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When Patricia Zurita began her career working for the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, oil accounted for 70 percent of the country’s GDP, much of which was extracted from some of the most astoundingly beautiful ecological areas in Latin America. Zurita’s delicate challenge was to thread the needle between the oil industry’s disproportionate role in the country’s economy with the imperatives of effective conservation. Having grown up in the Andean mountains, she instinctively aligned with the latter, but realized the importance of balancing the equities at play.
She initially had three guards, a gasoline-less truck, a motor-less boat and no budget at her disposal. When she left the ministry, she had 24 guards, three trucks and as much gasoline as she needed to continue the precarious balancing act she performed so well.
And to all the conservationists that pointed fingers at her then for seemingly selling out to the business interests, she has since proven her true intentions in spades through her quick successive climbs up the ranks of environmental organizations Conservation International, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and BirdLife International, where she now serves as CEO and is the first Latin American woman to do so.
BirdLife International is billed as being the world’s largest nature conservation group, which convenes more than 120 organizations to conserve birds. But in her view, her work goes well beyond winged species. “It’s not just the birds we care about – it’s also their habitats, those habitats that provide the ecosystem services we all depend on,” she said at a Global Landscapes Forum event on biodiversity last year. “Forests are one of those habitats, providing one of the most critical ecosystems for birds, but also critical for people too. No matter where you live or who you are, we all depend on forests globally for our climate, for our food for and countless other aspects of our daily lives.”
This is why she has also led BirdLife to be partner of Trillion Trees, a forest restoration and protection project that over the next five years aims to restore 20 million hectares of forest through natural regeneration, agroforestry and planting where needed.
Perhaps her landing at BirdLife is nature’s way of bringing her full circle back to an elevated version of where she started. During her studies, she dabbled in numerous curricula, struggling to find something that resonated, until a friend encouraged her to take a seminar on Andean birds. On a field trip into a cloud forest in northwest Quito, she spotted a cock-of-the-rock, an extraordinary, large red species that she describes as looking like flames coming down from the sky.
For women aspiring to fly as high as she has, perhaps Zurita appears the same.