How a first-year Future Leader made her way from the Peruvian Amazon to a Fulbright in Florida

You can also read this article in Spanish.

Since our Future Leaders Summit back in January our participants, or innovadores as they call themselves, have been spreading their ideas and vision throughout Madre de Dios.

I caught up with Tania Romero Bautista, who joined us in the first year of the program and has been an absolute star, spreading the word of Future Leaders and helping us organize our later Summits.

On starting to chat to her, it was obvious that this quiet woman with a shy smile is an extremely passionate and dedicated leader determined to change her local region for the better. Her bold, tenacious character shone through her reserved exterior as she shared her story with me.

Lots of people love wildlife and nature… What made you go the extra mile and decide to follow a career in conservation?

I’ve always been passionate about wildlife, and I wanted a career that would help both nature and people. The problem was that I didn’t really know how to make a difference long term, so I applied to study ecotourism in the hope that I’d find an answer to this question! It taught me so much about how we can live more sustainably and in harmony with nature.
I was also lucky to volunteer as a herpetologist (someone that studies reptiles and amphibians) while at university, which taught me how to protect wildlife and widened my vision of the possibilities for sustainable development in Madre de Dios.

What do you think makes Madre de Dios so special?

Madre de Dios is special to me personally as it’s my home. I’m lucky enough to have this beautiful part of the Amazon in my backyard, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of seeing the tall green trees and hearing the birds sing every morning when I wake up.

As a region, it’s full of amazing wildlife like jaguars, giant otters, hundreds of reptile and amphibian species and thousands of bird species, as well as many endangered species that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Also, the local people and indigenous communities here follow a very traditional way of life in harmony with nature. I think these are some of the reasons why so many people from around the world, including scientists and researchers, come to Madre de Dios.

We can learn a lot from Madre de Dios about what happens if we don’t look after our environment. For instance, people can’t eat fish at the moment as studies have shown a high level of mercury contamination in the fish, a direct result of extractive industries polluting the water.

There are lots of different sustainable development initiatives in Peru. What drew you to Future Leaders?

I heard about Future Leaders through one of my professors at university, which made me want to get involved! I saw it as a great opportunity to talk to specialists, improve my skills and increase my professional network, all of which is helping me start putting my ideas for sustainable development in Madre de Dios into practice.

And what do you think makes Future Leaders different to other initiatives?

The business case workshop is something unique to Future Leaders, and it was my favorite part of the program. In the workshop, we developed our business ideas using the new skills we’d picked up and presented them to the rest of the group. It was really cool to hear about other people’s projects, which were all so different but working toward the same goal of protecting Madre de Dios. I also liked seeing how people with different skillsets worked together and achieved some great results.

How do you think the program has helped you since you first joined the Future Leaders network?

I have realized I’m not alone in wanting to protect the environment, which has been really reassuring. Now I’m part of a network of like-minded people that I can turn to for advice and support, I feel more hopeful about the future, and I’m more motivated and determined to put my project into action to help achieve our shared goal of a sustainable and protected Madre de Dios.

Future Leaders has also helped me refine my ideas about my own project, in particular legal aspects that I had never even thought about before. It highlighted which parts of my idea need changing, and gave me skills in project management that will help make sure my project is a success.

What are your hopes for the future of your region?

I would like to see Madre de Dios improve as a sustainable region, including more efficient resource use. Hopefully I will be part of driving this change. After I finish my master’s I aim to run long-term sustainability projects involving local and native people, who are most vulnerable as they don’t have any political power but rely heavily on their environment.

In 5 years time I hope to see better public services, a reduction in poverty, and a green Madre de Dios.

Thanks so much for your time Tania, I’ve loved chatting to you! Just one more question… If you were talking to someone who hadn’t heard of Future Leaders, what would you share with them about the program?

In my opinion, Future Leaders has done a great job of empowering young people from Madre de Dios, who are often excluded from political decision-making. It has also brought people together from different parts of the region, creating a growing network of locals with different ideas, perspectives and skills, but working toward the same goal and supporting each other’s projects.

It’s so cool that initiatives are already up and running as a result of the program, and are having real impact; like Grupo Amable, which is getting more people using bikes in the Madre de Dios area.

As I came to the end of my conversation with Tania, I realized the power of Future Leaders. This young woman, who has led a completely different life to my own on the other side of the world, felt like a friend and an ally. When you share the same vision, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you form an instant bond. That’s how I felt when chatting to Tania, and I know that’s how the innovadores must feel when they are working together to improve the future of Madre de Dios, or just chatting over coffee.

As a self-professed environmentalist, I couldn’t help but smile as I got the feeling that the network of environmental stewards and leaders is growing and becoming more powerful by the day.

You can find Tania on Facebook here.

Thanks to a LUSH Cosmetics sponsored grant, Tania is now able to put her first project in Madre de Dios into action. Along with other Future Leaders, she will partner with the local communities of Lucerna and Rio Piedras to understand local people’s lives, their plans and hopes for the future, and how past projects have improved or affected their quality of life. From a scientific perspective, Tania’s project will help us better understand how to effectively evaluate and monitor conservation-development projects in the region.