Connecting people, forests and birds in Brazil

Alice Reisfeld, April 2024

In 2014, early in her career, Alice Reisfeld joined a team of conservationists supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) working to protect an area of Brazilian Atlantic Forest famed for its rare birds and rich biodiversity. Ten years on, Alice now oversees the expanded CLP project, as well as seven other projects in the region, and has just been shortlisted for a Whitley Award. In this interview, Alice tells us what’s driving her success and how aspiring conservationists can learn from her journey.

CLP alumna Alice Reisfeld running an education activity, using a sign produced with support from CLP, displaying the interpretative trails at SAVE Brasil’s Reserva Pedra D’Antas © José Antonio Vicente

Over the last few decades, the Atlantic Forest in north-eastern Brazil has been transformed by unsustainable agriculture and tree harvesting for charcoal, resulting in heavily fragmented forests with only 2% remaining intact.

One of these forests, Serra do Urubu, is home to 13 globally threatened bird species (283 in total). Alice Reisfeld, Project Manager at SAVE Brasil (BirdLife International in Brazil), is all too familiar with the threats these birds face, having dedicated the last 11 years of her career to saving them and the habitats they depend on.

Top image: The beautiful seven-coloured tanager - classified as Vulnerable by IUCN, and one of the many species of birds found in Serra do Urubu © Ciro Albano

Bottom image: A common view in Serra do Urubu with no forests in sight © Alice Reisfeld

A project to be proud of

Ten years ago, one of Alice’s first experiences as an early-career conservationist was being part of a team at SAVE Brasil working on a 2014 CLP Follow-Up project. This aimed to build on a previous CLP award by promoting the conservation of the Serra do Urubu Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) through ecotourism, birdwatching and local community awareness. At the time, Alice’s main role was to assist the project coordinator and team leader Tatiana Pongiluppi in all activities.

A birding outing with a local community group at SAVE Brasil’s Reserva Pedra D’Antas © Karliane Silva

In her current role as Program Manager at SAVE Brasil, the eight projects Alice oversees includes the expansion of the original CLP project, which has come a long way since 2014.  Having started working in their private reserve (SAVE Brasil’s Reserva Pedra D’Antas) with a smaller scale approach, the project has now greatly increased in size, with the team currently working on a territory they call the Serra do Urubu – Murici Landscape.

“Here, over the past five years, we have implemented 50 hectares of forest restoration and seven agroforestry modules in smallholder farms. The project has just recently been awarded grants from Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation and Hempel Foundation, both through BirdLife International, to scale-up these efforts over the next four years.”

SAVE Brasil’s Reserve © Haroldo Palo Jr

The continued success of the project is especially impressive given the challenges Alice and her team encountered during the pandemic. “When the lockdowns began, we were just about to begin our engagement activities for forest restoration, when suddenly it was impossible to run any in-person activities for many months. We had to change everything we’d planned and had to constantly adapt to overcame the challenge. Even so, we managed to engage farmers and finally begin to implement the forest restoration.”

The Endangered long-tailed woodnymph at Serra do Urubu © Bennett Hennessey

Enhancing community awareness

Alice remembers her very first visit to Serra do Urubu back in 2014, and being shocked at the lack of awareness among the local people. Ahead of her visit, she’d heard from her team about the challenges involved in promoting the Reserve and raising awareness about the forest.

However, “One thing is hearing about it, and another is experiencing it,” says Alice, recalling a time she came back from the Reserve with Tatiana to have lunch in Lagoa dos Gatos (the closest town to the reserve). “We had very muddy boots and some people were asking us where we’d been. When we told them we’d been in the forest, in our Reserve, these people didn’t believe us because they didn’t know there was a forest anywhere nearby.”

A student from Lagoa dos Gatos birdwatching at SAVE Brasil’s Reserve © Karliane Silva

Fortunately, awareness among local communities has significantly improved since then. “Thanks to our CLP Follow-up Award, we could increase our activities to promote the Reserve locally and we’ve been able to take many people from Lagoa dos Gatos (especially schoolchildren) to visit the Reserve. We were also able to visit many schools in the nearby towns to talk about the Reserve and the special and rare birds that call this place home.”

