'Progress cannot be achieved solely from the office'
María Belén Grijalva is an environmental activist from Ecuador who will be part of her country’s negotiating delegation to COP28 with support from the GEF and the Climate Reality Project. In an interview, she spoke about how seeing mangrove destruction led her to get involved in combating climate change, and shared a message for today’s political and business leaders.
What is your area of focus?
I have a bachelor's degree in international relations with a minor in biology from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and I worked with the FARO Foundation to implement an education project in Río Negro, Ecuador. I am passionate about education, environmental conservation, socio-political issues, and sustainable development. I really enjoy helping young people learn the significance of protecting nature.
When did you become interested in environmental issues?
From a very young age, I’ve always loved nature, sunsets, the ocean, animals, and the small wonders of life. I had the opportunity to travel across Ecuador -- one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with unique and vital ecosystems. With each family trip we took, I fell in love with the landscapes, the vibrant green of the mountains, and the deep blue of the rivers and seas. With each journey, I learned about the importance of caring for the environment and being responsible for our actions.
One trip to the ocean left a lasting impact on me. As I explored the intertidal zones and visited mangrove forests, I was alarmed by the significant loss of mangroves. I spoke with local people, and I learned that they had to clear most of the mangroves due to rapid urbanization and agricultural processes.
After that, I got involved in several projects and initiatives that allow me to continue learning about environmental conservation and combating climate change. While participating in a sustainable fishing outreach project, I realized that many of the people who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods lack sufficient information about the impact of exploiting ecosystems. I believe that through education, we can establish meaningful community engagement and find paths to address environmental issues.
What message do you have for today’s political and business leaders?
Dear world leaders: it is time to grant greater space and prominence to the youth, because we bring new and fresh ideas, and we are working tirelessly to secure a better future. I urge you to invest in environmental education, believe in the capabilities and skills of young people, show greater empathy towards those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and work directly with local communities. Because real progress cannot be achieved solely from the office.
Combating the effects of climate change is a responsibility that belongs to us all, and it fills me with pride to know that every day, more young people are committed to achieving a more sustainable world. I am grateful for organizations like the Global Environment Facility that enable young people to receive training in climate change and conservation. It is through this support that we can find a place in decision-making processes. We, the youth, are significant allies in achieving social and environmental transformation. Give us the opportunity and you will see profound change.
Why is it important to you to be in the negotiating room at COP28?
The most important thing is to be able to represent my country as a prepared young person, ready to propose solutions and strategies that will allow us to achieve a fairer and more sustainable world. Through this, I hope to empower other Ecuadorians and encourage them to work on climate change.
The fact that I will be at COP28 fills me with a lot of pride. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with negotiators and accomplished figures in the fields of climate change and diplomacy, alongside civil society. I am also eager to learn along with other young people with similar goals and aspirations to improve our planet.
What issue are you most focused on related to the climate negotiations?
I am focused on action for climate empowerment, with an emphasis on education and international cooperation. I believe that education is the most essential tool to combat climate change, preserve our ecosystems, and create awareness about the importance of taking swift action towards a sustainable future. Children and youth need quality education, dignified spaces for learning, and well-prepared teachers who can provide them with all the tools to develop critical thinking and to become environmentally committed individuals who can contribute to the fight against climate change.
How do you spend your free time?
I love dancing, traveling, reading, and I'm a cat lover. In fact, I have two cats; I rescued one of them from the road that led to my workplace. I love dancing to any rhythm at any time. Sometimes, I feel like I'm the soul of the party. I also go to the gym occasionally. I love reading, and one of the most interesting books I've read is Atomic Habits – I highly recommend it.
I also relish traveling with my family and friends anywhere. Even though I'm not a good singer at all, my favorite activity is going to karaoke and feeling like a music star. I also enjoy crafting and drawing, especially macramé; it's a very relaxing activity that requires a lot of concentration.