Image via Equator Initiative Facebook

Indigenous and Local Activists Fighting Climate Change Honored at UN Event

185 environmental activists were killed across 16 countries last year, and leaders like those honored at the Equator Prize are on the front lines to save the Earth.

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Sep 19 2017, 5:45pm

Image via Equator Initiative Facebook

Across the tropics, from conflict zones in drought-prone regions in Mali, to endangered forests across Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras, locals and indigenous groups have been been building bridges, fighting deforestation, sustaining livelihoods and saving species.

In New York, on September 17, at a special award ceremony, 15 of these initiatives were, in recognition for their work in advancing local nature-based solutions for sustainable development, awarded the UN Equator Prize. Organized by the Equator Initiative within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Prize honors outstanding indigenous and local community initiatives from 12 countries that are demonstrating and exemplifying sustainable development.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that we would have reached this far to be recognized for all the voluntary work we do to protect our environment, to conserve habitats as corridors for wildlife to roam freely," Jessie Young, the founder and president of the Community Baboon Sanctuary Women's Conservation Group (CBSWG) told VICE Impact. Led by women from seven communities in the northern coastal plain of Belize, CBSWC supports the conservation of black howler monkeys and baboons in the 6,000-hectare Community Baboon Sanctuary.

Combatting poverty to protect bio-diversity

"The future of our communities is contingent on how well we continue to protect our wildlife, environment and how well we put the local people at the centre of conservation. To do this we need to find innovative ways to provide sustainable alternative livelihoods options for our people. Wildlife will always lose in the face of poverty. When we improve people's livelihoods we improve their ability to conservation," Young explained.

It's not possible to lift people out of poverty if the natural resources and environment these people rely on isn't protected, Young and other UN Equator Prize winners told VICE Impact, and similarly it's not possible to protect the environment, without addressing the needs of people in poverty that depend on these natural resources. And so, as the interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have recognised and prioritized, since 2016 environmental and developmental issues cannot be separated.


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To end poverty and protect the environment CBSWCG has, since 1998, brought together 240 landowners, each of whom voluntarily participates in conservation efforts through a pledge system.

In exchange, the project launched a micro-credit fund, which in turn generated projects in sustainable oil harvesting, tilapia farming, organic agriculture, and livestock rearing. And as farmers' income grew, wildlife flourished. Baboon population increased from 800 in 1985 to 6,000 in 2011, and vulnerable populations of jaguar, ocelot, margay, puma and over 200 species of birds have recovered.

And it's not only Young that sees conservation and poverty as two sides of the same coin, it's a recurring conviction for all UN Equator Prize winners.

Across the globe in the mountains of Gilgit Baltistan in northern Pakistan, Ghulam Mohammad, the president Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization (BWCDO), which is the first ever organisation to win in Pakistan, echoes Young's sentiment.

"It feels wonderful to be recognised at an international stage. Our initiative addresses a blind spot in international conservation thinking, namely, the cost the farmers have to bear because of conservation related activities. It offers a win-win solution where both farmers and wildlife can live together," Mohammad told VICE Impact.

In Gilgit Baltistan, where local farmers make an average annual income per capita of $300, attacks by snow leopards (a snow leopard can kill up to 20 or 30 goats at a time) were threatening the livelihood of farmers already living in extreme poverty. Farmers would end up with little other choice than to kill the animals, further threatening snow leopard. But BWCDO found a solution to this dilemma by providing economic incentives to local farmers in 17 villages through insurance schemes and financial compensation against livestock losses following snow leopard attacks, protecting both snow-leopards and farmers.

Alongside recently launched educational programs designed to raise awareness and encourage young people, including girls, to participate in conservation and development initiatives, the group has also assisted farmers in making 50 predator-proof corrals (constructions of stone and wood which create a protection around the goats) and provided them training on improved herding techniques and livestock vaccination.

Using private finance to leverage success

In Gazi Bay, Southern Kenya, Mikoko Pamoja (Mangroves Together), was recognised by the UN Equator Prize for its pioneering approach to mangroves restoration. Founded in 2013, Mikoko Pamoja became the first community-based project of this kind in the world to successfully trade mangrove carbon credits. Today, they trade 3,000 tons CO2-equivalent per year in the voluntary carbon market. A successful approach to conservation that highlights the potential of the private sector to finance and support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"We are working in line with the SDGs and, have already met some of them in only five years: quality education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), reduced inequality (SDG 10), climate action (SDG 13) and life under water (SDG 14)," Josphat Mwamba Mtwana, president of Mikoko Pamela told VICE Impact. How? The profits made from selling the carbon credits were, Mtwana explained, reinvested into the 3,500 community members to help improve access to water and education, all while ensuring that 117 hectares of mangrove forests remain protected.

Equator Prize winners for 2017. (Photo via Equator initiative Facebook)

Collaborating to address global issues

And they are not the only ones in Kenya setting an example when it comes to meeting a number of the SDGs.

"Since our humble beginnings, the community has pulled together to create a project that has improved livelihoods whilst also restoring the marine environment upon which our future depends," Gordon Hewitt from the Kuruwitu Conservation & Welfare Association, the first locally managed marine area in Kenya, told VICE Impact. Alarmed elders in the community worried at the sight of just how much the sea was deteriorating, took an unprecedented step in 2005 and set aside a 30 hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA), the first coral based Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) in Kenya.

"By not fishing in this area, it has become a breeding ground increasing fish catch size and quantity outside of the MPA. The area has also become a destination for eco-tourism, where visitors come and snorkel or take a trip on our glass bottomed boat to see the reef first hand," he explained, making clear that 12 years on, the area has made a remarkable recovery.

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And while the Kuruwitu Conservation & Welfare Association are usually the ones hosting communities from around East Africa to share and inspire others to take action to protect their seas, they were, alongside all 15 winners in NY on Sunday, hosted by the UN Equator Prize. Bringing together the United Nations, governments, civil society, businesses and grassroots organisations under one roof in a series of events and workshops, the Initiatives's goal is to not only recognise these communities' achievement but support (every winner receives $10,000) and advance local sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

But like all other UN Equator Prize winners, Kuruwitu Conservation & Welfare Association's work is becoming more relevant every day. "Globally, our oceans are in decline and this is something that has been felt very strongly in Kuruwitu. We live in an area that is changing rapidly. Coastal development and population growth has increased the number of fishermen in our area, making it harder to make a living. Climate change has also had an impact, putting coral reefs at risk through bleaching, rising sea levels and increasingly unpredictable weather in the area," Hewitt explained.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to support the UN Equator Prize winners.

You can support the Kuruwitu Conservation & Welfare Association in eastern Kenya by going go on their expeditions , organized with Oceans Alive , to learn about their approach to community led marine conservation. You can also donate or support the Snow Leopard Conservancy , a California based non-profit that funds the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization in Pakistan. And you can also consider donating to the UN Equator Prize crowdfunding campaign to help the winners tell their stories to a global audience.