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Embracing Forest Cuisine, Fire-Proofing the Amazon, and More

Big Bets Climate Fellows roll up their sleeves
Dr. Erika Berenguer measuring a tree in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo Credit Marizilda Cruppe:Rede Amazônia Sustentável)

The fires smoldered as scientist Dr. Erika Berenguer worked in the Amazon rainforest in November 2015.

The fires hissed. An unnatural charred scent permeated the air. Flames had already gobbled the forest’s vibrant palette of greens, leaving monochromatic shades of gray.

The plot of land she’d studied for five years had become a stranger, a casualty of wildfires that razed about 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) in central Amazon that year.

  • A burning Amazonian forest in November 2023. (Photo Courtesy of Erika Berenguer)
    A burning Amazonian forest in November 2023. (Photo Courtesy of Erika Berenguer)

Dr. Erika Berenguer measuring an Amazonian tree. (Photo Credit Marizilda Cruppe Rede Amazônia Sustentável)

“The relationship I had with the land, the little routines I had developed about where we ate lunch or which trees to check for fruit—all that was gone. It was like walking through a cemetery,” Berenguer said, taking a deep breath.

“It’s hard to talk about.”

A Brazilian native and senior research associated at the University of Oxford, Berenguer stayed until December that year. She returns annually for six months, so was in the Amazon again in 2023 when more fires burned. She developed pneumonia from inhaling the smoke, as well as a trauma-related gastric condition.

  • Dr. Erika Berenguer in the middle of a burning forest in the Brazilian Amazon in November 2023. Credit- Marizilda Cruppe_Rede Amazônia Sustentável
    Dr. Erika Berenguer in the middle of a burning forest in the Brazilian Amazon in November 2023. (Photo Credit Marizilda Cruppe_Rede Amazônia Sustentável)
  • Climate change is having a direct impact on my health.
    Dr. Erika Berenguer
    University of Oxford and Lancaster University

Fire-Proofing the Amazon

The event spurred her determination to fire-proof the 1.4 billion acres of the Amazon, a transformative goal that she is working to achieve as one of 16 Fellows selected to take part in The Rockefeller Foundation’s inaugural Big Bets Climate Fellowship this year.

The rainforest stores 150-200 billion tons of greenhouse gas in its soil and trees. It has already lost about 17 percent of its natural vegetation. In Brazil, 26.4 million acres of rainforest were scorched in 2023, a 35.4 percent jump from the previous year.

The Amazon has become drier over the last 40 years, and the dry season now lasts up to fifteen days longer than it used to, a recent study shows.

But even in relatively parched periods, the Amazon is too wet to burn without the spark of human activity. Many fires are intentionally lit to clear forests or manage pastures. Some start unintentionally from electrical equipment or discarded cigarettes. In periods of extreme drought, these fires can get inside the uncleared forest.

  • Dr. Erika Berenguer measuring a tree in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo Credit Marizilda Cruppe:Rede Amazônia Sustentável)

Dr. Erika Berenguer on top of a canopy tower in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo Credit Dr. Berenguer)

Berenguer said stronger policies may be needed to enforce environmental protection. Fire detection sensors might help achieve her goal, once they are adapted to function in the Amazon’s thick forest and with the low-lying fires.

Though it’s a challenge, she insists on hope. “The forest is what makes me get out of bed every day and feel everything is not lost,” she said. “The six months I spend there every year is my chance to reconnect with myself and the place I find most important in the world.”

The Big Bets Climate Fellowship

For its inaugural year, the fellowship is supporting 16 leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean who are developing scalable climate solutions to improve the lives of underserved communities.

Each of the Fellows have already impacted their regions; the fellowship is aimed at giving them a launchpad for even broader reach, as well as new alliances and a community while they advance their projects with the aim of creating blueprints to solve global climate challenges.

“The work of these 16 fellows flips the script: the Global South is not just a hotspot for climate change challenges, but a powerhouse for innovative solutions,” said Nathalia Arcencio de Marchi dos Santos, Manager, Convenings and Networks, The Rockefeller Foundation.

