As 2023 begins, the planet is facing what experts call an alarming deterioration of the natural world. Humans have disturbed some three-quarters of the Earth’s dry land and two-thirds of its marine environments. As forests fall and oceans fill with pollution, 1 million species are being pushed towards extinction.
But around the world, scientists, entrepreneurs, indigenous leaders and many others are finding innovative ways to protect and revive battered ecosystems. Among those environmental pioneers are the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) most recent Champions of the Earth.
Recipients of the UN’s highest environmental honour, many have served as inspiration for everyday people aiming to do their part to protect and restore the natural world. Here's a closer look at 2022’s five recently minted laureates.
Tackling Lebanon’s waste crisis
Over the past two decades, arcenciel has helped Lebanon manage a rising tide of solid waste, playing an important role in supporting marginalized groups and bolstering environmental awareness.
“The NGO is… more like a social enterprise,” said Marc-Henri Karam, who leads arcenciel’s environment programmes. “We take from the polluter, we do the treatment and then we [channel] the money we have into other programs, into developing new ideas.”
The pioneering nonprofit treats 87 per cent of Lebanon’s infectious waste, reducing the risk of disease transmission. Arcenciel also contributed to the drafting of Lebanon’s first solid waste management law, promotes sustainable tourism and plays an active role in supporting Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps.
“Building something for the future is what motivates us,” says Robin Richa, arcenciel’s General Manager.
Restoring South America’s forests
Latin America and the Caribbean host some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, which store carbon emissions and provide myriad health and economic benefits. Yet huge swaths of the region’s forests have been cleared or degraded to make way for mining, agriculture and infrastructure projects.
Constantino Aucca Chutas is a biologist based in Peru working to help indigenous communities secure stewardship of land and establish protected areas for their native forests. Peru is home to 4.3 million indigenous people, and experts say these communities are at the forefront of rainforest conservation.
In 2000, Aucca co-founded Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos, a nonprofit organization that has planted more than 3 million trees and protected or restored 30,000 ha of land in Peru. He has also introduced solar panels and clean cooking stoves to remote communities. Aucca now oversees plans to protect and restore 1 million ha of forests in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru over the next 25 years.
“It's very important that everybody has to respect all these native and local communities,” he says. “Conservation without money is just conversation. If you don't include local communities, it's a very bad conversation.”
Saving India’s misunderstood stork
Conflict between people and wildlife is one of the main threats to animal species, and experts say the climate crisis and continued habitat loss resulting from deforestation are accelerating the detrimental impacts of such conflict.
In India, Purnima Devi Barman has devoted much of her career to saving the greater adjutant stork, the world’s second-rarest stork species, from the impacts of human activity. Stork populations globally have plummeted due partly to the draining, polluting and degradation of wetlands, their natural habitat.
To protect the stork species, Barman mobilized a group of village women to help change public perception of the bird. Now, her supporters number some 10,000 women, who protect nesting sites, rehabilitate injured storks and integrate storks into cultural traditions. Barman’s team has helped increased stork nests in three villages nearly 10-fold and has planted 45,000 saplings near stork nesting trees and wetland areas to bolster restoration.
“Restoration is so important to save our biodiversity and to save ourselves,” Barman says. “We [need] community participation. Be very courageous, and take a single step from your own home. You don’t need to have a special degree or diploma – everyone can be a conservationist.”
Showcasing nature’s economic importance
Renowned economist Sir Partha Dasgupta believes governments must integrate ecosystem services into calculations of economic health to reduce resource exploitation and promote a healthy relationship between humanity and nature.
This argument for “inclusive wealth” forms the basis of Dasgupta’s Economics of Biodiversity, a landmark 600-page report that is the foundation of a growing field known as natural capital accounting, in which researchers attempt to assess the value of nature.
Assigning economic value to nature can help governments better understand the long-term costs of logging, mining and other potentially destructive industries, ultimately bolstering the case for protecting the natural world.
“We should try and understand the world around us. Because if you actually see nature at work, you cannot but be in awe of it,” Dasgupta says. “No matter what you study… you must accommodate the fact that the economy in question is surrounded by nature.”
Empowering women across Africa
Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet has spent three decades advocating for women’s land rights in Africa, where women often encounter problems owning or inheriting property due to long-standing cultural mores.
“By promoting women’s rights and securing land tenure for women, we can also promote conservation, the sustainable management of forests and sustainable development in general,” says Ndjebet. “Let’s empower women in restoration.”
An organization she co-founded in 2001, Cameroon Ecology, has repaired 600 ha of degraded land and mangrove forests in her native Cameroon. The organization is working with local communities to revive 1,000 ha of forests by 2030.
About the UNEP Champions of the Earth
The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth honours individuals and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. The annual Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour. It recognizes outstanding leaders from government, civil society and the private sector.
About the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.