They came to New York from the corners of the earth; Micronesia, Peru, Brazil, Tanzania, Australia, Pakistan, Benin, Nigeria.
They came dressed for the occasion; in elaborately beaded, intricately embroidered national costumes woven with flowers and feathers. They wore face makeup, dainty hats and headpieces, and finely-detailed jewellery.
Even busy New Yorkers, usually phased by nothing, stopped, stared, and took pictures.
The visitors came to be honoured by UNDP’s Equator Initiative for their outstanding work in protecting their ancestral lands from the effects of climate change, exploitation, and overdevelopment.
Their award-winning Equator Prize projects are diverse, ingenious, and perfectly adapted to the challenges their communities face.
They are born of necessity. Indigenous communities, while they do the least to contribute to climate change, are on the front lines of its effects.
They are born of love. Each project is dedicated to protecting traditional ways of life and restoring ancient culture and wisdom.
Vitus Foneg, who is from Yap in Micronesia, said his community could see that their water supply was deteriorating. Lacking scientific training, they went to their elders to ask what to do.
The answer was blunt.
“They told us that it’s really bad. Everything is thoroughly bad. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, and it’s not the way it used to be,” he said.
Thus began an ambitious project by the Tamil Resources Conservation Trust to provide clean water, build plant nurseries, and establish a marine conservation area. Supported by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme, the project was designed to restore livelihoods and protect the community’s natural resources.
Glarinda Andre and Serge Warakar formed Ser-Thiac in Vanuatu from a similar sense of urgency. Vanuatu is the nation most vulnerable to climate change.
“We were looking at ways to eliminate poverty and provide an opportunity for women children and men to have access to water, and children have an opportunity for education,” Glarinda says.
Their solution — the first accredited forest carbon sequestering project in the Pacific Islands — and one that shares its profits with the whole community, met economic and culture needs.
“We really care about our forest because our culture and our tradition is more connected with biodiversity and the resources we’re looking after,” Serge says.
In Nigeria, Alade Adeleke of the Environmental Management and Development Trust, was fed up with the amount of plastic and nylon used to package food. He said shoppers didn’t like either, but there seemed no alternative because of the scarcity of the so-called ‘miracle fruit’ whose leaves are traditionally traded by women, and used to package food.
“We noticed that communities in urban areas are already using nylon and plastics to pack local food and it’s beginning to have an impact on environmental health and on peoples’ livelihoods,” he said.
The project, which has been support by the GEF Small Grants Programme since 2017, has reduced plastic pollution, helped women improve their incomes and, because the leaf needs forest canopy to grow, prompted the community to invest in reforestation.
The Equator Prize
The award ceremony, held at New York’s Town Hall theatre, was attended by UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, and Goodwill Ambassador Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Twenty-two winners were chosen from 1,000 nominees in 127 countries.
“These are 22 reasons to be hopeful,” Mr Steiner said. “We want people to got out of here and not feel that it’s hopeless; on the contrary.”
Mr Coster-Waldau, who recently went to the Peruvian rainforest with UNDP to investigate the reasons behind the recent Amazon fires said; “What I’ve found at the core of this was inequality on a global scale.”
Fighting this trend in the isolated Ene Basic of the Peruvian Amazon is Kemoto Ene, which is helping the indigenous Asháninka people to sustainably produce and export organic cacao to Australia and Europe.
“This initiative is a good thing for us,” says Angel Pedro Valerio. “Not only for the Asháninka people. But it is important to see how indigenous communities are developing an economy that is friendly to the forest. [We] ask the whole world to take our approach, so that we have a future for future generations.”
The Asháninka are one of seven prizewinners in the Latin American region, which has the largest inequality levels in the world, and yet in which indigenous communities are fighting hard for their rights, while protecting hundreds of thousands of hectares of land.
“Work with us to create a culture that puts nature above material wealth,” said Sevidzem Ernestine Leikeki from the Cameroon Gender and Environment Watch, in her acceptance speech on behalf of all the winners.
Her organization has planted 75,000 African cherry trees, trained beekeepers and given business loans and training to women farmers.
“We will not wait for a miracle. We encourage you to look at nature the way we do: Land as mother, forest as father, water as blood,” she said.
Prizewinners receive US$10,000, but the prize represents much more than money. It gives the winners recognition on the world stage. It provides role models for other communities to follow, both internationally and at home.
“The Equator Prize is a new thing for us, and our family was so excited because we have been recognized by the UN for the work we are doing. In the future the community will be more committed to the work to conserve our resources,” Serge says.
In Micronesia, Vitus has been working for three long years to convince fishermen of the benefits of a conservation area. But now they are seeing the benefits.
“They used to go out for five hours and come back with 10 or 15 fish, and now they can go out in one hour and come back with 30 fish, and they’re bigger,” he says.
The Equator Prize is further recognition that his persistence is paying off — and that his elders were right when they told him that everybody must do what they can to fight climate change.
“Our think our community’s doing great. It’s been hard to convince everybody, but a lot of people are coming on board now, and they’re helping out a lot. Voluntarily!”
The Equator Prize has been supported by former Heads of State Gro Harlem Brundtland and Oscar Arias, Nobel Prize winners Al Gore and Elinor Ostrom, thought leaders Jane Goodall and Jeffrey Sachs, indigenous rights leader Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, philanthropists Richard Branson and Ted Turner, and celebrities Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Gisele Bündchen, and many more. Partners of the Equator Initiative include the governments of Germany, Norway, and Sweden, as well as Conservation International, the Convention on Biological Diversity, EcoAgriculture Partners, Fordham University, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, PCI Media Impact, Rainforest Foundation Norway, Rare, UN Environment, UNDP, UN Foundation, USAID, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. For more information, please click here.