Director Rachel Biderman: Called "Crazy" for Holding Brazilian Banks Accountable
Protecting a country’s biodiversity is not always an easy endeavor, especially when the country’s academia, government institutions, and corporations have a less progressive agenda or face global market roadblocks. Brazil has become a sustainability leader in recent years, but still faces huge social and environmental challenges such as a growing income gap, criminalization of the poor, and deforestation of some of the world’s most precious natural resources. Brazil is one of the world’s ten largest carbon emitters.
Working with civil society and local stakeholders to address such issues has become the undertaking of the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) to lead Brazil into a sustainable, low-carbon economy. WRI focuses its research and advocacy on solutions oriented towards smart urban planning, responsible financing, and climate literacy. Their recent work includes such projects as Global Forest Watch, an open-sourced mapping platform to monitor forest protection and deforestation for the entire world to gather and share crucial data, and EMBARQ, a network to share design solutions and ideas around sustainable transport in dense cities and to address lack of mobility. WRI also supports Initiative 20x20 to facilitate a dialogue around land and forest restoration among governments, civil society and the private sector. The Initiative has committed these actors to bring 20 million hectares of land in Latin America and the Caribbean into restoration by 2020.
Rachel Biderman has been the Country Director of WRI Brazil since 2011. Beyond her prestigious title, Biderman is a true environmental leader. Her expertise includes public policy around environmental law, stakeholder engagement and inter-institutional relations in nonprofit and private sectors. She has also done extensive academic research on climate phenomena, specifically on reforestation and water security.
Here is an excerpt from Margareta Barchan’s interview with Rachel Biderman in São Paulo:
Margareta Barchan: When thinking of your vision of a sustainable future, have you ever thought of it in terms of brave leadership? What does this look like for organizations?
Rachel Biderman: If you want to do it right, if sustainability is part of your life, it takes courage, because you have to face counter opinions, people who don’t believe in what you believe. It takes speaking up for your values, volunteering information, and it requires permanent advocacy for what you believe in. Most people want to stay in their comfort zone and achieve the minimum. To change the culture of an organization it takes courage for employees and managers to defy the status quo.
Barchan: Can you give an example of a time when you have gone against instructions?
Biderman: Back in 2008, I had a very upsetting conversation with the President of the University I worked at. I was called into his office to discuss my recent research on the investment trends of Brazilian banks and my findings that these banks were investing in companies that destroyed the rainforest. He called me crazy and told me that I was naive and young, didn’t know what I was doing. He said that what I wanted to do was impossible.
I responded that someone had to do this and hold the banks accountable financially. He was so upset I thought I was going to lose my job. I didn’t lose my job but I was prevented from doing the research. You could really see the bureaucratic legacy of the military dictatorship in Brazil even in the university context.
Barchan: Nonetheless, you continued to fight to protect the rainforest through your work with various NGOs. How does this courage manifest itself with the World Resources Institute (WRI) where you work right now?
Biderman: I constantly stand up for the protection and restoration of the Brazilian rainforest, and more recently, I’ve focused my research and advocacy work on exploring how land is crucial for water security. You can’t just protect land, you have to restore it. That’s the angle I’ve been promoting at WRI and I’ve been able to fundraise a fair amount of funds for it.
Barchan: Have you ever have any doubts about your work?
Biderman: No, when I get to a point where I believe in something, I go all the way. I will take my time to form an opinion and make sure that I have all the information. I don’t defend things that are not concrete or backed by facts. I am always concerned about how applicable things are; I’m not a blind idealist. So I don’t have doubts once I’ve made an informed decision.
Barchan: Have you ever considered the potential risks of your decisions in having an undesired outcome?
Biderman: Yes, in my restoration efforts, every ecosystem reacts differently. There are risks that projects are not as successful depending on the environment. That’s why I always make sure that we have the best scientists working with us before we make an intervention in the rainforest to mitigate the risks.
Barchan: Have you had these values since a young child?
Biderman: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood and my grandfather who would take me to the countryside. He would take my siblings and me all the time to spend vacation with them there to bathe in the river and swim in the waterfalls. For 10 years I did that every year. These are strong experiences from my childhood that have led me to where I am now and to defend the protection of the environment.
