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Explorer Spotlight: Juliana Machado Ferreira and Biological Diplomacy

Juliana Machado Ferreira is an Emerging Explorer fighting wildlife trafficking in her home-country of Brazil. With a PhD in genetic research and science, Machado Ferreira combats the illegal trafficking of animals such as birds and turtles, among others, which are taken mostly for ornamental purposes or used as pets. Although Machado Ferreira used to spend...

Juliana Machado Ferreira is an Emerging Explorer fighting wildlife trafficking in her home-country of Brazil. With a PhD in genetic research and science, Machado Ferreira combats the illegal trafficking of animals such as birds and turtles, among others, which are taken mostly for ornamental purposes or used as pets.

Although Machado Ferreira used to spend most of her time in the field tackling this problem, and in a lab gathering data on bird genetics, she has spent the last couple of years doing significant, yet perhaps less newsworthy, work. More recently, she has been advocating for political articulation, diplomacy, and the creation of international partnerships to target the effects of wildlife forcibly taken to other parts of the world.

Juliana Machado Ferreira is the founder of FREELAND Brasil which combats illegal wildlife trade. (Photograph by Nadia de Moraes Barros)

She has also been helping with strengthening laws, which is mainly done behind the scenes. Machado Ferreira was one of the editors and writers on a science book — available in Portuguese only — focused on countering wildlife trafficking in Brazil. She also has participated in the development of protocols on how to better treat and aid seized animals. Professional training of police agencies in Brazil, as well as educational outreach programs focused on helping to curb demand of wildlife species, has helped her efforts of empowering agencies on the front lines.

Machado Ferreira feels grateful and acknowledges the partnerships she has developed within the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Brazilian Federal Police, the Brazilian Public Ministry, as well as the Brazilian government and Congress. Each are actively working in collaboration. Because of this attitude and multi-layered effort to tackle this complex issue, she says that these organizations are true heroes.

One of the reasons she decided to step out of the lab is to go directly to the pockets of people who benefit from illegal trafficking, an industry that makes more than $2 billion a year.

To target this, she explains that her work is divided now in three pillars: education and awareness, research and strengthening capacities, and public policy and international articulation.

Machado Ferreira is the Executive Director of Freeland Brasil, an organization whose mission is to conserve biodiversity by combating wildlife trafficking, partnering with governmental organizations, NGOs, as well as nonprofits and corporations to achieve their goal.

Back when she was in the lab, she used to spend time developing molecular markers which helped in identifying the origins of birds seized by police. This helped to inform police on how to better return rehabilitated birds to the right spot in the wild. Machado Ferreira also did a lot of work in the field when she was volunteering with SOS Fauna. This is an organization for the defense of Brazilian flora and fauna, that has helped in the rehabilitation and release of wild animals, as well as provided on-the-ground support for police during and after raids. Although going out with SOS Fauna is exciting and important work, she decided to take a different approach.

The impact of removing these species not only impacts birds, but affects whole ecosystems that are put at risk by altering their structure with unbalances to gender ratios, causing inbreeding, inadequate distribution of seeds, or even pollination. These aforementioned outcomes are not isolated, and are negatively impacting life as we know it. Public health, environmental services, as well as governance and security, are all impacted.

Machado Ferreira says it is important to learn about the issue and its history, as well as other issues like money laundering that become entangled with trafficking.

A meeting last year to develop Brazil’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. (Photograph by Janaina Monteiro)

One of her goals is to develop a cross-border network of law enforcement agencies coordinating efforts to fight wildlife trafficking across Brazil and South America. She says wildlife trafficking should be a full crime, against our world, and considered a crime against humanity. The person that becomes a trafficker needs to answer as a criminal, she says, and there needs to be a strengthening of legislation that is specific for each case, as people can be poaching, in charge of document fraud, bribes of state agencies, money laundering, as well as exploitation of people in lower social classes for their benefit. She also says that there should be separate penalties for the person who only keeps the animal in captivity.

I asked Machado Ferreira about maintaining the cultural habit — of removing animals from their ecosystems, their homes — just because we are used to it. She said: “Cultures are dynamic and should evolve, so no, [these animals] should be in a healthy and dynamic environment and fulfilling their ecological and evolutionary roles…but to change the culture, it has to be all of it. Not only people getting animals as pets, but using them for ‘traditional medicine purposes.’ With culture we keep what is interesting, and we choose what to leave.”

Some of her suggestions on how to change the cultural habit come with education, empowering schools and educators to teach children and adults alike about the real life consequences that derive from this trade.

But how to disrupt this $2 billion industry? After seizing animals from people smuggling or poaching them, then what?

Machado Ferreira has some suggestions. She says that not only is it important to create a structure and a space for these conversations to happen, enhancing legislation, or even making the government take these crimes as serious offenses, but to also develop more scientific research and data that can in turn be used effectively by police and other agencies to more directly target poachers and traffickers.

Currently one of biggest drivers of wildlife trafficking is by committing fraud on the actual origin of poached animals, so as to make them look like they were legally meant to be bred in captivity, thus gaining access to the legal consumer market, which she says generates profits with a risk that is almost non-existent.

She summarizes this by asking: “Can you commit DNA fraud? Don’t think so.” Also, she says that when we change legislation, that is when the most significant change happens, since it becomes institutionalized and long-lasting. The way a nation treats a crime like this sends a message to offenders. If they are held accountable to a serious crime, change will happen more effectively.

Although her focus on advocacy is a full-time effort, Machado Ferreira has some upcoming projects as well. She is currently collaborating with the Sao Paulo City Environmental Secretariat and the Sao Paulo State Public Ministry (Prosecutor’s Office) to create a molecular biology laboratory to support efforts in countering wildlife trafficking with the help of law enforcement. She is currently helping to fundraise for this to become a reality.

“I take my work seriously, I am not playing games. Because I understand how important it is that trust is built. Because once [the public officials] trust me, then we can make a difference,” she says.

Machado Ferreira now might be taking a call late at night in order to give advice on how to better solve a wildlife crisis. She is consulted by politicians and international agencies on how to address the complexity of the issue. And she is doing it with purpose and resolution. Her work, although now done mostly behind the scenes, has a bigger impact than before.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Camilo Garzón
Camilo is a digital editor, multimedia producer, and staff writer at the National Geographic Society. He is often writing about our human journey, our changing planet, our wildlife, and the Explorers that are helping us reach a planet in balance. Some of the topics that he is interested in often appear in his pieces, such as: exploration, science, humanitarian aid, social justice, human rights, conservation, international affairs, international education, teaching, comparative literature, music, art, semiotics, philosophy, and religions.