Finding Environmental Solutions

by Ana Filipa Fernandes and Erick Vargas

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Ana Filipa Fernandes

Ana Filipa Fernandes, from Portugal, is an environmental engineer. She is cofounder and manager of A3A STUDIO. She is currently working on local planning proposals to improve sustainability in Lisbon municipality.

Erick Vargas

Erick Vargas, from Costa Rica, is the founder and president of Sustainable By Nature, an international consulting office with a broad engagement in sustainable development issues.

Please describe the nature of your work.

Ana Filipa Fernandes: A year ago, I cofounded a studio with an architect friend. The main focuses of our work are environment, architecture and local sustainability. Through interventions in the urban environment, our work is aimed at improving the quality of life in cities for and with people. For example, in developing plans to improve sustainability in neighborhoods, the focus may include accessibility, conservation of green areas, alternative transportation systems and the local economy. We work with local institutions, community organizations and private companies or corporations, since these are the key stakeholders of the city and we believe they should all be involved.

Erick Vargas: My work involves providing practical solutions to the challenges of conservation and sustainability. In 2007, I founded Sustainable By Nature, a small international consulting office that works with governmental institutions, conservation entities, development agencies and organizations, the private sector, cooperatives and so on. Biodiversity and consultation facilitation around conservation area management is one field of expertise. We have also done extensive work on ecotourism and sustainable tourism, working with youth, women, farmers and cooperatives in the design and implementation of local initiatives. Another area of work is sustainable agriculture.

Why did you choose this line of work, and what do you aim to achieve through it?

Erick: I love nature and people, and I strongly believe that we should be able to build happy societies based on respect, reverence and compassion for the natural environment and all the species that share this world with us.

related article Bringing Wonder into the Classroom Bringing Wonder into the Classroom by  Kenichi Kanba,  Japan Inspired by how his Buddhist practice enabled him to transform his environment, elementary school teacher Kenichi Kanba introduces children to the wonders of the natural world. My aim is to promote dialogue and understanding among people through discussing the challenges of development, poverty alleviation and the sustainable use of biodiversity and nature in general. I also want to contribute to identifying good practices with positive environmental, social and economic results, and inspire people to adapt them to their own particular challenges.

Ana: Portugal, like other southern European countries, doesn’t exactly model great sustainable planning practices. Planning has a strong influence on social behavior—for example, the massive reliance on cars can lead to a diminished sense of community.

If our cities became more sustainable, I believe this will inspire new possibilities for the people living in them and open up a new era for Portuguese cities. Sustainable planning would incorporate and enhance the community’s natural and cultural values and assets.

How has your Buddhist practice influenced your approach to your work?

Erick: Dealing with conservation and sustainability issues is a far from romantic task. Often, people have conflicting visions of how societies should organize to conserve and use biodiversity and natural resources. Reaching understanding and agreement can be a difficult, painful and sometimes impossible process.

plants growing vertically in special hydroponic pots A “living wall” in Monaco where plants grow vertically in special hydroponic pots [© Adam Bennie/Getty Images]

My daily Buddhist practice allows me to be aware of my responsibility of listening to and understanding a diversity of views, even if I do not agree with them or if they conflict with my own values and beliefs. Through my practice, I try to draw out wisdom, common sense and compassion from within. These are qualities of the process we call “human revolution”—an internal transformation that brings about a positive change in the world. My personal human revolution has enabled me, little by little, to develop flexibility, tolerance, respect and the capacity to dialogue and negotiate. These are indispensable in my work.

Ana: From the moment I decided to cofound this studio and work in this field, my Buddhist practice has enabled me to manifest the courage and persistence to continue to seek new opportunities to develop our approach, to rethink ways of addressing the stakeholders, and to value each little step we take. There’s a quote from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda that inspires me daily: “We can say with confidence that the most pressing need of our times is for world citizens who will respond with courage and imagination to the deepening global crisis of human dignity.” I try to use my Buddhist practice in order to make this guidance a reality through my work.

Has Buddhism changed your perspective on the environment?

Ana: Buddhism teaches that the environment and the individual are not separate. It also teaches that life has unlimited potential. What changed was my realization that life is everywhere and, therefore, potential is everywhere. I try to view things from this perspective, especially when that potential is not clearly visible.

Erick: Buddhist philosophy has strongly influenced the way I look at the environment and environmental issues. The Buddhist concept of “the oneness of self and the environment” explains that our natural and social surroundings are a reflection of our inner lives. What this means is that environmental issues are ultimately about the human heart. Change must begin with ourselves. When we destroy nature, we also destroy our own lives. The opposite is also true: by enriching our heart, we can enrich and enhance our surroundings.

How would you characterize a healthy, sustainable environment?

Ana: From my perspective, a sustainable environment is much more than the predominance of green areas over built elements or economic activities. A sustainable environment results from a fair and accurate balance between economic, social and environmental factors. Streets that are walkable for everyone, a community that shows a willingness to participate, diverse public spaces, a strong local economy—all are signs of a healthy, sustainable environment.

Erick: Indicators of the health of the environment, such as clean water, clean air, soil preservation, the number of species preserved in an ecosystem, etc., are the results of people’s values, capabilities and behaviors. That’s where the focus should be. People are an indivisible component of the environment, and social issues such as poverty alleviation or economic prosperity ultimately cannot be solved at the expense of the environment. In the end, poor environmental quality and less biodiversity result in poorer societies and more suffering.

What has your work taught you?

Ana: The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that this kind of work requires lots of patience and persistence. The approach that we’re trying requires a change in both politics and the community’s perspective—a willingness on the part of communities to collaborate and be involved.

An info graph showing the 9Rs: Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle, Respect, Re-Home, Reward, Re-Think, Revolve and Re-Work [© Mighty Island/Getty Images]

Erick: Societal change starts first with people’s inner transformation. We can only have a positive impact on those around us through our own inner transformation and constant perseverance in our efforts to empower other people and change society.

Are you optimistic about the future of our environment?

Ana: Absolutely. I believe that there is no other option than to transform our fundamental attitude, from government to the individual, regarding use of resources that we now know are limited.

What makes me optimistic is also the fact that communities are becoming more aware of the potential of their actions, and there’s an increasing awareness at the local level of ways of conserving resources.

Erick: SGI President Ikeda has said that the 21st century will be a century of change. I am optimistic. As he says: “What we need most is to restore and revive our humanity. We must create a society where people can live with dignity, a society where people can live in peace and happiness . . . It may seem like a long and distant path, but I am convinced that the 21st century must see a movement to sow the seeds of peace, happiness and trust in every person’s heart. The seeds of a truly humane way of life. I am convinced this is the only path.”

[Courtesy April 2014 SGI Quarterly]

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