By Forbes Africa
Adjany da Silva Freitas Costa, the youngest minister in the Angolan cabinet, is an intrepid adventurer, biologist and conservationist committed to saving the world’s last wild places.
Adjany da Silva Freitas Costa is not your ordinary minister. At 30 years old, the Luanda local is currently the youngest minister to serve in the Angolan cabinet and an intrepid adventurer with an inspiring hands-on background.
In 2015, Costa was one of the braves who undertook a four-month journey for the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. The captivating trip documentary, Into the Okavango,follows the courageous crew of scientists (including Costa) who travel the riverine route. The journey began in the highlands of Angola and had the team meandering 2,400km by mokoro (a traditional canoe), camping wild along the Okavango River until they reached the town of Maun in Botswana. The trip illustrated how the Okavango Delta relies on Angolan rains, but also highlighted the costs of Angola’s lengthy war to its landscapes.
In April this year, Costa assumed the government position as Minister of Culture, Tourism and Environment. “It is not exactly unusual for a woman to join the Angolan government,” says Costa, “but it’s not exactly common either.” Currently, there are seven women ministers in the Angolan cabinet, creating a gender split of roughly 35% female.
“We bring a lot of benefit for the simple fact that we can bring inclusion to the politics forged in society,” says Costa. “I think that every single one of us brings a different perspective to the whole context of politics. Currently, I am the youngest minister to serve in the Angolan cabinet. It makes me feel like there is hope for youth and hope for the future. I do think we bring an innovative way of thinking and innovative vision into the current system that is very beneficial to change and to the improvement of the system here in Angola.”
The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project expedition revealed new species (to date, ongoing field trips have resulted in the discovery of 26 species new to science, more than 75 species potentially new to science, and more than 130 species previously unknown in Angola). It also embedded in Costa a life-long commitment to saving the world’s last wild places. It short, it changed her life.
“It changed the whole perception that I had of everything, personally, professionally, academically,” Costa admits. “The trip helped me see the world and my participation in the world, in a very different way. In a very concrete way and I don’t think I would be sitting here answering these questions if I hadn’t participated. I have never, ever in my entire life “envisioned myself as a minister. I don’t think I’ve ever envisioned myself being part of politics, but there is a writer who once said, ‘You don’t choose politics. Politics chooses you’, and that’s exactly what happened. I see it as an opportunity to bring change from the outside. I am someone that has always applied the policy that’s created by decision-makers. I think it’s an opportunity to bring that applicability into the system and make it much more action-focused – and more than a piece of paper.”
In 2017, Costa was named an emerging explorer at National Geographic, and in 2019, she became the Young Champion of the Earth for Africa in the United Nations Environment Program. Before taking a seat in the government, Costa worked as an ethno-conservationist to pioneer projects that developed working conservation models for communities living alongside crucial wildlife hubs.
“Being a biologist is also a great advantage for this position. I believe that policies should be made to be applied and not archived,” Costa says. Another benefit for her position is that she knows all about being on the ground. “I started my journey in conservation, looking specifically at biodiversity and working directly with the specimens. I started with turtles, and all we did was patrol the beaches and look after the nests – and that was it. There was no engagement. For a long time, I always thought there was a separation between humans and wildlife – and that the separation was needed for us to protect wildlife. Working for the past five years in the East of Angola, I realized that it is the complete opposite. The gap that we’ve created with nature is what causes us to destroy nature in the first place.”
Costa has a masters degree in Biology and a PhD in International Wildlife Conservation Practices from Oxford University. In the wake of Covid-19, we are just beginning to see the harsh effects of tourism loss to wilderness protection.
“Rural communities are the true protectors of the environment around them,” Costa says. “Ethno-conservation is the art, and it is our privilege of being able to work with communities for the sake of nature. Not just for the conservation of biodiversity, but also the improvement of their own lives.”
The drastic decline in visitor numbers in the wilds of Kenya, Zimbabwe and across the African continent highlights the importance of such a conservation model more than ever as decades of conservation successes hunker in jeopardy due to tourism collapse.
“Our main target for tourism in Angola is internal tourism. We have 29 million people that don’t know most of the country,” says Costa. “We have a lot of potential though; whether it’s landscape, culture, adventure or eco-tourism, it’s possible in Angola. We are very much focused on creating the services and infrastructure for internal tourism before we look outside of our borders.
“In terms of tourism, Angola’s biggest asset is definitely diversity,” Costa enthuses. “Not just naturally and not just culturally. The conditions that you find from one place to the other are so unique that you can go, within Angola, to 10 different places that feel like completely different countries. We literally go from a tropical forest, all the way to a desert in one row. Angola has partnered with different collaborators to assure the protection of these spaces. Whatever happens in Iona National Park is completely different from what happens in the Luengue-Luiana National Park (which feeds the Okavango Basin), and that’s completely different from what happens in the Quiçama National Park.”
She also believes that protecting such wild spaces enables wildlife to flourish.
“Nature has this incredible thing that is, to me, one of the most fantastic traits. It is resilient. Even now, with this Covid-19 situation, we have seen how resilient nature is. Wilderness itself can resuscitate, and wilderness can find a future – if we just know how to protect it.”
When asked about inspiration and the future, Costa cites other intrepid conservationists, Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle as strong influences.
“If I have to send a message to young women around the world, what would it be? Do it. That’s something that I always say. Do it. Whatever it is that we set our minds to do. We can most definitely, definitely do it. We can achieve impossible things. I’m a minister today. That says a lot!”