In part one of Four of a Kind, Earth Report featured a scientist and a social entrepreneur. What they have in common is recognition by the Sasakawa Prize.
Previous laureates include Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper assassinated for opposing those who were intent on clearing the rainforest; Maurice Strong, architect of the first two earth summits, and Jacques Cousteau for his tireless work to save life in the oceans.
In part two, Earth Report catches up with two more single-minded individuals to find out how they have been making a difference.
Wangari Maathai founded Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement and stood up to corruption at time when protecting trees was a dangerous business in a one party state.
In Brazil Dener Giovanini continues to risk his life, fighting animal smugglers and their multimillion dollar trade.
Stop the Traffick
Since 1999 Dener Giovanini has taken on the animal traffickers in his native country with his organization RENCTAS, the National Network Against the Trafficking of Wild Animals. “To win the UNEP Sasakawa prize for me was a marking point in the work that we have been developing at RENCTAS over the past five years that it has existed in Brazil. Responsibility for the work we do has increased dramatically because we have a much higher profile, people are much more aware of what we are developing.”
The illegal trade in wild animals is worth US$20 billion a year. It is the world’s third largest criminal activity, surpassed only by weapons and drug trafficking.
In 2002 Earth Report followed Dener Giovanini’s efforts to stem the trade, in a film that brought the plight of wildlife to the attention of a global public, as well as the Sasakawa Prize jury.
Dener Giovanini: “This is very common here in these kinds of markets. We generally find a lot of birds, and reptiles, turtles like these and sometimes monkeys.”
Every day there are an estimated 3,000 illegal animal markets held throughout Brazil. They attract national and international collectors. The profit on endangered species can be as high as 2000 percent. The rarer the animal the higher the price. Although RENCTAS supported by the police try to disrupt the markets, it’s a crime that’s not taken seriously by Brazil’s law enforment authorities. Dener receives regular death threats.
Dener Giovanini, RENCTAS: “If not all, certainly the vast majority here know that selling animals like this is illegal. However, because of the inefficiency of the Brazilian legal system nobody takes this issue very seriously, and so it continues. That’s why our biodiversity is ending. All that we are allowed to do under Brazilian law is to escort these people to a local police station. But they’ll be out again in two hours, and if we come back here next week you’ll see them all selling once again.”
Every year an estimated 38 million specimens are smuggled from their habitats in Brazil and sold on the international market.
Nine out of ten animals captured in the wild never reach the final consumer. They die during capture and transport.
Though specialist police units, some trained by RENCTAS, are beginning to make their presence felt, there is still much work to be done.
Since receiving the Sasakawa Award RENCTAS’ profile has increased dramatically, and police operations are commonplace, though not everyone is happy with this development.
Dener Giovanini, RENCTAS “I admit I was scared of the repercussions and what would happen. This fear has been replaced with the feeling that I don’t want to let anyone down. Now, more than ever, I have this feeling that I must not let anyone down. It’s the big obstacle we must overcome.”
Just how widespread the trafficking is, becomes evident when Earth Report takes a hidden camera into an animal market on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
Within a few minutes we meet a dealer who offers to get us whatever animal we want.
Trafficker: “I can get you a toucan for $130. Yellow or red breasted macaws are $600.’ You taking these? You can carry these in your pockets. I bring in two hundred turtles at a time from Bahia. I carry them in my pockets. I put some trousers under these and spread them about.”
Interviewer: “Don’t they fall out?”
Trafficker: “No. I’ve lost count of the amount of police check points I’ve gone through like this….”
On a Mission
When RENCTAS began operating in Brazil in 1999 there was nowhere to take confiscated animals. Where there was room they were housed in zoos; in many cases they did not survive the trauma of capture.
Now, RENCTAS has helped build refuge centres where detained animals are cared for before being returned to their natural habitats.
In just five years Dener Giovanini has built a network that comprises 600 affiliated organizations and about 39,000 registered individuals. He receives an average of 150 emails a day. And he has trained more than 2,500 Brazilian environmental agents.
“Today it’s harder for a trafficker to kill me. The risk is still there, I run this risk all the time, many environmentalists in Brazil have died trying to do the work we’re doing. But it gives you security knowing you have someone like UNEP supporting you.”
“I’m a person who knows what I want out of life, I have a mission. I’m going to see this mission through to its end, I’m sure we’re going to win. I never doubt that we are going to win.”
Dener Giovanini was invited to Beijing recently along with other former award winners to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Sasakawa Prize.
The award was created with the aim of recognizing outstanding environmental figures who, unwilling to compromise, have made major contributions to our understanding and pursuit of sustainable development around the world. Today the awards are backed by the Nippon Foundation, an ind ependent grant organization and supported by the United Nations Environment programme.
Among the guests invited to China were members of a selection committee of six people trusted with the job of shortlisting the nominations and eventually choosing a winner.
One committee member is Maneka Gandhi, India’s Minister of State for Culture and the founder of ‘People for Animals’, a registered trust which champions the cause of animal welfare and boasts the largest membership in India.
Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Culture, India: “I must say, for a person whose spirit flags every now and then, I think ‘but everything is going wrong’. To see so many brave people all over, and to study about them and to learn about their lives, I would never have been able to do that otherwise. They give me a lot of hope, so the Sasakawa for me personally has been a journey of hope. It isn’t the actual giving of the prize, that takes about three hours, but the process by which we get there, that I find heart warming.”
