the credit. I mean I don’t go to a community like a saviour bringing knowledge. No, I just want to share. I want to know what they know and I want to share what I know. Together maybe we’ll come up with a solution, or catalyse any already existing solution, and make something bigger out of it. I have to start and finish with the community always.
In practice, when you go meet the communities and how do you organise your work?
In Cabo Verde, you know what I do? I go. I see the elderly women. They are peeling beans. I sit there and I peel the beans with them. I just try to integrate myself and not disturb the life day-to-day life of the community too much.
Of course, I did some workshops involving all the people to ask about plans, conservation methods, and about how they deal with drought, etc. But it depends a lot on the type of knowledge you are seeking and who you are talking to, like groups, women or young people.
Especially with this project in Fogo Biosphere Reserve, I didn’t start with the workshops. It’s now that I feel would be a good time to do one or two about sharing our results and exploring with the community the possibilities for new sources of income.
Tell us more about this project that you’re leading in Fogo Biosphere Reserve. What is the big idea?
In Cabo Verde, we produce wine. We know it has special characteristics because the grapes grow in volcanic soil and in altitude. But this is not scientifically proven because there is little access to the technology to study their composition in my country.
So, I want to help bring value to the wine by understanding what makes it different, for example in flavour. And in parallel, I want to study the “grape pomace”, the leftover waste from crushing grapes. At the moment, the marc is just underused, with some people using it to feed animals or to fertilize soil. As it is, it might contains alcohol and other components that make it hard to re-use.
But I think it is “wasted waste”. The pomace is rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals. At that level there are a lot of possibilities. One possibility is producing a powder to add nutrients to beverages and food. Another is incorporating elements in cosmetics, like face creams or shampoo. In Fogo, we have people that make soap by hand, so that could be the beginning of a circular economy.
How do you think this project could be replicated elsewhere?
Actually, I think it’s the other way. For now, I am replicating. These projects are happening all around the world. So, I’m not reinventing the wheel, I am using it!
But what can be replicated, or disseminated, is results. As a scientist, my first thought goes to publications. I want to get at least one article out of this project. Then we can have the possibility to share knowledge in conferences that will bring attention to it, and maybe there will be more funding for research in the biosphere reserve or for other national products.
You received a MAB Young Scientist Award for your pomace project last year. Congratulations! How can the grant help your research?
As I said earlier, here in my country, we don’t have the facilities to make clinical and nutritional characterisations. We have to take our samples elsewhere, for instance in Portugal.
So, I’ll be traveling there for at least one month in order to finish all the analyses. If possible, I would also like to be accompanied by an undergrad to help me with the downstream analysis of results and as a training experience.
Part of that grant could be used to pay for their university fees for three or six months. The publication is also going to be costly. I’m going to see what I can do. Of course, I’m being very ambitious, I have to do the utmost with this grant, but also see beyond.
I am building up a whole team for this project in Fogo Biosphere Reserve. For now, there are five of us. Me, my former supervisor and two researchers – that happen to be also women – will help me with the collection and analysis, and our agroeconomist that is going to do study the circular economy and income generation.
You point out the women in your team. Why do you think that was important to say?
The thing is when I chose them, I didn’t think about them being women honestly. I know them, they’re excellent researchers and they live in Fogo.
But actually, in Cabo Verde, most graduates are women now. So, I suppose we are reflecting this change and it is a big change! At least, most women I know are great managers and good at communicating. So, we’re bringing that to the table along with our expertise. We’re not more special than men because we’re women. We just want to be treated the same.
Until a century or two ago, academia was using just up to half of its potential. Because if you’re not including women, you are not exploring all possibilities. If you want to have all the potential, just give everyone the chance to prove themselves.
Of course, we have extra challenges that most times are not acknowledged. The reality is that the majority workload of a household is on women in most of cases. And we have to deal with the kids, with the husband, with the house before we can try to be professional. Sometimes that is really hard. It may build resilience, but I would rather not have to be more resilient that way!
At the social level, we are now dealing with the labels of “pink or blue” professions. Becoming an engineer and a scientist should not depend on you being a woman or a man. For me that was obvious. However, it didn’t use to be obvious that women could go and do computer science, physics or chemistry, or become a doctor. And for some people, it still isn’t. But that’s what I’m trying to bring to my community and to my country.
In this context, what advice would you give to girls or women who want to follow the same career as you?
To reach out to me and we can discuss things!
I think the advice is: do your career, whatever it is, but don’t focus only on your country, on your surroundings, think about building yourself as a professional of the world.
