Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

05/06/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 05/06/2019 02:51

Constanza Parra: 'Climate change is not just about carbon and technology'

Assistant Professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

  • Start date at KU Leuven: September 2014
  • Nationality: Chilean
  • Spoken languages: Spanish, English, French, Dutch

What's the one thing people need to know about your research?

Constanza Parra: 'I'm an environmental social scientist, which means that I focus on the relationship between human beings and nature. How can we create sustainable and socially innovative paths to development? What are the most effective and socially sustainable ways to protect biodiversity in parks and reserves? How can we distribute socio-environmental benefits and burdens to make it fair for everyone? These questions require an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research approach.'

'In the end, it all comes down to negotiation: if you want to protect the environment, you have to reconcile the needs of nature with human needs. Societies need a healthy environment. The question is how to advance collective action that leads to uses and transformations of nature that are more sustainable and just.'

We all have the responsibility and the power to bring about change, even though we may not always realise that.

'Climate change, too, is not just about carbon: it's a social and political problem as well. What I'm trying to say is that we all have the responsibility and the power to bring about change, even though we may not always realise that.'

'One of my favourite examples is the Chaparri Ecological Reserve in Peru. For the past two years, we've been working on a VLIR-UOS project with local farmers who had allocated 80% of their common land for conservation purposes - restoring forests and protecting wildlife. That's not an easy decision to make in Peru, where the emphasis is very much on mining, intensive agriculture, and other forms of extractivism (the process of extracting natural resources from the Earth, ed.). However, the local community in Chappari still had 20% of a large patch of land, and they were able to find new sources of income as well, including ecotourism. So, in the end, it has slowly become a promising situation for both the local community and the planet.'

How did you become interested in this topic?

Parra: 'As a child, I wanted to become a biologist. I was always outdoors, going on expeditions, and I was part of an ecology group in Santiago. By the time I went to university, however, I wasn't so sure what I wanted to do anymore. In my first year, I studied natural sciences. But when Pinochet's dictatorship ended in the early nineties, everything in my country began to change. Chile started modernising and, culturally speaking, the country woke up. This incredible transformation led me to sociology: I wanted to understand what was happening around me.'

'I never lost my interest in the environment, though. So, once I had obtained my bachelor's degree, I went to work for various organisations - as a consultant for the United Nations ECLAC, among other things - on topics such as air pollution, wine production, and salmon farming. I kept thinking about the situation in Chile as well: there was still so much poverty, and natural resources were used in a very unsustainable way. Around that time, I began to study the potential of ecotourism as a more sustainable alternative.'

What is your dream as a researcher?

Parra: 'I want to consolidate my research group, which is working on socially innovative sustainability and environmental justice. Our research should be relevant to both academia and society. I don't believe in the ivory tower: we need to join forces with NGOs, local communities, governments, and other institutions.'

I don't believe in the ivory tower: we need to join forces with NGOs, local communities, governments, and other institutions.

'Did you know that my field attracts more women than men? That's why I also have a second ambition: I want to specialise in coaching these young women to make sure that they enter the field well prepared. I love mentoring people and being a supervisor. I'm fascinated with how people learn, and it's so rewarding to see them grow as a person and in the research they do.'

What has been the most memorable moment of your career so far?

Parra: 'That would definitely be the day I defended my PhD in Lille, in the presence of my parents, little sister, and friends. I will never forget my father serving Chilean pisco-sour during the reception. Beautiful.'

'I'm also very proud of our two-year Master of Sustainable Development programme (of which Constanza Parra is the founder and programme director - ed.). This year, we have 69 students from 20 different countries.'

My students force me to question my own assumptions. That's one of the reasons why research and education should always be connected: the one enriches the other.

'Teaching such a diverse group of students can be very confronting. Sometimes when I'm explaining something in class, a student interrupts me to say that a particular approach might work in Latin America, but that it wouldn't work in Asia, or they point out that the examples I'm using might be relevant in Europe but not on other continents. They force me to question my own assumptions. That's one of the reasons why research and education should always be connected: the one enriches the other.'

(Continue reading below video.)

VIDEO: Constanza Parra, her colleagues, and students from the Master of Sustainable Development programme in their living lab in the Ndumo Game Reserve in South Africa.

Why did you choose KU Leuven?

Parra: 'After my studies in Santiago, I went to France to do a master's and a PhD in applied economics at the University of Lille. I also worked in Groningen for a while, but I missed my friends in France and Luxemburg. Then I saw a vacancy at KU Leuven, and I thought: this has Constanza Parra written all over it (laughs)!'

'I didn't have any serious difficulties fitting in here. I'm a social Latin American, so I talk to everyone; that makes things easier. When you're an outsider coming in, you notice many things that are different from what you're used to. It's a good idea to ask questions, and maybe even suggest changes: your different perspective may be an enrichment. It takes a little bit of courage to speak out, but it's worth it. I've learned a great deal in the past couple of years in Leuven.'

The KU Leuven Geogarden has become a beautiful place to meet and relax together.

'The KU Leuven Geogarden is a nice example of this kind of exchange. For many years, I'd been thinking about planting edible flowers on campus to eat with my salad, and one day I'd decided to go ahead and do it, without asking for permission. However, my colleague Anton Van Rompaey stopped me: he knew the ropes at KU Leuven, so he contacted Technical Services and got them and other people involved. If I'd done things my way, the flowers would probably have been mown as weeds (laughs).'

'Today, the garden is a beautiful place to meet and relax together. It's wonderful, and it wouldn't have been possible without the enthusiastic work of many people from our department.'

Who is your hero?

Parra: 'That's easy: Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. His anime films are stunning, and they always have a compelling message: Miyazaki is an environmentalist, his female characters inspire me, and he always manages to create poetic visual experiences that are truly marvellous.'

How do you relax after a long day's work?

Parra: 'I watch a lot of movies, as you may have guessed (laughs). I also love dancing and singing, as well as crocheting and origami. When I'm not at work, I prefer activities that are loud or manual. I also like to go jogging in the mornings to wake up my brain.'

'When the bluebells in Hallerbos are out, I always try to go there as well. Every time I can, I send pictures to my friends and family to show them how incredibly beautiful this corner of Europe is. Hallerbos forest is one of Belgium's magic places.'

Constanza Parra is currently working on the VLIR-UOS project 'Sustainable rural development through socially innovative and community-based conservation in the Chaparri Reserve Region'. More information about the project is available here.

Click here for more information about the two-year Master of Science in Sustainable Development.