Globetrotter: May East
It is now more than 20 years since May East moved from her native Brazil to the North-East of Scotland.
Swapping the heat of São Paulo for the distinctly cooler eco-village of Findhorn seemed at the time, like being in “exile”.
But to that exile she says she brought “lots of meaning”, raising the groundbreaking work of the community aiming for a more sustainable way of life, to a global stage.
As an official training centre for CIFAL, the Centre International de Formation des Acteur Locaux, Findhorn now sat alongside Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Durban and others as one of the UN’s initiatives for pushing through sustainability measures first put forward at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
More than two decades on, now chief executive of CIFAL Scotland, based in Edinburgh since last year, East recalls: “When I moved to Findhorn after the Earth Summit, I saw an experiment, implementing all the agendas of the UN of the 1990s from the bottom up – without even knowing such agendas existed, they were doing it intuitively.”
Her role, she says, was as “a converter of voltages”, steering a course between the UN, the Scottish Government, the local authority Moray Council and the eco-village to establish the training centre.
Now, speaking on the top floor of the recently refurbished ‘UN House’, a collection of eight organisations based in Scotland carrying out the global organisations’ work, it is clear this ‘voltage converter’ role is something that has carried through her career.
The week before she speaks to Holyrood, East was in Mallorca to talk about how the financially-hit country can be more resilient, then at a conference at the UN headquarters in Geneva.
But two days after this interview would see a complete change of scenery as she travelled to the Boca do Acre in the heart of the Amazon to work with a community of rubber tappers.
It is this ability to move between different sets of society that have been central to her work – and originate from very dramatic beginnings.
“I am a great-great-granddaughter of Guarani people, who are the traditional people in Brazil,” she says.
“My great-great-grandmother, she was lassoed by my great-great-grandfather who was Portuguese, so inside of me, I have both the European blood, but also the native blood.
“I have the oppressor and the oppressed, the captive and the captor and I realised very early in my journey that I could play both of the roles, but I never wanted to play.” She adds: “When you look at an ecosystem, for instance, the tropical forests and the savannah, when two ecosystems meet there’s always a buffer zone.
“This buffer zone is very rich because you have the creatures of the forest, the creatures of the savannah and you have the creatures that are very specific of that buffer zone.
“If you were to design a pond, if I were to draw a circle, that’s only one edge, but if you maximise the edges, you create micro-climates and more insects, more creatures.
“You maximise edges, you maximise life.” It is this theory that she sees bridging the gap between the grassroots and official worlds, and she says she tries not to be identified exclusively as either: “If you identify to one you are in a kind of prison. I work from the bottom up and the top down.”
As a musician and activist in Brazil, East was asked to organise the official contribution of the artists of the world to the original Earth Summit – which saw for the first time world leaders attempting to solve major ecological problems caused by more than a century of rapid industrialisation, or as she says, “the basic relationship between humanity and the planet.”
That contribution, which saw them take over Sugar Loaf Mountain, was her first involvement with the UN, for UNESCO – and she says the involvement has carried on ever since. It saw her awarded ‘special fellow’ by UNITAR – the UN Institute for Training and Research last year for her work.
“I have been a social change person since my teens,” she says. “Half my journey as a social change activist was to wake up in the morning and use my energy to redesign aspects of society that were dysfunctional.
“First I was anti-military, then I was antinuclear and then I was a political feminist – that was in Brazil, at that stage anti-man.
“It was always anti-something – why are we importing an outdated technology from Germany to have nuclear plants in Brazil? Why do the military say we can’t read Karl Marx and Mao Zedong?”
However, a move to Brazil’s north in the late 1980s as an attaché to an organised alliance of forest people – indigenous tribes and rubber tappers – saw a change of attitude.
“I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘what do I want to create. I’m not going to put time into deconstructing. The last 20 years has been like that, focusing on what is emerging.”
It is the classic glass half-full attitude and while East says that you cannot just be “light optimists” of the outcomes of Rio and its follow up, Rio +20, held last year, the potential from those summits, such as the setting of sustainable development goals are a good legacy.
Her native Brazil became the international symbol for the struggle to preserve the environment. Images of the destruction of parts of its rainforests were broadcast around the world culminating in events like the Altamira gathering.
When she acted as an ambassador to the Forest People’s Embassy, again, there were more examples of her ability to be a “voltage converter”.
“There was an emergence of awareness of the forest and the forest people. I was working with the traditional people, because they are somehow my relatives as well. “They said: ‘May, you don’t work with us, you walk with us’.”
She found herself journeying back and forth, across Brazil, to London and elsewhere, raising funds and garnering support, waking up to five metres of fax paper of questions and details for the forest people.
She explains: “I would go to the embassy, all the indigenous people sitting under the trees and telling stories. I would ask the first question, they would start answering them and then they would start telling a story and the story goes on until 10pm.
“Then I have to come back and decode what they were talking about into something that was understandable to the Western world.” Nowadays Brazil is a booming, emerging economy, with many of its citizens being lifted out of poverty. East says that unlike other nations which have built their wealth on exploiting the natural resources of other continents, like Africa, Brazil has both the human potential and its own resources.
But she says the way that its resources are managed is still “dysfunctional”.
In her hometown, São Paulo, poverty may be decreasing, but she says: “We have 800 new cars a day in the streets and right now, we have seven million cars in São Paulo.
“I think we have more cars than inhabitants in Scotland and the projection, if this continues like it is, maybe in four to five years’ time, it’s going to be one big traffic jam.” But despite this, she says there are still “incredible pockets of resilience” – such as those on her trip to the Amazon.
“They have a minimal ecological footprint and the work we do is just by reflecting it. Saying, we need to learn with you.” She has also been involved with the Transition Towns movement, which is helping cities in Brazil expand with less of an impact on the environment.
São Paulo has about 165,000 people living in its slums, but rather than improvements cutting into the surrounding green belt, designs being dreamed up for 10 years’ time are helping the opposite happen – by turning all the roofs into greenery and planting native trees, the forest is being allowed to ‘invade’ the city.
The move to Scotland only months after the Earth Summit was sparked by family reasons and she decided to not just move here, but start a family in Scotland too. East considers herself to be a “world worker” but she says Scotland is always her base.
“My love grew for the place. I love the Highlands, the Cairngorms. When the doors were open I thought, why not stay here?” She praises a lot of what is being achieved within these shores to further the sustainability agenda.
“What amazes me here is that I can take the number 22 bus in Edinburgh back home and as I get on the bus, I can meet the environment minister and we say hello.
“There’s no country where it’s so close, it is a permeable membrane between the sustainability practitioners and the politicians.”
In particular, she highlights the Climate Challenge Fund, helping communities adapt to climate change and reduce their carbon footprints; the Climate Justice Fund, aiding communities worldwide suffering severe flooding or drought as a result of the industrialisation of Western nations like Scotland; and Hydro Nation – Scotland’s attempts to take full economic and ecological advantage of its water.
She has joined the country’s Hydro Nation forum and says Scotland has a lot to teach other nations by its development and care for water quality.
“We have pure waters here and this is unique. You go to rivers here and you cry at the beauty of them,” she says “You can go elsewhere in the world and you cry for the pain of the rivers.”