A prime minister, a scientist, indigenous women and an entrepreneur bagged the 2021 Champions of the Earth, the United Nations’ highest environmental award, for their transformative impact on the environment.
Announcing the awards, the UNEP said that these “Champions of the Earth inspire, defend, mobilise and act to tackle the greatest environmental challenges of our time, including ecosystem protection and restoration.” The UNEP gave the awards this year in four categories of Inspiration and Action, Policy Leadership, Entrepreneurial Vision, and Science and Innovation.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados got the honours in the Policy Leadership category for her powerful voice for a sustainable world, consistently raising the alarm about the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States due to the climate emergency. The Sea Women of Melanesia (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) gets the honour in the Inspiration and Action category for training local women to monitor and assess the impacts of widespread coral bleaching on some of the world’s most endangered reefs using marine science and technology. In the Science and Innovation category, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Uganda has been chosen. She is the first-ever wildlife veterinarian of Uganda Wildlife Authority and is a recognised world authority on primates and zoonotic diseases. Maria Kolesnikova of Kyrgyz Republic gets the award in the Entrepreneurial Vision category. She is an environmental activist, youth advocate and head of MoveGreen, an organization working to monitor and improve air quality in Central Asia.
Since 2005, the annual Champions of the Earth award has been given to 101 laureates, including 25 world leaders, 62 individuals and 14 organisations. UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said “this year’s Champions are women who not only inspire us, but also remind us that we have in our hands the solutions, the knowledge and the technology to limit climate change and avoid ecological collapse.”
“As we enter into a decisive decade, to cut emissions and protect and restore ecosystems, UNEP’s Champions of the Earth demonstrate that all of us can contribute. Every single act for nature counts. The entire spectrum of humanity has both a global responsibility and a profound opportunity,” she further said.
The UNEP said that the Champions of the Earth awards is aimed at inspiring and motivating more people to take to address the triple planetary crisis — climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution, chemicals and waste.
In the United Nations General Assembly earlier this year, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley decried in front of world leaders “faceless few” who were pushing the world towards a climate catastrophe and imperilling the future of small-island states, like her own. The Prime Minister might have grabbed the headlines but she did not speak just for headlines but she is one who has spent years campaigning against pollution, climate change and deforestation, turning Barbados into a frontrunner in the global environmental movement. Inger Andersen opined that Prime Minister Mottley has been a champion for those who are most vulnerable to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity and nature loss, and pollution and waste. “Her passionate advocacy and policy achievements are prime examples of how world leaders can take bold, urgent action on environmental issues,” she added. Mottley is the first female leader to become the prime minister of Barbados after it became independent in 1966. She won the 2018 elections with more than 70 per cent of the popular vote. Under her watch, the country has developed an ambitious plan to phase out fossil fuels by 2030.
Her vision is for nearly every home on the island to have solar panels on the roof and an electric vehicle to save the earth. She has said that she finds inspiration in the forests that cover nearly 20 per cent of Barbados. As p[art of this inspiration, she has overseen a national strategy to plant more than one million trees, with participation from the entire population. Mottley believes that tackling environmental decline is vital to spurring economic development and combating poverty. She has also been a vocal advocate for developing countries vulnerable to climate change, especially small-island states expected to be inundated by rising seas. Mottley is also the co-chair of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance. As the world continues to recover from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Mottley has stressed that a green recovery is critical to the fiscal survival of her tourism dependent country and warned that continuing business as usual would accelerate the climate crisis.
SEA WOMEN OF MELANESIA
Fins, masks and neoprene wetsuits are recreational gear for most of the people. But for Sea Women of Melansia, they are tools of change. The group of more than 30 members are into looking at the health of the fragile coral reefs that surround Coral Triangle, which covers some 5.7 million square kilometres between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and South East Asia. Their goal is to teach local women scuba diving and biology skills so they can monitor the health of coral reefs, create, and restore marine protected areas. Combining indigenous knowledge with science is central to their engagement with communities.
The organisation says they are challenging indigenous conventions about a woman’s role in her household, community and society. Evangelista Apelis, a Sea Woman and co-director of the Sea Women programme based in Papua New Guinea said that when a woman is trained, the society itself is trained. She said that they educate women and get them on board so that they could go back and make an impact in their own families and their society as well to save the earth.
GLADYS KALEMA ZIKUSOKA
Founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), Much of Dr. Gladys Kalema’s work is among the impoverished communities in East Africa, where she has helped improve healthcare and create economic opportunities turning many locals into partners in conservation. In the words of Inger Andersen, she is a pioneer in community-led wildlife conservation. “In many places, economic pressures can cause friction between humans and animals. But her work has shown how conflict can be overcome when local communities take the lead in protecting the nature and wildlife around them, creating benefits for all species,” she said.
Supported by her family, Kalema-Zikusola embarked on a global educational adventure, earning degrees in Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. She returned to Uganda for an internship in, what would eventually become the focus of her future work, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park located in the country’s remote and impoverished southwest. It was the beginning of gorilla tourism in Bwindi and Kalema-Zikusoka, then a young vet student, found that conservation wasn’t a simple process.
Conservation Through Public Health provided fast-growing crops to families, allowing them to at least grow enough food to feed themselves. Kalema-Zikuso says that she hopes she will inspire young Africans to choose careers in conservation. “There is a lack of local representation among conservationists. Not many are from the places where endangered animals are found,” she said. “We need more local champions, because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries.”
Director of MoveGreen, her work reflects how individuals and citizens can drive environmental change by leveraging the power of science and data. She started as a public relations professional in 2016 in Movegreen.
MoveGreen started with just three sensors to measure air quality, namely, by monitoring for the first time in the Kyrgyz Republic, the levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) – produced by burning coal and other fuels, combustion and dust. When the first measurements came back, Kolesnikova and the team at MoveGreen took a bold decision by launching a campaign called “School Breathes Easily”. Through this campaign, they took their message to a population that was ready to listen. MoveGreen developed an app, now available globally, called AQ kg a real-time collector and transmitter of actionable data about air quality. The application aggregates data every 20 minutes from the two largest Kyrgyz cities, Bishkek and Osh, about the concentration of pollutants in the air, including the tiny particle PM2.5 and its larger cousin, PM10.