"I love the international environment"

Bioeconomy_Martinelli Portrait

Doctoral student Fernanda Martinelli from Brazil is investigating how ecology and protection of the environment could be given greater consideration in political decision-making processes. Discover in our portrait why Germany is a good place for this kind of research.

A state funding programme for biofuels came into force in Brazil in September 2017. It aims to cut carbon emissions in this sector by around 10 percent. The project could be seen as a positive example of bioeconomic management. "And indeed it is, within the framework of the Paris Climate Agreement", says Fernanda Martinelli. Nonetheless, it is still unclear how sustainable such programmes really are if their social and ecological effects are viewed from a more holistic perspective, she adds. Martinelli believes that particularly farmers in the Amazon region could suffer from biofuels production if this led to established value chains being destroyed.

Research focused on sustainability

This is exactly what the Brazilian-born doctoral student is investigating at the University of Bonn‘s Center for Development Research (ZEF). Martinelli is being supported by a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), enabling her to conduct research at the Bonn International Graduate School for Development Research (BIGS-DR) based at the ZEF.  The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations in 2015 serve as an important basis for her research. The objective of this "Agenda 2030" is to allow people to live a decent life while at the same time preserving the natural resources we rely on.

Fernanda Martinelli has been engaging with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for a long time. "Even as a child I was very interested in ecology and environmental protection, so I first decided to study biology", she explains. The fact that her home country has never had a particularly good track record in these areas finally prompted her to address political issues. "I simply wanted to understand where the problem is. And what can be changed."

Bioeconomy in Brazil

Martinelli did a master's degree in sustainable development at the Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro, which was the first time she was really introduced to the subject of bioeconomy in depth. For her master's thesis, she researched how palm oil is produced in the Amazon region to make biofuel. After graduating, she studied this topic in more detail while working for the non-governmental organisation Conservation International. During a project she participated in, she worked on ways to help local businesses and communities produce this raw material in a sustainable fashion. "Many companies were very open to suggestions because they were keen to free palm oil of the bad image it had acquired due to the production methods in Thailand and Indonesia", explains Martinelli.

However, her work in the Amazon also made it clear to her once again that bioeconomy is so much more than just a way of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. "The rain forest itself is a huge resource for natural materials; if they are used in specially designed value chains, they could help us make progress on a whole series of Sustainable Development Goals", Martinelli believes. Experts estimate that a bioeconomy could contribute directly or indirectly to at least half of all 17 SDGs.

Ideal conditions in Germany


When asked about her plans for the future, Fernanda Martinelli sees herself as mediating between science and praxis. This is exactly what she loves about working for the non-profit sector, and she would very much like to return to this area after completing her PhD. Ideally, she would like to remain based in Germany but working closely with people in her homeland. "I love the international environment that I have here in Bonn, not only at the ZEF, but also because the UN is based here in the city", says Martinelli. "From this kind of position, I could well imagine providing political advice to projects in Brazil."

However, she was a little surprised to discover how far Germany – famous as a country of inventors and do-it-yourself enthusiasts – is lagging behind other countries in the area of digitisation. As she explains, other countries have long been using apps and other digital tools in the public sector to promote sustainable activities. "In this respect Germany is amazingly slow to develop."

All the same, she does not regret her decision to come to Germany for her research: Martinelli can think of many reasons when asked why she wants to live and work in Germany: for example the pioneering role the country now plays even worldwide in the area of sustainable energy forms and their political implementation. She also appreciates the fact that Germany has consistently managed to incorporate ecological aspects into daily life. "I can separate my rubbish here if I want to, I can buy fair-trade clothes and eat organic foods – things that can by no means be taken for granted in Brazil and many other countries as yet."

Author: Klaus Lüber