Welcome to Brazil: The Women Leaders for Planetary Health is growing

Creator: Oleksii Liskonih | Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

By Dr. Nicole de Paula, Bruna Bastos, and Graziella Machado

Planetary Health is a field that demands global action, requiring the engagement of multiple stakeholders from a myriad of disciplines and backgrounds. We are thus thrilled to share that, in September 2021, we have officially launched a new focal point of the Women Leaders for Planetary Health.

This new hub will allow us to expand the practice of planetary health studies with a particular emphasis on gender equality for Portuguese speakers. But what is unique about Brazil? Let us sure some good reasons to feel hopeful through action.

Briefly, Planetary Health is a field focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems. Stimulated by the systemic view of important seminal reports, this fast-growing field addresses a concrete and urgent contemporary problem. It urges action against the adverse effects of unprecedented socio-economic activities degrading our environment, potentially causing irreversible loss of precious resources vital for human health and well-being.

Knowing that these links require a gender dimension to accelerate the Great Transition, as called by the Sao Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health, more needs to be done to connect the dots between gender, health, and environmental work.

Some examples illustrate how these links, if appropriately addressed, can be a productive manner to accelerate progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to a report released by the United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA, women are a central axis to combat climate change. This study shares that the poorest women in Low and Middle-income Countries (LMICs) are the main ones affected by the climate crisis, being more likely than men to die in natural disasters, including those related to extreme weather conditions. Another relevant document highlights the benefits of empowering women and girls. Especially in education and health, this investment drives economic development, reduce poverty, and enhance climate action. The participation of women in decision-making positions has also resulted in greater responsiveness to citizens’ needs. At the local level, such inclusion of women at the leadership level has led to better results in climate-related projects and policies, as showed in a study by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

The debate about gender empowerment and sustainability gained force internationally in the late 1970s and 1980s when the report Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published. Since then, the relation between environment, health, and gender has been a growing concern that led to a global commitment stated in the Rio Declaration agreed at the First UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro. Its ‘principle 20’ says that “women have a vital role in environmental management and development and their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.” After that Conference, other global commitments were signed. The most current ones are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These international agreements undoubtedly reaffirm the global urgency of tackling gender inequalities for shared prosperity and a healthy future.

Women are being called the “greener gender.” Although such claims deserve to be qualified and further studied, we believe that women hold, indeed, the immense potential to support the actions needed to mainstream planetary health in public health and sustainability.

In this sense, the WLPH was created as a global endeavor. It intends to empower women to lead Planetary Health solutions at the frontlines of development, especially in the global South. Brazil is thus a natural candidate where we can scale up our work.

Historically, the country has been a protagonist in environmental affairs. For some specialists, after the Conference in 1992, Brazil left behind its defensive and refractory profile to the environmental debate to become a country of great international prominence in environmental issues. In the field of public health, Brazil also offers exemplary public policies. The role of the Brazilian Unified Health System (SUS), with its fundamental principles committed to universality, integrality, and equity, has significant potential to help the country face up to climate change. Through the actions of Primary Health Care (PHC) and health teams working closely with communities to mitigate and adapt to environmental problems, SUS seeks to enhance patients’ health with measures that promote co-benefits to the environment. One example is the encouragement of active transport and healthy eating, in addition to boosting support for public policies that lead to the health system and its professionals to be active participants in planetary health.

With the most extensive global biodiversity, around one million Indigenous and traditional peoples committed to protecting the environment, sound public health policies, and women’s human rights protection, Brazil has many potentials to act as a relevant ally of the planetary health community.

In 2021, for example, the University of São Paulo and the Planetary Health Alliance co-hosted the 4th Planetary Health Annual Meeting and Festival. This event led to the São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health that serves as a call-to-action for the global community and has significant support from its Brazilian participants.

Moreover, Brazil is very active in developing academic work related to planetary health. We can cite many researchers in the country responsible for producing the Brazilian Lancet Countdown document; and the Planetary Health Group of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEA/USP). This group pioneers the practice of planetary health in Brazil and currently mirrors some of our best practices, such as offering mentors for selected students. The Group has also provided a platform for hundreds of student ambassadors coming from all over the country. The Brazilian Planetary Health Club, a vital student organization, also has been a proactive hub for knowledge dissemination about planetary health all over the country.

Although we see many positive developments, it is undeniable that this journey takes place on a bumpy road. In recent years, Brazil has presented discouraging records related to deforestation, accelerated loss of the fauna and flora biodiversity, retrograde actions against the rights of its Indigenous peoples and their original territories, and the weakening of its institutions for environmental research conservation and inspection. Furthermore, the way the country was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted its weaknesses and inequalities, as well as the demand for building adequate health and environmental policies. These points, however, should not be perceived as barriers but as an urgent call for more collaborative work in Brazil.

As the first South American representative of the WLPH, the Brazilian focal point will tap into the power of the Brazilian women to lead actions in planetary health. Our goal is to coordinate and manage strategic activities aimed at local demands, supporting the leadership skills in decision-making, and equal participation of women in the main issues related to planetary health. In 2021, we hope to strengthen our community in the country and promote events, lectures, and meetings on Planetary Health from Brazilian perspectives and in Portuguese.

We, at WLPH, are enthusiastic about the opportunity to advance planetary health solutions and women empowerment in a country where nature is abundant and creativity is vast. We have a lot to learn and share with our thriving community. Get in touch if you would like to know more, and we hope to count on your support. Obrigada!

About the authors:

Dr. Nicole de Paula is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women Leaders for Planetary Health and Co-founder of the Planetary Health Research Group of the University of Sao Paulo. She is also an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Sciences-Po Paris and is the author of the book “Breaking the Silos for Planetary Health – A Roadmap for a Resilient Post-Pandemic World.”

Bruna Bastos holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a MA in Development, Society, and International Cooperation from the University of Brasilia. She was a WLPH mentee in the 2020 Class and is currently one of the coordinators of the WLPH focal point in Brazil. She also works as a researcher and consultant in International Cooperation with emphasis on gender, culture, and health.

Graziella Machado is a Brazilian physician, biologist and master’s student in Public Health, Digital Health, and access to equitable health for Sustainable Development from the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre. She is a 2021 Planetary Health Ambassador at the University of São Paulo, member of the Brazilian Planetary Health Club and one of the coordinators of the WLPH focal point in Brazil. She works as a researcher with focus on health, gender, education, and women leadership in planetary health. Currently, she is a WLPH mentee in the 2021 Class.

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