While you are doing that, think that knowledge has no borders. If you can lift the intellectual borders, then you can lift real borders.
So, learn English, learn programming, or anything that would put you out there, because now it’s a much more globalized world.
But, if researchers leave, how do you bring back the skills? How do you avoid brain drain?
Actually, that was the theme of our “Science Parliament” last year during Cabo Verde’s last African Science Week, which I organized and coordinated.
Of course, people are asking for loyalty in terms of returning to the country but, honestly, loyalty doesn’t always fill your belly. We sometimes need to look out for ourselves, especially if we are young and full of possibility, and the benefits can be greater if we leave and bring back something.
If you remember that famous sentence, you know, by JFK. “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?” Well, I’m going to ask both. I know I cannot just show up with a doctorate and expect to find a job. In a country like mine, without many natural resources, we have to invest in our human resources. It is far more precious.
We need a plan. For example, here education is free until you finish high school. That is an investment of the country from the taxpayers. If we stop here, it is true, a person who leaves for higher education does not necessarily come back, because we wouldn’t know what to do with that person.
An issue like brain drain does not lie entirely with the individual. It requires long-term political and social planning and agreement about the future of a country. If we are training doctors, we must think about what they will need in 20 years.
What about your own experience, why did you come back?
People ask me that a lot. Honestly, even as I left for my studies, I wanted to be able to come back to my country. And without people questioning my decisions! I did not want this situation where it was irrational to come home, but it is not that easy. As I was saying, the fact is I came back because I was offered an opportunity to grow.
Cabo Verde is a really small country and we have more people living outside than inside. The diaspora is one of the main sources of income and value, but it’s much more complicated that. I think that deep down, everyone wants to see their country thrive. The diaspora works hard to keep a link.
As a researcher, if I think that going international is a better fit for me, at the same time I am thinking about bringing back something, investment, knowledge, etc. People are just connected, you know. If I go to work in another country, I’ll always look at how I can add value to my country or how I can sponsor young students.
Because we have to build our history. As a country we suffer with a bit of an identity crisis. We were created by the Atlantic slave trade. We were not invaded in the traditional and most common sense. We were created and not that long ago. The islands were not inhabited until the colonizers and slaves came and mixed with each other.
Cape Verdeans create this diaspora because there is a gap to be filled. Our economy cannot rely on exploiting natural resources. We have to fill in a gap in international cooperation, for example with aid. It is difficult not to be dependent on aid. We need solutions where we are not so dependent on it, in the future. But at the same time, we will probably be needing more help from outside to face challenges such as climate change.
Development comes with a cost. Our common future is costing us our home. Many countries that do not have all of that industry power, that do not really pollute, especially in Africa, are suffering a lot with the impact of climate change. There is a need for accountability. Countries like mine need to have leverage on the world stage – like at COPs on Loss and Damage – to build the resilience that every country needs.
So, creating international networks like the diaspora brings investment, knowledge and representation, and that is truly crucial.
Can you tell us about how “Women Move Mountains”?
The engine of Cabo Verde is women. We carry this country on our back! If you go to the market, you’ll see women with a bucket on their head and with a child wrapped on their back. That is my country.
Actually, most single parent households are women. Of course, that makes women even stronger. But it weakens society honestly, because then what you see is many kids don’t grow up with their mothers or fathers. The “strong working moms” have to be working from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM just to put food on the table. So, we would rather to grow our resilience in other ways, and not through those unfortunate scenarios .
We still live in a patriarchal society but now women are starting to be more independent, not only in terms of work, but in terms of thought, culturally speaking. That implies the society is changing, especially with the younger generation. Many things that were considered normal are not considered normal anymore, or are being, at least, questioned.
I hope that women are becoming more aware of their rights and better at imposing boundaries. With men but also between each other. We just don’t get along sometimes in this struggle to be strong. But I think that is changing. We are finding the power in working together instead of seeing each other as competitors.
How do you see this trend around you of women helping other women?
I am in a lot of groups where that happens. You know, one of the women I admire a lot here, she has a movement against domestic violence to help women identify toxic relationships and to know how to act.
One of my friends – who did her PhD about intersectionality between racism and environment – is one of the founders of an NGO here called Eco-Feminists in which they teach women how to grow their own vegetable gardens at home, among other things.
It doesn’t require a lot of land. They build them on rooves with wooden pallets, share seeds and have workshops on women empowerment! It actually makes a big difference for women to access land and food, and to be less reliant on a husband’s income.
I prefer to see the good side of things and people. So, yes, women are helping women!