“The climate crisis is the most complex problem of our time, and it is fundamentally a human crisis. People are impacted every day,” she said. “These fellows are pioneering solutions that focus on humans, and resonate far beyond Latin America, offering hope and strategies for the entire world.”

Meet three more of those fellows.

  • Ecuadorian chef Rodrigo Pachecho prepares a dish of quinoa and forest grains with fresh oyster mayonnaise. (Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo Pacheco)
Ecuadorian Chef Rodrigo Pacheco collecting ingredients from the forest around his open-air restaurant (Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo Pacheco)

A Chef Cooks for Biodiversity

What is A Walk in the Piedmont Garua Forest?

Not a stroll, but a dish. A collection of delicacies designed by Ecuadorian chef Rodrigo Pacheco and placed inside the compartments of an edible tagua nut and sometimes served to patrons when they visit Bocavaldivia Restaurant in Puerto Cayo, on the rural coast of Ecuador’s Manabi Province.

Maybe instead of that, they will partake of a smoked oyster tart topped with fresh onion flowers, or a quinoa and wild herb salad, or Amazonian fish with plantain.

Before dinner, they might join Pacheco in what he calls his “cupboard” – the forest that surrounds the open-air restaurant and is home to more than 80 types of fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots, and seeds.

For nine years, Pacheco has been harvesting and serving sustainable food at Bocavaldivia. He says his guests have increased appreciation for biodiversity, cultural diversity and the need to protect the planet.

Now through the Bocavaldivia Foundation, he has launched a mission to connect ecosystems and create the Biodiverse Edible Forest, a corridor of land set aside to protect biodiversity, promote ecotourism, and encourage sustainable living.

“Gastronomy is a vehicle to convey an important message,” he said.

A Strip of Protected Land from the Galapagos to the Amazon

Pacheco grew up in Quito, Ecuador, and “the kitchen was always the heart of the home,” he said. “I was a hyperactive kid, so to keep an eye on me, my mom gave me tasks. I was always chopping, or mixing, or helping with the dough to make traditional Ecuadorian sweets.”

After ten years studying and working in Chile and France, Pacheco moved to Puerto Cayo 12 years ago with his wife and partner Dayra Reyes.

“It’s isolated, and I didn’t want to travel 180 kilometers just to buy ingredients,” he said. So he turned to the land.

His foundation has acquired 150 hectares (370 acres) and is working with donors to protect even more, prioritizing lands that can connect to their reserves on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. The long-term goal is to establish a strip of protected land extending from the Galapagos to the Amazon.

A Walk in the Piedmont Garua Forest, a dish of forest fruits served in the tagua palm seed. (Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo Pacheco)

“I want to scale this to 50,000 hectares—a corridor of sustainability,” he said. “When you create a forest, you are creating carbon capture, nutrition, water retention, and economic opportunities for communities.”

This climate solution aligns local communities with the private sector, local and international philanthropies, academics, and scientists, he said. As he seeks investments and support, his forest restaurant where this movement started–as well as Foresta, the restaurant he owns in Quito with staff hired exclusively from Indigenous communities–continues to play a role.

  • A good meal means a closed deal.
    Rodrigo Pachecho
    Ecuadorian Chef

An Activist is Born on the School Bus

Xiomara Acevedo during a climate justice panel in Baku in 2024. (Photo Courtesy of Xiomara Acevedo)

It started with noticing.

On her 25-minute bus ride to school, then-10-year-old Xiomara Acevedo observed that some neighborhoods seemed cleaner and greener than others in her Colombian seaport city of Barranquilla.

Environmental justice was not the first phrase that occurred to her as a child. But it was one she settled on later.

  • A gathering of participants in the “Guardianes Bocas de Cenizas" project focused on wetlands convservation (Photo Courtesy of Xiomara Acevedo)
    A 2022 gathering of participants in the “Guardianes Bocas de Cenizas" project focused on wetlands conservation. (Photo Courtesy of Xiomara Acevedo)

Eventually, these daily bus rides led her to found Fundación Barranquilla+20 in 2012, with some of her early focus on Ciénaga de Mallorquín, a lagoon north of Barranquilla.

