Ivone Namikawa: Reflecting on a Long Career in Forestry as she Steps Down as Steering Committee Co-Lead

23 March 2023

By Alex Weyerhaeuser, Yale School of the Environment, M.E.M ’23 and TFD Communications Associate

When I met Ivone Namikawa in January and she told me she was retiring as The Forests Dialogue (TFD) Steering Committee Co-Lead in 2023, I already knew she would be irreplaceable. Her impressive resume as a forester for over 40 years and nine with TFD speaks to her experience in this field, but her words and heart reveal her wisdom; she speaks softly and slowly with knowledge, sagacity, warmth, kindness, and humor.

Ivone’s career began with a BSc in Forestry from Sao Paulo University, followed by an MSc in Forestry from the Federal University of Paraná, and then moved immediately to working in Forest Sustainability at Klabin in Brazil where she continues to play a leading role in the company’s local, regional and global engagement. She populates global councils, boards, and organizations in the forestry sector, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Brazilian Tree Industry (IBA), and the Brazilian Forests Dialogue. She joined TFD’s Steering Committee in 2014 and started as Co-Lead in 2018, channeling her extensive experience in environmental and forest management, specifically in social and environmental issues and forest certification, into numerous dialogues throughout the past decade. “A co-lead is expected to be informed and help conduct the operations and main political directions of TFD,” she explained—a role that requires knowledge and expertise of the forest sector as much as it requires patience, diplomacy, communication, and perspective. Despite her illustrious career, Ivone exudes humility: “When I started,” she recalls, “I didn’t even know what forestry was!”

She was tangentially drawn to forestry because her heart was rooted in agriculture from a childhood spent working in her parent’s fields. Looking for work in agriculture, Ivone’s parents immigrated from Japan to Brazil right after the second World War. They started growing produce, but when Ivone was seven, they transitioned to roses. She and her brothers worked with her parents in the fields, packaging the roses and preparing them for market, and while she sometimes wished she had time to play like her peers, she loved the hands-on work. Ivone worked diligently in the classroom, but was also learning in the fields about agricultural production and how to use the land. She chose to study forestry because of her agricultural background and connection to the land, but learned to start thinking on a much larger timescale: most agricultural crops take months to grow and harvest, whereas a tree takes at least seven years to be ready for the mill in Brazil.

In the 1980s, it was impossible to get a job on the ground harvesting or planting trees as a woman, so she strategically chose classes in research areas like genetics, tree improvement, and tree breeding to set herself up for a viable job. Nevertheless, she flourished in this inhospitable environment, and rose up the ranks of forestry, a field that is still less than 20% women today. “My strategy at the time was that I needed to be better than the men,” she said. “I needed to be tough.” With 15 years of experience in tree breeding, 10 years managing research coordination, and 13 years developing sustainability strategy at the same company, Ivone obviously proved herself.

Ivone’s favorite part of her long career in forestry was during her first 15 years as a tree breeder when she passed her days in the field establishing test sites, selecting trees, measuring and evaluating trees to gather data, and grafting them in their orchard to produce seeds. Ivone’s heart was most at ease out in nature. “I worked with trees, and trees don’t complain. It was so nice!” she laughed. “I could choose the ones I wanted and say ‘oh you are not a good one, and this one is a good one,’ and no complaints!” When she started managing people and having researchers work with her, however, she had to think about interpersonal relationships and learn how to dialogue, which was not yet a skill she possessed. “This was one of the most fun parts of my career,” she reflected, “when I needed to change all this knowledge I had in the past and start trying to establish relationships and networks.” In the last two decades, Ivone has metamorphosed into an empathetic, communicative leader. No longer playing tough or preferring the company of trees to that of people, she forms relationships and earns respect easily through her genuine kindness and warmth. In her nine years with TFD, the relationships she has built have been some of the most rewarding parts of her professional life.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, added an extreme unforeseen challenge to her tenure as TFD Co-Lead. The Steering Committee could not meet in person or go out into the forest for in-person dialogue. “It was really difficult,” she explained, “because that is the real value of our dialogues.” Despite these challenges, she swiftly helped the organization to adapt and TFD “developed the ability to work together in an online environment and still maintain the passion for this purpose.” She points to TFD’s 20th Anniversary as a notable achievement during this time when, even in the middle of the pandemic, they managed to launch three publications and gathered online to celebrate with the entire TFD community.

Reflecting on her long career in forestry and her time with TFD, Ivone graciously gives thanks to the communities she has been a part of for inviting her dialogue skills and deep respect for others’ opinions. She loves her new focus on building bridges between stakeholders in the forestry sector to bring different perspectives to forestry and land-use controversies. She travels internationally for conferences monthly and gets tired only when she stops, because she likes connecting with people in forestry around the world. She has learned more about forestry from the people she works with than she ever thought possible in her days communing with the trees.

Though Ivone will be retiring this year, she stays active in the field. Her inner fire is fueled by talking to students and she finds hope in the next generation. One of the things that drew her to forestry over 40 years ago was the patience required to see a tree’s growth through from seed to mill, and Ivone’s career itself mirrors the patience, growth, commitment, elegance, and humility of the trees to which she has dedicated her life.