Defenders of the Earth: UN Champions whose passion for the planet defined their lives

From the Arctic to the Amazon, wildfires have been burning, devastating storms are becoming more frequent, a million species risk extinction, and our oceans are being poisoned: the planet’s life support systems are under threat like never before.

The world’s critical ecosystems need our help. Scientists warn that we could be headed towards tipping points that might produce a cascading collapse of natural systems if we do not act now.

This is something environmental defenders have long understood, with many putting their lives on the line to defend vital ecosystems and the indigenous peoples who protect them.

At a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019, the UN Environment Programme will join expected calls for stronger protections for the earth’s forests and for the environmental defenders who, despite the risks, have stepped forward to make a difference.

Some of these earth defenders have been honoured with the UN Environment Programme’s flagship Champions of the Earth award for their indefatigable dedication to the natural world. Here we look at five of these environmental heroes.

Fearless campaigner who gave her life to protect her land: Berta Cáceres

2016 laureate for inspiration and action

Before she was shot dead in 2016, Berta Cáceres spent years battling for the rights of marginalized indigenous peoples in her native Honduras. Her death, aged 44, sparked global anger at the unacceptable levels of violence and intimidation facing environmental activists.

Cáceres, who was a member of the indigenous Lenca group, grew up in La Esperanza, where she learned about compassion and action from her mother, a midwife and social activist who took in and cared for refugees from El Salvador.

In 1993 as a student-activist, Cáceres co-founded the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to push for the territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

In the early 2000s, she began campaigning against the multi-million-dollar Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which the Lenca community consider sacred. Locals worried the dam would harm their livelihoods and deprive them of food and medicines. Cáceres argued that the project was going ahead without proper consultation.

After a year-long peaceful blockade of the site, some international investors withdrew from the project in 2013. Meanwhile, Cáceres had reported an increasing number of death threats.

In 2015, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental defenders but international accolades could not protect her: assailants broke into her home in La Esperanza in March 2016 and shot her dead. In November 2018, seven men were convicted of her murder.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Cáceres explained what kept her going: a statement that will resonate with activists everywhere.

“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action.”

The musician on a mission to create a natural symphony: Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo

2013 laureate for inspiration and action

A former teacher and accomplished musician, Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, known as Pati, has dedicated her life to composing a complex symphony of development in the Sierra Gorda in central Mexico, achieving Biosphere Reserve status for this ecological treasure.

A firm believer in the importance of linking natural capital to financial capital, Pati set up the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group with her husband and friends in 1987. Ten years later, they successfully lobbied for the creation of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, which now covers 33 per cent of Querétaro state.

Over the past 25 years, Pati and her colleagues have engaged more than 34,000 people in community environmental education programmes, solid waste management, soil restoration, product diversification and conservation. Six million trees have also been planted in the reserve which includes nearly 1 million acres of protected land with more than 2,200 species of plants, mammals and birds.

Central to Pati’s philosophy is the idea of turning local communities into environmental service providers who earn part of their living from protecting their ecosystems. She has proven skilled at creating public-private partnerships to fulfil her vision.

Pati says she is inspired by the planet and the “precious treasure” of the Sierra Gorda.

“The Sierra Gorda means everything in my life, for my heart, for my brain, for my time. I’m ready to serve this Biosphere,” she says.

Samson Parashina

2012 laureate for grassroots initiative

When Samson Parashina was growing up as a young Maasai in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, he dreamed of working at the nearby ecotourism lodge, Campi ya Kanzi, founded by Italians Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi with the support of the local community.

Parashina, the son of a chief, became a waiter, then a professional safari guide, and finally ended up as general manager of the lodge. In 2000, Belpietro and Bonomi founded the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT) and Parashina became president.

The Trust works to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity of East Africa through conservation that directly benefits Maasai communities. It works in the Chyulu Hills, within the Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem, which boasts three national parks. The Maasai communities own the land between the protected parks, and their territories contain critical wildlife corridors and habitat reserves, forests that are carbon sinks and rivers and springs that supply water to millions of Kenyans.

The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust brings together professional conservationists and dynamic Maasai leaders to operate programmes that enable the Maasai to reap sustainable economic benefits from conserving their unique ecosystems. It trains community rangers to monitor wildlife, supports education and healthcare facilities, and nurtures young local leaders.

Parashina negotiates all agreements with local leaders, and he is proud of how the Trust has improved the lives of his people. His work places him at the intersection of the past and the future, and he is aware of the need for everyone to adjust to our changing world.

“The Maasai have been here for centuries. They have to adapt to the changing climate by creating new green jobs and protect the flora and fauna to create a future for the generations to come,” he says.

The pioneer who converted her passion into public service: Izabella Teixeira

2013 laureate for policy leadership

In the 1980s, when the environmental movement was still in its infancy, Izabella Teixeira was already something of a visionary, determined to dedicate her life to protecting nature. Since then, she has brought her passion for sustainable use of resources to the upper echelons of the Brazilian government.

After studying biological sciences and energy planning, she joined the Secretariat of the Environment in the State of Pará, a precursor to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

She became Deputy Minister of the Environment in 2008, and then served as Minister of the Environment from 2010 until 2016, guiding Brazil through some of the most significant global negotiations on environmental issues, including the talks on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015.

One of her biggest ministerial achievements was helping reverse the deforestation of the Amazon, a significant initiative towards mitigating the worst effects of climate change. The annual loss of forests fell from 27,772 km2 in 2004 to 4,571 km2 in 2012.

Her policies regarding land use also resulted in the creation of 250,000 km2 of conservation areas. She also structured a comprehensive national policy on climate change, engaging with key economic sectors such as energy, agriculture and industry.

After leaving office, she was elected co-chair of the influential International Resource Panel, contributing to the landmark 2019 Global Resources Outlook, which found that rapid growth in extraction of materials is the chief culprit in climate change and biodiversity loss.

Zhejiang Green Rural Revival Programme

2018 laureate for inspiration and action

Zhejiang province in eastern China perfectly encapsulates the dilemma facing mankind: how to progress economically without draining vital resources and leaving an environmental mess behind? Rapid industrial development in Zhejiang turned it into an economic powerhouse but the environment paid a heavy price.

Sewage and industrial waste water ran freely into rivers, turning the water black. Sometimes children who played in the water got skin diseases. Rubbish piled up across the province.

In 2005, China’s President Xi Jinping, who was then Secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party committee, launched the Zhejiang Green Rural Revival Programme, saying: “We do not promote economic development at the expense of the environment. Clear waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets.”

The regeneration project revolved around water management, waste management and recycling, and community involvement was key. Around 61,000 river chiefs were appointed to manage and protect all water bodies. Eighty per cent of historic buildings were restored with water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure overhauled to improve efficiency.

Today, 97 per cent of villages in Zhejiang have transformed their polluted rivers into clean, drinkable water. The programme was chosen as a Champion of the Earth because it showed the transformative power of economic and environmental development together.