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Activism for Animal Welfare: A Journey of Dreams, Challenges and Overcoming

On a summer day in 2006, Carolina entered a huge dark shed in the Portugal countryside. It was surrounded by beautiful rural landscapes, but inside was a shocking reality. The shed was an oppressive place; it was hot and humid, smelt awful, and was dominated by a frightening sound: on all sides, thousands of chickens made constant sounds of despair.

The hens were packed in tiny cages. There was no freedom of movement. Many had lost most of their feathers due to the constant contact with the metal bars and poor feeding. They were there to produce eggs on an industrial scale, trapped in an environment that caused a lot of suffering and a high mortality rate.

She felt very frustrated that she couldn't set them free. It was distressing to see them trying to move, but with no room to do so. But her experience in this horrifying place was not in vain: that day in Portugal changed her life.

The dream to make this world a better place

Carolina grew up in a small city in the countryside of the Brazilian state of São Paulo where, on the surface at least, people lived in peace: there was little poverty and violence. A good part of the population had a good quality of life, contrary to big cities in Brazil, where there is a lot of misery, violence, and social conflict. There was no reason for her to be worried about social issues growing up.

However, her vision of the world began to change when, at the age of nine, she was given a newspaper by a school teacher. For homework, she had to read the news and write an essay about something she read.

In the newspaper, there was a picture of a boy sleeping inside a cardboard box in a big Brazilian city. He had no parents, no home, and no food. He sniffed glue to satisfy his hunger and begged on the streets.

She was outraged. “How is it possible that no one does anything to help this child?”, She asked herself. That day, at just nine years old, she chose her future: She wanted to be a journalist and work to make this world a better place for all. But things didn’t work out that way, at least not at first. Years later, when the time came to apply for a place at university, she was accepted into the economics course at Unicamp, one of the most prestigious university institutions in Brazil.

At the beginning of college, she felt out of place. But she soon adapted: Unicamp's economics course was (and still is) focused on economic concepts that seek to reduce Brazil's huge social inequalities.

Society’s development, income distribution, and the fight against poverty were themes that dominated the classes. All of this spoke a lot to the ideals of social justice that she has been nurturing since she was a child. Right after she graduated as an economist, she did her first job with NGOs. She felt fulfilled. But journalism was still a calling for her.

So in 2005 she moved to London and started dreaming of doing a master's degree in journalism at City University there. The path was not easy: She had to work very hard to save the money needed to pay for her master's degree. She worked as a cleaner and in a pub, even doing 14-hour shifts. (Unfortunately, she had no talent for serving beer and would sometimes spill the drinks on customers…)

But the effort was worth it: She completed the master's degree and finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a journalist.

Changing the world with investigative journalism

But how did she get from a master’s degree in London to that farm in Portugal that would change her life? After getting her degree, she learned that an investigative journalism agency in London was looking for a person fluent in Portuguese to help them with a very important mission.

In mid-2006, they would enter factory farms and slaughterhouses in Portugal to expose terrible practices against the animals in these places—and they needed a person who spoke Portuguese to help them.

She volunteered to work on this project, not really knowing what the experience would be like. At the time, she was mainly interested in social issues. She didn’t know anything about industrial animal agriculture. Like many people in countries of the Global South, she imagined that animals were raised outdoors in beautiful green fields. She didn’t know the concept of factory farming.

That’s why she had such a shock when, with the English investigative journalism team, she entered that hideous Portuguese industrial egg production farm, with chickens suffering in cramped, unhealthy conditions.

In Portugal, we also visited other types of farms, with cattle, pigs, and rabbits. She remembers seeing female pigs confined in tiny cages with no room to move. They screamed and ate their piglets from the stress. In a piglet slaughterhouse we visited, the animals were all crammed in, and were grabbed by force and placed on hooks before slaughter.

It was immensely hard to witness the horrors of large-scale animal production. As a journalist, She realized that she didn’t want to work for big media outlets doing generic reporting. Her will, from that moment on, was to produce content to defend animal welfare and social justice issues.

Based in London, she worked as an investigative journalist over the next years in over 30 countries, producing reports for TV channels and leading NGOs. She was very happy to see that some of her assignments drew the attention of the world: they have been covered by outlets including the BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, Channel 4, and Le Monde.

She went into several slaughterhouses in Belgium, where she secretly filmed cows, sheep, and goats being slaughtered while fully conscious (and often right in front of each other). She remember a cow looking deeply at her as she waited to be killed. It pained her greatly to be forced to watch her slowly die.

She also helped denounce the cruel market of seal pelts in Greece, the illegal hunting of pink dolphins in the Brazilian Amazon, and the commercial sale of whale meat in Greenland.

It always caused her a lot of pain to not be able to stop animal suffering while it was happening in front of her eyes. But she channeled all her revolt into producing materials that could change the situation in the medium and long term. And the positive results arrived.

When the media published her reports on farms in Belgium, for example, Belgian politicians held a national debate to determine whether animals should be slaughtered in the country using stunning methods, to reduce the animals' suffering. In 2017, as a result of these discussions, the regions of Flanders and Wallonia banned slaughter without stunning, a ban still in effect today.

Furthermore, she is very happy to say that her work helped to contributed to the ban on fishing and selling piracatinga fish in Brazil. The piracatinga is a fish that, in the Amazon, is usually caught with the meat of pink river dolphins, which are in danger of extinction. At the time of her investigations, approximately 4,000 river dolphins were killed annually in the Brazilian Amazon for piracatinga fishing. And her work helped lower those numbers.

