Last summer, one of our wonderful interns, Saphie Goad, chatted to the inspirational Valentina Ruas - 18 year old activist and university student, member of Fridays For Future Brazil, and co-founder of SOS Amazônia. Saphie describes Valentina as 'an all around formidable woman and talented task juggler'.
Her keen interest in activism and human rights began when she was young given that growing up in Brazil exposed her to much social inequality. However she didn’t quite comprehend the extent of the climate crisis until four years ago in 2017 when a project she was leading meant she dove into the depths of climate based research. It quickly became clear that social and environmental justice were closely interlinked and she hasn’t looked back from campaigning from both.
Saphie had the complete pleasure of an enlightened discussion with Valentina about all things climate in the context of Brazil (alongside some more light-hearted questions on breakfast preferences!). The discussion here is edited for clarity.
Valentina at the Fridays for Future protest at COP26.
Saphie Goad: So to break the ice: when you wake up, are you a coffee or a tea person?
Valentina Ruas: Tea - definitely. Coffee makes me too anxious.
S: Do you prefer waffles or pancakes?
V: Waffles. I don’t like the texture of pancakes - they are too mushy.
S: What is your favourite food from home?
V: Definitely acai.
S: What was it like living in a country where activism can be a dangerous cause?
V: Bolsenaro definitely contributes to hostility towards activists but the country has always been a dangerous place for us. It’s not the same for everyone - most deaths occur on the front lines and, of course, among indigenous and traditional communities. So even when I lived in Brazil, I could not compare my position to those working on the ground. I did find myself in a constant state of alert because you never know what abuse or attacks to expect next.
"...I joined the movement as I was exposed to the nuance of the flaws of our current system. We have so much to learn and we may not know everything at first but we are learning together."
S: You mentioned in an article that at school you were taught about climate but only from a narrow perspective. How did you realise that system change was the answer as opposed to individual change?
V: I think growing up in Brazil was a great example to me that all justice issues are interconnected because we see politicians that keep people trapped in poverty, that don’t offer education, that don’t know how to deal with crisis and at the same deny acting for the environment or on the contrary, openly act against it. So we have this sense that it isn’t possible to tackle things separately - we are forced to look at the bigger picture. The idea of systemic action within climate became clearer to me when I joined the movement as I was exposed to the nuance of the flaws of our current system. We have so much to learn and we may not know everything at first but we are learning together.
S: For me social media has allowed me to grow and learn but on the flipside it birthed cancel culture which I find very frustrating as lots of important conversations are shut down.
V: I agree. This fear of asking questions because people may judge or you may get something wrong is born from it.
S: Exactly. When in reality most climate activists don’t have some sort of environmental science degree. Even if they did, our society and what we ‘know’ is always changing so they too would forever be learning. As your social media presence has grown, do you feel it has offered you more safety or put you at more danger?
V: Now that I live in Portugal, I feel almost 100% safe and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. I do feel like I need to be more aware of how I say things. There is this very high ranking military officer who works closely with Bolsenaro and he did an interview addressing SOS Amazônia’s work, saying that we were being unpatriotic and that we didn’t know what we were dealing with so after that I realized the magnitude of what we were doing and what that might mean for our personal lives.
S: For those unfamiliar with Brazilian politics, what is Bolsenaro gaining from undermining the movement?
V: Short answer: support. Most his supporters are die hard - they have no doubts about their support for him and what he stands for. This is all that Bolsenaro has left to maintain his power. He has the attention of big landowners who want to extract from indigenous land, wealthy corporations and businessmen, politicians who don’t want to change the system because it benefits them, the part of the public that were denied education. In this way he divides us and ends up putting us against our own people.
S: Fracturing communities is a definitely a tried and tested method of keeping them submissive. Could you tell me about your work with SOS Amazônia - how it began, where it’s going?
V: I have so much affection for this campaign. It was the first big project that I took part in and it all started when we spoke with the mayor of Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, and he told us about the dire situation that the population was facing. We wanted to do something to support indigenous people against COVID - they are so neglected by the government that they were basically going through this alone. We started from scratch. We had to find organisations to deliver donations because many communities aren’t accessible by foot. We had to look for a platform to raise the funds which was hard as most wanted to take advantage of this group of young teenagers. The media campaign was really immersive - suddenly I was talking to journalists and doing media packages. We had to do financial planning to calculate what funds went where. Of course we had lots of guidance from within the community and lot’s of meetings with indigenous leaders to get their view. For the next steps of the campaign we are trying to think more longterm as opposed to just tackling the COVID crisis of now. We are thinking of ways to help communities continue to support themselves - for example encouraging young indigenous entrepreneurs, mental health support programs, etc. I hope it doesn’t sound like the work we do is supporting the white saviour narrative and this stuff is being done to them. We actually work very closely with the recipients of the funds to get their input and see where the most help is needed.
S: Who has been your biggest inspiration coming into this space?
V: There isn’t one single person. When I was small I knew I wanted to work with human rights because this was the time when Malala became famous due to the shooting. She was my first inspiration but now there are so many amazing people that dedicate their lives to the effort. Also, activists are only human so it’s better not to idolise one individual and instead have multiple people that you can look up to - you don’t have to agree with every single thing a person does.
S: What is your advice to young people who are keen to enter this space but feel intimidated by it?
V: I have been thinking about this a lot since the IPCC report came out given there was a lot of doomism. I would say don’t be afraid to ask questions. There isn’t a single person that is superior to another - we are all learning. If you want to join the movement, just someone who’s work you love, send them a message and ask how you can get involved as there is a job for everyone. Some people have this idea in their head that activism is just marching on the street but in reality the movement is so broad with so many tasks.
S: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the pressure of being an activist?
V: Definitely. I often do way too much and end up with burn out as there is a lot of pressure to always be doing something. Ultimately though, we all have very different lives and comparison is useless.
A huge thank you to Valentina for chatting with us!