Also on the judging panel is Chile’s Adriana Hoffmann, a biologist, botanist and author by profession, and the coordinator of the NGO ‘Defenders of the Chilean Forests’.
Adriana Hoffmann, Defenders of the Chilean Forests: “I think it is a great honour for people who work with so much dedication, emotion and passion for what they do, to be recognized for their achievements for the environment. All candidates, and all winners over the last twenty years, are people who deserve to be recognized because the work of such campaigners is incredibly important work for all of us.”
The establishment of an international environment prize was first discussed in 1972 at the first Earth Summit in Stockholm. The prize was first set up in partnership with the Shah of Iran in 1976 – then known as the Pahlavi Prize. Following the collapse of the Iranian regime the prize became the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize, first awarded in 1984.
Adriana Hoffmann, Defenders of the Chilean Forests: “This has been a great opportunity. It’s been marvelous because we have been able to meet up with people who have concrete solutions to the problems of the world. The most important thing for me was to discover that the world is actually not such a large place, and that we are not different species inhabiting different ecosystems, we are one system living in one home – which is our planet.”
Today, its annual payout of US$200,000 makes it one of the world’s most valuable environmental awards and the unspoken custom is for the recipients to put the funds into their favourite environmental causes.
The anniversary celebrations were not just a backslapping affair. For the laureates it was a chance to swap ideas and make recommendations to the United Nations based on the themes of air, water, energy and land.
The panelists agreed unanimously that the environment deserves to be taken far more seriously by the United Nations and the international community. Another member of the selection committee is the winner of the 2004 Noble Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya.
You can’t Buy Fresh Air
Giving everything for the environment is exactly what Professor Maathai started doing in 1977, and has done ever since. Starting with a small tree nursery in her back yard in Nairobi, Wangari Maathai launched Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree planting movement composed primarily of women.
Her green Kenya was becoming brown and dusty and Green Belt was her personal commitment to doing something about it.
Kenya’s forest cover has shrunk to just two percent of the land surface, but there would have been even less if the Movement had not planted over 20 million trees since it began.
“You can have all the degrees you want, and I have a few degrees, you can have all the money you can gather, but you can’t buy fresh air, and you can’t buy beauty and you can’t buy inspiration. There are certain things that the environment gives us that are priceless. And I connected over that and I decided that planting trees was a very good symbol to educate the public with. So for me the tree became not only a symbol of hope, something that was doable, something which didn’t require much energy, much money, much technology, much experience. It was something that could be done by anybody. All you needed was to identify the seeds, put them in the ground, nurture seedlings and put them in the soil and God does the rest.”
Today there are over 5000 grassroots nurseries throughout Kenya, and Professor Maathai’s work with the Movement has won her numerous international awards, including last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. But even so, Wangari Maathai feels there is still a long way to go in Kenya.
“It is very important for us to understand that when you have poverty people who are poor cannot afford electricity and other alternative sources of energy, they tend to go for wood, they tend to go for charcoal. And therefore it is very important for us to look for other alternatives.”
“I think that the most important thing is to convince people that they can do it, empowering people that they can do it. And I think that this prize really demonstrates very clearly that even as an individual you can make a lot of difference. So I want to encourage people, individual people, to do something and there can’t be anything more simple than digging a hole planting a tree and taking care of it.”
Today, Professor Maathai has a punishing schedule – dividing her time between being assistant Minister for the Environment in Kenya, Nobel Prize Winner, and active founder of the Green Belt Movement.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director: “I have to inform you that this is the first time ever that I could welcome a Nobel Peace Prize winner on this place. I am very happy about this, and that it is not one of the others, it is you. It’s Wangari Maathai, who has had a long-lasting cooperation and good inspirational work with UNEP, with my predecessors.”
Professor Maathai told us that international recognition helped protect her from reprisals. And she is convinced that foreign recognition helps campaigners confront sometime ruthless vested interests in their home country.
“Judging from my own encouragement for the prizes that I have received and the encouragement I felt when I knew that someone somewhere is recognizing what I am doing, I cannot overemphasize the need for an environment prize, such as the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize.”
“These prizes are important; they are like moments when we recognize those who are trying who are struggling, they are very important to encourage individuals and institutions so that they can feel that they are not alone.” Today the Green Belt Movement operates in twelve African countries combating deforestation and desertification in Africa.
But just as Professor Maathai’s work has been through dramatic changes since she began campaigning thirty years ago, so too has the Sasakawa Prize.
The 20th Anniversary celebrations in Beijing were an opportunity for UNEP to not only honor the work of environmentalists who have been part of the prize’s history, it was also a chance for organizers to launch the new direction the award is going to take.
On hand to announce the new direction of the award was Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, son of the founding chairman of the Nippon Foundation, Ryoichi Sasakawa.
Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, The Nippon Foundation: “From now on, for this Prize, we will call for people working in these various (environmental) fields to submit concrete proposals, have UNEP review them, and ultimately put these proposals into practice. We hope that (these projects) will become well known to people all around the world, especially in various environmental fields, as well as practitioners (i.e. environmentalists)…We would like to award the prize to (environmental) leaders who can get everyone in the world to feel that they want to preserve the beauty of the earth and make it a more pleasant place to live. ”
Nominations for this year’s award are already being considered and organizers are expecting more entries than ever before.