Large-scale animal production is not just about animal cruelty. It also involves deforestation, destruction of the oceans, and extremely negative impacts on Indigenous communities around the world. For this reason, her work as an investigative journalist has often been focused on environmental issues.

She investigated, for example, the deforestation caused in Australia by the Chinese timber market. She also denounced the deforestation generated in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina by the production of soy destined for animal feed. And she showed how this destruction of South American forests is also decimating the hunting grounds of Indigenous communities in the country, subjecting them to conflict and food insecurity.

Healing from the trauma with meditation

She had never stopped to think about the impacts this type of work had had on her. But in 2013, when she left England and returned to live in Brazil, she faced an existential crisis.

She was exhausted after documenting so much suffering and destruction around the world. She had episodes of depression and anxiety. Her mind was clearly dominated by pessimism and a lack of hope. She thought about giving up working with animal welfare, environmental degradation, and social activism, simply because it’s so hard to stop all the damage we do to the world.

Two years later, however, in the midst of so many uncertainties, she started attending long silent meditation retreats in Brazil, which helped her to return to her center. In silence, she shed all the tears she couldn’t shed as she witnessed extremely distressing things during her investigative assignments. She apologized to all the animals she couldn’t help, for all the environmental destruction she couldn’t stop, and, in a way, she thinks she managed to tell them that she had done her best.

She felt proud that she had the courage to work in hostile countries and environments and infiltrate and expose places that hide society’s ugly secrets. She has found joy again in all the small changes she has helped bring about and saw that big changes are built little by little by individuals who never get tired of trying. She found hope again and she grew optimistic.

She recovered the necessary peace to realize that animal welfare, environmental and social activism is the purpose of her life and she should not give up.

A new entity is born, and it is led by hope

In 2017, she founded Sinergia Animal, an organization that has an unprecedented mission: to defend animal rights in the Global South: territories where animal rights are very neglected. The Global South, moreover, is of utmost importance in the global fight against factory farming: together, Asia and Latin America are now home to more than two thirds of the world’s farmed animals. And it’s where three quarters of the planet’s fish and shellfish are farmed or caught in the wild. Furthermore, meat production has more than quadrupled since 1980 in these areas, after a trend of economic growth spurred agricultural development.

Sinergia Animal started working in four countries in South America: Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina, where it has collaborators actively working for animal rights. We also recruited teams in Asia, in Indonesia and Thailand. These are all places where, previously, there has been little action by other institutions that fight for the rights of animals farmed for food.

One of our organization’s main goals is to convince large food corporations to phase out the practices that cause most suffering to animals in their supply chains. And we have big achievements to celebrate. Since 2017, we’ve helped secure more than 90 commitments from major food companies operating in the Global South to source only cage-free eggs and ban the rearing of pigs confined in small crates. Among these companies are Nestlé, Burger King, Carrefour, and other large supermarket chains.

Every year, we spread the advantages of a plant-based diet to thousands of people, schools, universities, and city councils, sharing the benefits for human health, the environment, and for the animals—and removing animal products from millions of meals.

Altogether, our work positively affects the lives of more than 3 million animals exploited by the food industry each year.

In addition, our work has led the NGO Animal Charity Evaluators to name Sinergia Animal as one of the most effective animal protection organizations in the world over the past five years, which has helped us gain international recognition and raise funds to continue our mission.

She believes Sinergia Animal’s success comes from the faith we have in our cause and our willingness to take the necessary risks. We are an NGO that is not driven by fear, but by hope.

Leading with humbleness and collaboration. By founding Sinergia Animal, she resurrected her passion for defending the animal cause and, at the same time, she had to learn to work as a leader.

It’s amazing to think how much she has grown as a person and a leader over the past six years.

For much of her life as an investigative journalist, she worked alone or in partnership with a few professionals. Today, we have over 50 collaborators at Sinergia Animal, spread across nine different countries.

Many people ask her what it's like to become the leader and effectively work with team members to bring about significant change. Her answer is always the same: leadership can be learned. Leaders have to be mature enough to be humble, to admit that they make mistakes, and to reflect upon negative feedback. Good leaders, in her opinion, acknowledge that they are not born ready and need to develop and be trained.

Also, without a doubt, good leaders are driven by ambition, passion, and big dreams. If you dream to be a leader, the most important thing is that you choose a cause that touches your heart, that you want to give your best to, and that makes you fulfilled. By being in this tune, you will attract more people to your project, and maintain the energy and resilience needed to stick with it.

Both her personal journey, marked by difficult times, and her experience as a leader at Sinergia Animal, have taught her that practicing self-care is crucial to staying optimistic. When we want to conquer the impossible, we have to believe that it is possible, and we need to stay healthy and balanced.

Sinergia Animal is a highly collaborative organization. We work for a cause. We do not seek to generate profits, but rather positive impacts in the world. The word “collaboration” is even implicit in our name: we are Sinergia (synergy) because we are willing to work together with other entities that defend animals and environmental and social causes.

We do not compete with other NGOs. We collaborate with them. Equally important, our team members are reminded often that they should collaborate deeply with each other. Animal exploitation on an industrial scale is rapidly increasing in the Global South, in countries where governments, food companies, farms, and societies are little concerned with creating conditions to give dignity to animals and protect the environment.

Our mission is to change this reality. And we will change it, with optimism, collaboration, and effective action.

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