I also went to a strict Jesuit school. I was well-behaved but when the rules didn’t make sense I would question them. That character trait of mine is why I became a lawyer to stand up to injustice. I can’t be a bystander to someone being unintentionally or intentionally harmed. My childhood friends would request that I ask the teachers for things. I told them to stand up for themselves.
I also remember my grandmother telling me that I should make the bed for my brothers growing up (reminding me of sexist Brazilian traditions), and I would tell her that they could do it on their own. Why should they play soccer while I cleaned and made their beds? I think everyone should be treated equally.
Barchan: What’s the personal manifestation of this courage?
Biderman: I am a spiritual person and I’ve cultivated faith over the years. But it really comes down to values. I grew up doing social work in disfavored neighborhoods of São Paulo.
Spiritual connection is not necessary for all leaders. I think that the more you learn about human beings, the psychology of people, challenges, the less you fear people and are able to have a dialogue and build consensus. I have my beliefs and I will be aggressive to defend them when I need to, but ultimately, my bigger goal is to build consensus.
I had an experience with a nonprofit that works with indigenous people to defend their land and human rights. I worked with them as a lawyer. Their knowledge of sustainable livelihoods really opened my mind to long-term understanding of the environment.
Barchan: Are some people more prepared than others to be brave leaders?
Biderman: I think men are usually more prepared because they are still trained and valued more as leaders than women in organizations. But mostly, I think it’s about exposure to certain circumstances, like traveling and education that gives them chances to become excellent leaders. People that are put in the lucky position to travel the world have more opportunities for changing the world. They have seen so much. So some people are more prepared than others. And the mentors or coaches of these people are also crucial for investing in the right skills.
Barchan: Can you train people to become brave leaders?
Biderman: People can show you courage- and it is usually an inherent trait. But you can train people to find the leader within themselves. At the end of the day, a person has to believe in themselves and put the work in to become brave enough to act. In a sexist country like Brazil, making women aware of leadership opportunities is important for them to mature faster as leaders.
Barchan: Do you look for that “courage trait” in your employees?
Biderman: Yes, time is of the essence in our area of work. But we also need people to not just be brave leaders but honest and methodical organizers. You need both.
Barchan: What do you think of millennials and the “ social media” generation?
Biderman: My impression is that they are more horizontal in their decisions and don’t like hierarchies. They are also addicted to accessing information quickly but don’t always deep dive into understanding issues. Yet, they are problem-oriented and can synthesize complex situations quickly.
I keep telling my colleagues at different nonprofits and companies that we need to pass down the power and knowledge to the younger generations while speaking their technological languages. I think in the future, there will be fewer traditional NGOs and more self-led social movements and self-organized companies. In the current water crisis, seeing new leadership that is horizontal with collective decision-making power is encouraging. Social media here is key to this decentralized, democratic model.
Barchan: Where do you see Brazil be in 20 years?
Biderman: I am very optimistic. I think that Brazil will be more democratic. Media coverage will be more sophisticated and accurate to reflect a more decentralized power structure. We will transmit information and knowledge in a more innovative way. Twenty years from now, communication will be completely different.
However, it will be a bigger challenge for us to deal with the environment and the drought. We will have to stand together! We need people who are fast thinkers, solution-oriented, not bureaucratic, because we’ve run out of time to be inefficient. We have to assess the leaders that have guts to take difficult decisions.
We also have to think collectively in our leadership. Let go of our egos and be open to advice, and generous in how we manage and empower teams. There is no more time for egos, we have to trust each other to heal the planet.
Rachel has a PhD degree in Public Administration from Fundação Getulio Vargas, São Paulo, Brasil (2011), holds two masters degrees: Environmental Sciences (MSc), University of São Paulo (1999) and International Legal Studies, American University Washington College of Law, D.C. (1992). Rachel has a Law Degree from University of São Paulo (1990). She was fellow at the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Harvard JFK School of Government, Fall, 2009. She is the creator and coordinator of the course on "Low Carbon Management" at the Extension School of Fundação Getulio Vargas (as of 2010) and was a professor at FGV School of Business Administration on the Management of Sustainability (2006-2011).