It also contributed to her Big Bets Fellowship project to broaden the work to mobilize women from local communities across Latin America and the Caribbean to establish more inclusive climate governance structures.

“You don’t see them much at international negotiations, which means their interests, their values, their views, and their work is not being taken into account,” she said.

“We need them if we are going to achieve our climate goals.”

Although generating only 0.37 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Colombia is very susceptible to a complex set of climate change impacts, including flooding, landslides, retreat of the Andean glaciers. and decreased biodiversity.

Colombia is the world’s most biodiverse country per square mile (kilometer), holding 10 percent of the planet’s plant, animal, aquatic, and insect varieties.

Why Are Women's Voices Crucial?

  • 1.Climate change disproportionally impacts women, so their viewpoints need to be front and center. “Women are in the frontlines, but often not among the decision-makers," Acevedo said.
  • 2.Women often take on the bulk of a community’s caretaking role, and may be best positioned to anticipate the concerns of a community’s most vulnerable members.
  • 3.Women have a deeper recognition of power imbalances, and this leads to more inclusive practices is needed to center inequities while addressing climate change.

Acevedo is also focused on teaching youth activists. One-fourth of Latin America’s population is between the ages of 15-29—the largest ratio of young people in the region’s history—making them key in the region’s future elections.

“Young people’s daily decisions will be affected—and are being affected right now—by climate change,” she said. “It’s a matter of justice that we listen to these voices.”

Brazilian conservationist Carlos Magno (Photo Courtesy Carlos Magno)
Brazilian conservationist Carlos Magno (Photo Courtesy Carlos Magno)

The Sound of Rain

The cicadas of summer. An ice cream truck’s jingle. The recess bell. These are among sounds that reignite a sense of childhood joy.

For young Carlos Magno growing up in a semi-arid region of northeastern Brazil, that special sound that hinted at something good to come was the drumbeat of rainfall.

“Until today, that sound makes me smile,” he said. “In the city where I live now, though, the response is very different. Rain is a problem here; it causes flooding and property damage and can even kill” as evidenced when 133 people died in 2022 landslides and flashfloods triggered by intense rainfall.

Magno is from Paraiba, an agricultural state some 600 kilometers (375 miles) from his current home in the city of Recife.

Generations of his family have farmed there, working as laborers on a large estate. He remembers helping his parents on the cotton fields starting when he was about 12 years old. When he reached young adulthood, farming in Paraiba no longer seemed to offer a viable life. His two siblings also left, all of them climate migrants.

His heart remains with Paraiba, though – it is still “home. So he is working with the Latin America Semiarid Platform to help create a cross-national strategy to scale technologies aimed at ensuring water, food, and land rights in territories where his parents still live, and across Latin America.

Climate Migrants More Likely from Semi-Arid Areas

“When people discuss climate, they talk about the Amazon. And that’s important. But we have to focus on the semi-arid areas too,” he said. “Why? Because most climate migration will come from there. And those areas are very important to food security.”

About 50 million people live in the semi-arid regions of Latin America, Magno said. About 42.9 million migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean live around the world, with some 11.3 million of those remaining within the region, according to the most recent figures.

Climate change could force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050, warns the World Bank’s Groundswell report. Increased migration is likely to create economic hardship, migrant vulnerability, social and political tensions, and environmental stress on the receiving area.

Magno’s goal for the fellowship is to expand the reach and influence of the International Land Coalition, which supports and advocates for community-based eco-solutions. The coalition includes 16 Latin American organizations from 10 countries.

Magno still misses the annual São João festivals and the cultural foods of his childhood home. He visits once a month, taking his four-year-old daughter with him so she can experience it.


  • People don’t want to leave their homes. We have big challenges, but I believe we can change the reality together.
    Carlos Magno
    Latin America Semiarid Platform

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