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'I'm working for the environment and also for society'

August 17, 2020

Maria Belen Duran, GEF's Operational Focal Point in Ecuador, stands against a mountainous backdrop
Photo courtesy of María Belén Durán

María Belén Durán is the GEF’s Operational Focal Point in Ecuador, and the Coordinator of International Cooperation in the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment and Water. In an interview, she shared what she finds motivating about her work advancing her country’s environmental priorities.

What does your job in Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and Water entail?

I work to build support for environmental projects that are aligned with Ecuador’s national priorities. I help explore areas of cooperation with countries in North and South America, Africa, and Oceania, and with multilateral organizations like the GEF, the World Bank, and UN agencies. I also manage issues related to regional accords like the Leticia Pact, which Ecuador and other countries signed last year to share resources to protect the Amazon rainforest. There’s a lot of work and I do a little bit of everything.

My main objective is to position my country as a reference point in the area of sustainability. I’m working for the environment and also for society. We want to provide alternatives for people, to make it possible for them to live in greater harmony with nature.

When working with such a wide range of partners, how do you begin exploring potential areas of cooperation?

The starting point is always to find mutual areas of interest between countries. Where there’s a need, there will always be action that follows. Usually it starts with a letter or email or an in-person meeting at a conference.

Maria Belen Duran in a group photo
Photo courtesy of Maria Belen Duran

Thanks to the GEF, I’ve been able to meet many people I now consider close colleagues. The environmental world is small, so you meet the same people from ministries, agencies, and non-governmental organizations. Building relationships between people is one of the most difficult things, but it’s important and very effective. It takes time to create trust. You start talking and get to know them. From there, synergies are born.

For example, the new Putumayo-Ica river basin project, which will help Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador manage freshwater resources, was born from an idea we had at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. There was so much interest from the countries, and also the GEF and the World Bank, that we started putting it together. You know, an idea is only an idea until there is funding available for it.

What are the main environmental issues of concern to Ecuador?

Right now, we are working very hard on reducing deforestation and giving people economic alternatives to use natural resources in a sustainable way. It’s important to provide options for communities that depend on the forest for their incomes. Since Ecuador is considered one of the mega-diverse countries in the world, we are also putting resources into protecting wildlife from trafficking. Finally, we are working on the sustainable management of our water resources.

How did you get into this line of work?

I started working at the Ministry of Environment and Water as an intern in 2016; I was still a university student. When I had the chance to work there full-time, I didn’t think twice. I fell in love with the work. I realized that I could give something back to the planet and contribute to something greater than myself.

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution to recognize nature - the Pachamama - as a legal entity with rights that can be defended. Ecuador was the first country in the world to do this. I grew up with this understanding that nature has rights. In high school, I participated in a reforestation program. I enjoyed every minute of it. Being able to contribute to the creation of a living thing is inspiring.

I am from a generation that believes “reduce, reuse, and recycle” is a way of life. We believe electric transportation is better than using fossil fuels, we believe the trafficking of wild animals cannot continue, we believe that fast food can be more sustainable with biodegradable utensils and reusable shopping bags. At the end of the day, this thinking will serve us. Younger generations have these ideas as a starting point. We need to promote that way of thinking in other generations.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your approach to work?

It has been difficult to continue with the normal process of developing projects. Not being able to visit the project sites or have face-to-face meetings with partners has slowed us down. You lose that human connection, which is important to the work. Also, our consultations with communities, which are part of the process of developing projects, have stopped since we can’t have meetings with many people.

Because of the pandemic, the space between work and home has also shrunk. There is no separation. My schedule of meetings goes much longer than it used to. But I also have more time with my family and it’s nice to have lunch at home and homecooked meals. I helped my father fix the roof of our house – that’s something I couldn’t have done before.

What environmental changes do you hope to see in your lifetime?

Science and Mother Nature are telling us that business as usual is not sustainable. I would like to see us develop better, more sustainable alternatives for people to make a living. Also, to bring an end to wildlife trafficking and have zero net deforestation. I would also love to see a change in our tendencies to over-consume - and for the three R’s, reduce, reuse, and recycle, to be applied more conscientiously. Finally, I would love to see the world change its main sources of energy to more sustainable ones. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?