The buff-breasted Tody-tyrant is another threatened bird found at Serra do Urubu © Marco Cruz

A career game changer

After the completion of the CLP project in 2015, Alice’s career quickly progressed at SAVE Brasil. She was promoted from Project Co-ordinator to Project Manager in just three years. And this year, she has been shortlisted for a prestigious Whitley Award. She attributes the CLP support she has received over the years to being a key part of her career success.

“The CLP training [in Canada] I participated in was a real game changer in my career and significantly influenced my professional life. Before that, I’d never received any training on leadership, project planning, fundraising, communications, so the course tremendously upped my skills.”

The CLP training that Alice participated in – known as the Conservation Management & Leadership (CML) workshop – is organized by CLP each year, after the Team Awards are announced. One member from each award-winning team is invited to participate, bringing these early-career conservationists together from around the world with the aim of developing their skills, boosting their networks, and enhancing conservation efforts back in their home countries.

“The CLP trainings provide a solid background for those working in conservation, and this makes a huge difference in how much impact our projects can have,” says Alice.

The “Enriching” CLP Alumni Network

All CLP Team Award-winners become members of the CLP Alumni Network, comprising approximately 3,100 other conservationists worldwide, many of whom, like Alice, are leaders in the sector. This is not only a rich resource for networking and mentors, but it also provides members with exclusive access to further training, grants and funded learning exchanges.

Alice explains that being part of this network has enriched her professional life: “A great deal of what I have learned over the years was through exchanges with others in the [CLP] alumni network. I find it very enriching to interact with other conservationists who are facing similar challenges. I have even been lucky enough to visit a few CLP projects run by good friends that I made through the network, and those were spectacular experiences during which I learned a lot.”

CLP alumni in Cape May, New Jersey, during the 2019 American Bird Conservancy meeting (L-R): Weber Silva, Rodrigo Soria, Tatiana Pongiluppi, Alice Reisfeld, Fabio Nunes © Bennett Hennessey

“I have also benefited greatly from CLP’s support in other learning opportunities as well, such as regional trainings, an online learning grant, and an ICCB [International Congress for Conservation Biology] travel grant.”

Alice adds: “All of these continued learnings and networking opportunities really help build confidence in early-career conservationists. The fact that CLP keeps on supporting us throughout our careers with travel grants and learning grants makes us feel supported and provides continuous professional improvement.”

The aptly-named red-headed manakin is among the 283 bird species found in Serra do Urubu © Ciro Albano

Yet, Alice emphasizes that, for the programme to work well, it is crucial for alumni to continue to give back to it, whether it’s as alumni reviewers for applications, or any other support they can give. “I think the alumni network is always willing to give back, and this is wonderful, because we receive so much from CLP and we feel happy to do something in return and help out the programme as well as fellow and potential alumni.”

Advice for early-career conservationists

For people just starting a career in conservation, Alice believes it’s important to learn from others and exchange experiences with people that are already working in the sector. She recommends attending courses, watching webinars, and reading about conservation projects to learn and find strategies to adapt for your work. Alice also suggests using the resources on CLP’s website, such as the project manuals and the reports from previously supported projects.

The black Jacobin at Serra do Urubu © Bennett Hennessy

Alice also shares some advice about fundraising: “I know it can be frustrating to have proposals rejected. While it can affect your motivation, it can also be an opportunity for you to look for any adjustments in your objectives, activities and budget, and make use of any feedback you receive.”

“Remember – a rejected proposal doesn’t mean you have a bad project; instead, it can simply mean that what you are proposing doesn’t align with the donor’s priorities at that time. So, it’s important to persist and find out what proposals did get accepted, so that maybe you can better understand what the donor likes to fund. No rejected proposal is a waste of time because all of them become material that can be used for other proposals.”

The Hummingbird Garden at SAVE Brasil's Reserve © Alice Reisfeld

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