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Interview of the month – Mariana Luz

Investing in early childhood is fundamental to changing the planet

By Eduardo Geraque

Mariana Luz, current CEO of “Fundação Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal” nominated in 2015 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, does not separate the environment from the early childhood. Always focused on seeing risks with optimism, she says that this year’s meeting in Davos has placed the environmental issue at the center of the debate and among the private sector priorities. And when diving into early childhood, as she says in this interview to “Instituto Escolhas”, there was an exchange of priorities. Now, her focus is on the current generations so the world can get better for the next ones.

20 years ago, today’s executive’s passion was to study and research the Antarctic continent. Still in the degree of International Relations at the University Estácio de Sá, and later in the master’s degree in History at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the environmental – and climatic – issue became more and more predominant among her interests. After starting her career at the Brazilian Center for International Relations (“Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais”), and acting as director at Embraer’s sustainability area, for less than two years she has been dedicated to the subject of early childhood.

Instituto Escolhas – Does your experience at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year show that the environmental issue is really now at the center of the table in the world’s major debates?

Mariana Luz – For the first time, the environmental issue came among the top five risks to business in the Global Risk report. In 2007, when this report started to be made, environmental risks were always there. There were geopolitical, social and economic risks. The time has come to affirm that besides being important it is fundamental. The risk that the climate issue can bring to business, in terms of impacting economic returns, is real. The international community is increasingly aware of the risks. In my view, as everything is connected, it is sustainable development, in a broader way, that will mobilize the private sector in an effective way. Looking at the business, at the company, from my experience, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) form a common agenda. As I usually joke, they are a global utopia that is increasingly consolidated among leaders.

Escolhas – The key then turned to the private sector globally, in your opinion?

Mariana – Any generalization is complicated at a time so polarized that we are living in the world, where the debate is poorer and understanding, in general, is smaller. But there is a consensus on the need to take care of the oceans, better land use, the need to prevent temperatures from rising or species not being decimated. There is, rather, the presence of a broader view of social and environmental well-being and a large coexistence of these dimensions. The businessmen understood that there is a risk. If in the environmental area there has always been some talk of leaving a habitable planet for future generations, this has always seemed a long way off. But the difference today is that the risk also exists in the short term, of not having the land or of not having the ocean for their production processes. If some kind of seal is not there, that product will have difficulties in international trade.

Escolhas – In the specific case of Brazil, is your perception the same if we make a cut out for the reality of national companies?

Mariana – Brazil has also evolved in this environmental agenda. I see greater awareness in the private sector, in companies in general. But the inclusion of the socioal environmental issue in strategic thinking – and I always advocate that social and environmental aspects go hand in hand – was more difficult for the private sector. It took time, but today the strength of this process abroad also echoes in Brazil, this is undeniable. The fact that this process is more present out there, the fact that you have large CEOs of international conglomerates writing letters with socio-environmental appeal, that there are Forum’s debates and projects, all this opens the opportunities for stakeholders to participate in the process. From my experience in the private sector, when you offer more paths to this socio-environmental issue, things tend to evolve. Well-structured projects are seen as solutions.

The level of awareness has increased dramatically among different actors. That puts pressure on you. Public mobilization is fundamental to a behavior change. And at the end of the day the brain ends up reacting more to the risk. Because this is actually a matter of survival. When you look from neuroscience and behavioral debate, when you look at the issue of the environment, before, it was an opportunity. But now that it has become a risk and you have more people treating it as a risk you actually have an opportunity to make that happen.

Escolhas – Further talking about Brazil, what is your analysis of Brazilian climate policy today?

Mariana – The developing countries, where Brazil is inserted, have always had a differentiated position, but of common responsibilities in the Climate Conventions. This is legitimate and has to be considered. But the world changed and science advanced. Developing countries in general should not give up this position, but they need to understand what needs to be done. It is not enough to look at the developed world and say that they have deforested, polluted, done this and that while we have not done any of that, because this debate no longer fits. My assessment is that we need to review this disconnection and become more related with science, with reality and with the opportunities we have. In addition, of course, to the risks that are now manifested in a clear way. I put Brazil in this box of developing countries that need to seek more pragmatism. Looking at the issue without the big dogmas that surround the debate is very important. Not only for Brazil, but for the various developing countries involved with the climate agenda.

Escolhas – As a member of the Board of Directors, how do you see the actions of “Instituto Escolhas” in fostering the debate on sustainability, which focuses precisely on the integrated view between economics and the environment?

