Conversations Under 30: 'Porto residents are increasingly aware of environmental causes', Ana Rita Barros believes

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Nuno Miguel Coelho

Ana Rita Barros is 25 years old, most of them devoted to environmental causes. In 2018 she founded FOCA, an environmental defence association. With a Master's degree in Environmental Engineering from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP), she was recently chosen as an ambassador for the European Climate Pact. But it is to Porto that she devotes most of her professional life. On top of all this, she currently presides the Federation of Youth Associations of the Porto District and still has time to get to know the city, which she wouldn't trade for anything.

Who is Ana Rita?
I've always been very passionate about the environment. I think it's partly because I was a girl scout, which gave me a taste for nature. I've also always been very determined and very committed to causes and, when I started university, I thought it would be interesting to do a bit more on this subject. I had just entered the Environmental Sciences and Technology course from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto (FCUP) [Ana Rita Barros has a master's degree in Environmental Engineering from the Faculty of Engineering (FEUP)], and I realised the scientific framework of the issue. Meantime, a friend challenged me to volunteer in the environmental field. We realised that there was still no clear answer in the city. Since there wasn't one, we decided to create an environmental defence association in 2018, FOCA - Focus On Critical Actions. That's when I started working for the environmental cause in a more serious way, beyond my love of contact with nature.

Was your passion for the environment an early one? In other words, when people asked you 'what do you want to be when you grow up', what did you say?
Actually, as unromantic as it may be, the answer is no. I never really had the idea that when I grew up I wanted to be an environmental engineer. I remember that, at the time of the psychotechnical tests, there was never a very clear area. It could be health, humanities and also the environment. At the time, it opened up my horizons to explore other areas.

Did your higher education whet your appetite even more, or did it make you redefine the direction of your life?
I knew I liked the environment and contact with nature, but deepening my knowledge in this area made me realise the problems and the need for action.

FOCA was a form of intervention because there was nothing in terms of environmental volunteering."

Recently, there has been a lot of talking in Portugal about environmental and climate issues, and for the worst reasons. Is this the best way to fight for this cause?
It's not at all my way of standing in this cause. It's not at all the way the people I surround myself with are. I can see where this might come from. I believe it's an attempt to draw attention to the problem, but I don't agree with the way it's done. There are many other ways of working on the problem, and it can even be counterproductive because it ends up alienating society in general from the issue. The environmental cause ends up being generally associated with the activities and drastic measures of people who are trying to draw attention to the problem, not because they want to solve it. I don't think this is the way forward.

One way of doing this is through associations, such as the creation of a youth association for environmental defence. Why did you decide to do it in 2018, founding FOCA?
It was a form of intervention because there was nothing in terms of environmental volunteering. We've already had more than 600 young people taking part in our activities. The team is constantly growing. We work in three dimensions: raising awareness, both on social media and in concrete actions, mitigating impacts on ecosystems by cleaning up rivers, which we have already done, for example, together with the Porto City Council, or beaches, reforestation activities and, lastly, support for research and development with various partners. Companies are becoming more aware of this cause. This is because the young people who worked with us are now in the business world and carry this concern with them.

Do you still have time for your hobbies?
There has to be. It's a fundamental part of our lives in order to have balance at all levels. Last year I left the presidency of FOCA and took over as president of the Federation of Youth Associations of the Porto District (Federação das Associações Juvenis do Distrito do Porto - FAJDP). A totally different work. There are more than a hundred associations working every day on various causes (social, environmental, educational). It's nice to broaden my scope of action and try to contribute to different audiences in different ways. In the midst of all this, there's some time left over for sports, for spending time with friends.

It's important for citizens to be supported and join this cause [of the Porto Climate Pact]."

How about time to explore the city?
I'm passionate about Porto. When I finished my degree I knew I really wanted to work with cities. At the time, the Carbon Neutrality Board [of the Porto Ambiente Municipal Company] was being created. Eventually there was an alignment and I joined the team, leading the city towards a goal that belongs to everyone. It gives me particular pleasure to work for a city that I love so much. I really like going, but I love coming back. A safe Port(o) for those who are here. I was born here, I've always lived here, I'm a tripeira by heart.

The city is at the forefront of carbon neutrality in European terms. Is the Porto Climate Pact a good solution?
It's an excellent measure, which is well seen by our partners in other European cities. All of our city's stakeholders had to join this mission. That's how the Pact was born. That's the way we have to go. Institutions have realised this, but it's also important for citizens to be supported and join this cause.

Are Porto residents interested?
Porto residents are increasingly aware of this cause. Climate change is undeniable, also in our city. I feel that there is an increase in Porto residents' literacy about climate change and the way they perceive the phenomenon. There is a desire for change. Our way of working is very much about giving tools. For example, bringing citizens and experts closer together. It's not just the responsibility of the municipality, large and medium-sized companies. It belongs to everyone because each one has an impact and ends up influencing everyone else. If you spread the message to two more people and they do it to two more, the chain exponentiates itself and it's interesting to see the movement that's being created.

It is a reason of great pride for Porto residents to realise that Europe sees us as an example."

Not satisfied with the work you already have, you were recently appointed ambassador for the European Climate Pact?
In the end, one and the other [Porto and Europe] cross paths because they share a common goal: bringing citizens together, on different scales, to achieve carbon neutrality. I work a lot on a local scale, but I also contribute to a more European way of thinking. It's a very interesting network of more than 800 ambassadors, spread all over Europe. Many people are working towards the same goals, in different countries, with very different dynamics. Some end up crossing paths and manage to design joint strategies towards a common goal.

How is the example of Porto seen in those institutions?
It starts right here. We are highly motivated to achieve our common goal. I sense a desire on the part of the municipality to do things differently. I realise that this isn't the case in other European cities. For example, bringing ambassadors closer to local authorities. So it's interesting to state that this is not the case in Porto. Local authorities want to get closer to their citizens. In Porto, it's different and for the better. As one of Europe's 100 climate-neutral smart cities we're leading the way. We are a case study, an example to all others. Our goal is to achieve carbon neutrality twenty years earlier (by 2030) than the rest of Europe. It is a reason of great pride for Porto residents to realise that Europe sees us as an example and wants us, as a city, with our dynamics, to show how it is done and to create synergies to achieve carbon neutrality.

You chose for this interview to take place in the gardens of Palácio de Cristal. Why?
It's a showcase for the city, an example of a highly-significant forest area. Throughout my life I've visited various emblematic places, and Palácio de Cristal combines all the aspects we've already approached: the environmental issue, combined with various forms of intervention. It brings it all together: tourism, green spaces, a magnificent view of the Douro River, the dynamics that take place every day in these spaces. The Palácio constitutes an interconnection between the various aspects of my life.

I'm particularly fond of the city's narrow streets."

Do you have time to discover the city?
We must have a method. I wish I could just get lost after a day's work. I particularly love the city's narrow streets. It's great to perceive its paths. Not as much as I'd like, but there's plenty to explore and, even in terms of sports and quality of life, in different areas of the city.

What is Porto to you?
Well.... (pause) It's a space of opportunity, growth and security. The future, in essence, for my life, which I really want to relate to the city. These are the pillars that I see the most in Porto and that are important for my future.