From Canada’s icy north to the sweltry rainforests of Ecuador, Thailand, and Indonesia, local and indigenous peoples are leading the way toward a more economically just tomorrow, a future in which biodiversity, sustainability, and profitability—all too often seen as mutually exclusive— go hand in hand.
Ten groups representing that movement were honored in a late September virtual online presentation of the Equator Prizes, held by the United Nations Development Program. Winners were selected from a pool of almost 600 entries by a panel of experts, and each prize came with a $10,000 grant and access to special events hosted by the UN General Assembly, the UN Nature Summit, and Global Climate Week.
“The winners show us the value of working with nature, for climate action, water security and inclusive prosperity,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner. “They show us the importance of putting nature at the very center of sustainable development. Their stories provide a plan to solve our planetary emergency.”
Here are a few of those stories.
Democratic Republic of the Congo: Supporting bonobo populations by supporting indigenous communities
The Congo River separates common chimpanzees from their cousins, the bonobos, who were only identified as a distinct species in the early part of the 20th century. Noted for their more slender frames, female-centered societies, and often (peaceful) sexual methods of conflict resolution, bonobos have captivated the world even as chaos brought on by political volatility and two bloody wars in and around their Congo Basin homeland has landed them on the endangered species list. Scientists believe there are as few as 29,000 bonobos remaining in the wild.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has designated large tracts of land as national parks, but as in other African nations, this strategy has done little to arrest the slide toward extinction: The creation of national parks often involves displacing indigenous people, and local wildlife tends to suffer as a result. The peoples indigenous to bonobo territory have ancient and fervently-held taboos against hunting or eating bonobos, whereas too many outsiders see them merely as meat. By removing their long standing human neighbors, the government has taken away a key protector of the bonobo.
In stepped Vie Sauvage (Wild Life), trailblazers of a holistic model combining conservation, peacemaking, and community development. Since its establishment in 1999, Vie Sauvage, in collaboration with international partner the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, has cobbled together the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, which is now at 4,875 square kilometers,roughly the size of Trinidad.
Instead of displacing isolated indigenous villages, the program, founded by its president Albert Lotan Lokasola, supports them by providing them with healthcare, microenterprise loans, agricultural co-ops, and educational programs. Not to mention jobs—now that the region is stable, it has become a hotspot for unique bonobo-related ecotourism: In the Kokolopori, bonobos have become habituated to humans and four groups can be observed daily.
According to Sally Jewell Coxe, founder and president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, their efforts and those of Vie Sauvage amount to a decolonizing of conservation. “Indigenous leadership is fundamental to effective and long-lasting solutions,” she said.
"We like to say 'Salisa bonobo mpe bonobo bakosalisa yo' which means, ‘Help bonobos and bonobos will help you,’" Lokasola said. “Bonobos are like the mirror. Not only can you reflect an image of yourself from observing them, but every thought, word or action devoted to their welfare reverses or plays back intensely to reward you with plenty of pride and help. The forests and bonobos and Kokolopori people work together to sink tons of carbon from the developed world, [and that] is a model of mutual exchange for a clean nature and a sustainable planet.”
Kenya: A nature conservancy run by the Masai
Decolonizing conservation is also the driving force behind the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, this year’s winning entry from Kenya.
Sandwiched between several larger conservancies, Nashulai is among the first in East Africa to be both owned and managed by indigenous people—in this case, the pastoral, nomadic Maasai.
“Our mission: ‘conserve wildlife, preserve culture, reverse poverty’ reflects the holistic approach we took,” said Eric “Ric” Young, a Canadian professor who has been adopted into the Maasai as an elder and co-founded Nashulai with Maasai elder Nelson Ole Reiya.
Despite all the safari eco-tourism in the area, little of that money had been trickling down to the Masai. Meanwhile, their grazing lands were becoming more and more depleted thanks to climate change-abetted droughts. Reiya convened the elders and got them to agree to form their own conservancy.
“It meant that the members of the conservancy would agree to certain practices, most significantly to adhere to rotational grazing based on a pattern that was established by our council of elders,” Young said. “The grass cover started to improve in an incredibly short period of time. And that meant a return of so many animals, herbivores, to the land.”
The rejuvenated grasslands have proved a boon both to their herds and wildlife alike, as the roughly 6,000-acre preserve serves as a vital highway for safari favorites. “The corridor which linked Maasai Mara with Serengeti and other conservancies was closing down due to land selling and new business facilities owned by foreigners,” Reiya explained. “The traditional elephant birthing nurseries which also supported resident giraffes, wildebeest and zebras were equally facing a catastrophic ending. Nashulai managed to restore the ecosystem within four years while working hand in hand with the community question.”
“In a few short years we have proven that a holistic approach works, that local people do not have to be displaced in order to protect wildlife and rehabilitate habitat,” Young added. “In fact quite the opposite.”
Mexico: Empowering women with self-sufficient initiatives
Endangered ancestor wisdom lies at the heart of the work of Mujeres y Ambiente (Women and the Environment), Mexico’s Equator Prize winner. Based in La Carbonera, a village in Queretaro state not far from San Miguel de Allende in neighboring Guanajuato, Mujeres y Ambiente is a female-founded, female-led association that is working with academia and the private sector to sustainably grow and sell herbs for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.
“It is knowledge from our ancestors, transferred from our great-grandparents, to our grandparents, to our parents, and to us, and in turn from us to new generations,” said Rosa Balderas Moreno, the association’s president. “If we do not preserve this knowledge, we will not be able to transfer it either.”
The association’s roots lie in the efforts of Doña Eulalia Moreno, 89, mother of Rosa Balderas Moreno and her sister Angeles, who also works in the collective. At first, around the time of the group’s founding in 2010, they won the support of the Autonomous University of Queretaro and received microenterprise loans. In 2014, Provital, the green European cosmetics company, got on board, and two years after that Mujeres y Ambiente incorporated and was made Provital’s official supplier of specialist plants and botanicals.
“When this group started it was 35 women and two men,” Rosa Baldera Moreno said through an interpreter. “But over time it became obvious that this was about women. Why? Because it was really time to empower women toward self-sufficient initiatives and what better way than to bring about production of their own products in their own backyards?”
“Women usually are left in charge of the family,” said Mujeres y Ambiente member Janet Arteaga through an interpreter. “This is another reason this is so important to families here. And these initiatives are also giving political power to women.” (Rosa Moreno has recently become a delegate to the local council.)
And the message Rosa Moreno has sounds strikingly similar to the ones you hear from the Congo rainforest and the Kenyan savannah:
“When we take care of nature, we take care of ourselves. I stand by the fact that the earth is our mother and we have to take care of her. It is imperative that we learn to live with the earth and not from the earth.”