Mariana – The performance of “Escolhas” is extraordinary. I got a gift with this invitation because I am no longer acting directly in the environmental area, but after 20 years you become attached, there is no way. “Escolhas” plays a very important role that fills a gap that we have in Brazil, which is the qualification of a pragmatic debate about the environmental agenda and the interaction of the environment with economics. As I don’t believe in isolated topics, “Escolhas” plays an important role in making that connection. The great differential I see in this role with society is the method. It is the process aimed at looking at difficult issues and unraveling them very rigorously and putting that into the debate. We have side A, side B and also C. What is the best way, what is the choice that Brazil will make? That is very timely.

Escolhas – A year and a half ago you joined the “Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation” that takes care of the subject of early childhood. What was the motivation?

Mariana – Environment and childhood are my passions now, subjects that touch me a lot while also causing me indignation. That is why there is always that opportunity to be able to do something different. Although the risk in the case of early childhood exists if you look at the perspective of inequality and poverty, here at the Foundation we struggle to look at opportunities and not at risks.

By the age of six you have 90% of your brain developed. At this stage of life it is the stimulation, affection and positive interactions that make you have guaranteed the developmental milestones, which are physical-motor, cognitive and socio-emotional. Such three dimensions form the basis of what you will be in the future, what you will need for your professional life, which is creativity, the flexibility to deal with problems and teamwork. It is not a deterministic thing, but if connections are not made in this first period of life, they will take longer and cost more to form later. That is what science, neurological researches show us. Investing early on is more efficient and cheaper, as I usually say, is what any public and private leadership wants. Having an equation that allows you to make a low initial investment and have a high, long-term return ahead.

Escolhas – In your trajectory, do you see any connection between early childhood and the environment?

Mariana – Early childhood is a critical period of life, but it has to be continued. There is no point in having a very good early childhood and then not following the path of qualification. In my first six months here, after leaving the environmental area, where we always talk about leaving the planet for future generations, I learned to keep the mantra, but in a reverse manner. We need to make today’s generations better because they are the ones who are going to change the planet. I am not giving up on the current generation, I pertain to it, I fight for it, I know millions of wonderful people. But there will be a more impactful systemic change if we manage to change early childhood generations. We are unable to address this in the most vulnerable fields. We continue to leave the poorest classes the poorest and the richest classes even richer. The path of confronting inequality, when we look at the path of the SDGs and the environmental agenda, is what brings a more integrative possibility for us to have the chance to change history. Especially if we think of a ten-year scenario, which is already tomorrow.

Escolhas – In your assessment of early childhood what are the main obstacles that need to be addressed?

Mariana – They are very related to the four goals we have at the Foundation and one of them is communication. It is where we have a poetic license to look at the whole, so that everyone understands the importance of the cause and might help us with the mobilization. The other three goals are: early childhood education, parenting and evaluation.  The goal of early childhood education involves ensuring that everyone has a quality day care center (up to the age of three) and preschool (up to the age of five). In the case of parenting, the goal is to work with parents. If we consider the children up to the age of three, 30% are in daycare. Which means 70% is at home. So our job has to be done at the homes and not at the day care center. That is what our goal of parenting is for, to walk this path. Evaluation is also very important and helps answer your question about early childhood obstacles.. We do not have the children’s because we do not measure how children are up to the age of six.

Escolhas – In an area where there are many difficulties and obstacles, are there also promising paths that can lead to improvements in early childhood education?

Mariana – Yes, there are. We are a big fan of thinking about the fullest glass. Brazil, as concerns parenting, has one of the largest programs in the world of visitation to parents, which is “Criança Feliz” (Happy Child). In education we work with municipalities that are absolutely open to make a quality curriculum for early childhood. The Foundation’s work is exactly to ensure that the education milestone and the common curriculum base for early childhood education are well implemented. In theory, these legal projects are very inspiring, but we need to get them to the classroom and the child. What takes away my sleep is that there is no use having just the legal milestone. We need to contribute so that the day-to-day of the classroom is in fact guided by the curricular guidelines that are very well defined. We have several realities. When we look at the most vulnerable people, one of the divisions of our society, the challenge becomes even more evident. But even though you have to focus on the most vulnerable ones, we have to have a minimum of critical mass and mobilization of the different actors in society so that we have the strength to promote policies that can reach the poorest layers of the population.

Escolhas – How is the experience of being a Young Global Leader? How does this group of chosen ones work?

Mariana Luz – It was a gift I got. As you have to be nominated to join the Young Global Leader – a group created 15 years ago to try to identify people with leadership potential among the representatives of the new generations – is always a very rich experience. Everyone has access to the Forum program. In addition to Davos, there are regional and annual events, as well as agreements with major universities where leadership training programs take place. The most important thing is the community of people that is formed. You go anywhere in the world and meet someone who is doing something important and who has access to something you need. The purpose of the group members is always based on creating an agenda to improve the world. It is unbelievable the level of people and the degree of interaction that exists. We have a group of over a thousand people connected.

Photo: Anna Carolina Negri