As local and indigenous groups across the world chart a path towards sustainable development, the Equator Prize showcases their efforts by honouring them on an international stage.
From a record 847 nominations across 127 countries, the Equator Prize recipients this year were chosen for their leadership in the protection, restoration, and sustainable management of forests; securing rights to communal lands, territories, and natural resources; community-based adaptation to climate change; and activism for environmental justice.
Each of the 22 winners represents outstanding community and indigenous initiatives that are advancing nature-based solutions for climate change and local sustainable development.
For four of the prize-winners their work has been supported by the Small Grants Programme (SGP). Funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, the SGP provides financial and technical support to projects that conserve the global environment while enhancing people's well-being and livelihoods.
Helping organisations flourish, SGP support shows how targeted community action can maintain the fine balance between human needs and environmental imperatives.
The SGP team is proud to have supported these prize winners, and appreciates that the Equator Prize is a prestigious acknowledgement of years of hard work.
And the SGP team is gratified to have been able to be there along the way - providing direct small grants to these winners and serving a singular function to help catalyse action on the ground.
These organisations show us every day what it means to work collectively to care for our planet, enacting local, and culturally rooted solutions to protect community and biodiversity.
Coinciding with the UN Climate Week and the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator noted at the beginning of the prize ceremony, "[T]he theme of this year's Equator Prize award is in fact Climate Change Nature Based Solutions."
"Every day, thousands of local communities and indigenous peoples around the world are quietly implementing innovative nature-based solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The Equator Prize is both a recognition of their exceptional ideas and a way to showcase the power of people and grassroots communities to bring about real change.”
Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator
Congratulating this year’s Equator Prize winners, Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the GEF thanked them for their dedication and commitment to tackle climate change.
“We really need to bring you to the center stage of decision-making. Tonight we celebrate the work you’ve done. Tomorrow, we will go to work and join hands to create the future we want.”
Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility
Protecting Mangroves in Guinea-Bissau
Prize Winner: Conselho de Gestão da Área Marinha Protegida Comunitária Urok
The Council Protects
Operating in the Bijagós Archipelago off the western coast of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, the Conselho de Gestão da Área Marinha Protegida Comunitária Urok (Urok Council) was created in 2005. The council was established by indigenous Bijagós communities to strengthen social, cultural, and environmental resilience.
Since 2005, the Urok Council has been working to protect the remarkable biodiversity of the coastal and marine areas of the three remote rural islands within the Bijagós Archipelago and the ~3,000 people who live there.
Hosting a large concentration of migratory waterfowl that winter on the islands, as well as manatees, dolphins, crocodiles and otters, the Urok Islands’ dense mangrove cover and sandy shores and inlets are also home to abundant populations of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks.
The islands’ interior includes palm groves, grassy and shrubby savannas, and forests where wild food and medicinal plants thrive.
Since 2016, the Small Grants programme has been providing technical and financial support for the Urok Council’s efforts.
The project reinforced a model of sustainable management of spaces and resources in the Urok Community Marine Protected Area (MPA) and has benefitted 974 people.
Additional activities included a detailed cartography of forest cover and land use; creation of plant nurseries; training on agroecology techniques in family farming; and the production and broadcasting of radio programmes to promote agroecological practices.
A central nursery was established in the Wada Tabanca community on Formosa Island, supplemented by an additional nursery in Tabanca. Species grown include jackfruit, black chili peppers, palm plants and more. Additional nursery equipment (e.g. hoes, watering cans, wheelbarrows, sprayers) was purchased to support the nurseries.
As agroecology techniques in family farming were promoted, local farmers benefitted from new seeds and techniques for the production and diversification of food crops for the 2017-2018 agricultural campaign, where 120 peasant families from 13 communities were supplied with arable rice seeds, beans, corn and mango.
Also as part of project activities, and in partnership with the community radio station Fala de Urok, the project coordinated broadcasts of educational and environmental awareness programmes tailored for the communities of the three islands and, in particular, to community school students and farmers.
These programmes dealt with issues related to the importance of traditional agricultural seeds, food security, field preparation (pabi), conservation of resources and space, the importance of family farming, agricultural diversification, pest control, and the role of school gardens in strengthening family farming.
Now the MPA covers 54,500 hectares of culturally and ecologically important sites around the islands of Chedia, Nago, and Formosa, including over 3,000 hectares of mangrove forests providing crucial fish habitat.
Today the Urok Council continues to bring together indigenous communities, officials from the National Institute of Biodiversity and Protected Areas, and the NGO Tiniguena in a collaborative effort to safeguard key ecosystems, promote community development, and support local culture.
In one of the most vulnerable countries in West Africa to climate change, the traditional knowledge of Bijagós people informs MPA conservation for future generations, safeguarding sacred sites, ecosystem well-being, and mangrove forests essential for climate resilience.
Conserving Forests in Brazil
Prize Winner: Conselho Indígena de Roraima
Founded in 1990 to advocate for the autonomy of the indigenous peoples in Brazil’s northernmost state, Conselho Indígena de Roraima (Indigenous Council of Roraima) brings together nearly 55,000 indigenous people from the Macuxi, Wapichana, Taurepang, Ingarikó, Wai-Wai, Yanomami, Ye'kuana, Patamona, and Sapará groups.
The Indigenous Council of Roraima works to protect biodiversity for people, nature, and resilient communities.
In 1996 to ensure sustainable management of their land, the council created the Indigenous Training and Culture Center Raposa Serra do Sol. Since then the center has provided training to indigenous peoples of Roraima in agro-ecology practices, promoting crop diversity, and strengthening the conservation of traditional seeds.
In 2010, the group achieved the demarcation of the 1.7 million hectares indigenous territory of Raposa Serra do Sol. Despite the success of this, conflict with rice farmers is still a threat for the traditional territory.
In 2015, building on efforts to conserve traditional seeds, additional support through the SGP facilitated the project Seeds Fair of Indigenous Peoples of Roraima.
This support was the catalyst for the Roraima's indigenous seed fairs, where seeds are exchanged (and ultimately multiplied), increasing agrobiodiversity and safeguarding the farming future of the next generation.
These activities resulted in: 120 families involved in project activities; 50 indigenous high school youths trained in 10 indigenous villages; five ethnic groups participating (Macuxi, Wapichana, Sapará, Yanomami, Tauperang); 400 people actively involved in the Seed Fair; a booklet published on the importance of seeds; 2 hectares of land placed under agroforestry management; 116 plant varieties were rescued and exchanged among the indigenous peoples of Roraima; four training courses with 140 trained people (40 young people trained in Traditional Seeds Course, 40 students in Agroforestry Systems Course, 20 in basic audiovisual training, 40 young people trained via indigenous teaching institution scientific technical training).
Conservation techniques, such as the creation of seed banks and seed exchanges among farmers, gardeners, and even nations, play an important role in preserving ancient, heirloom varieties of important food crops. These also play an important role in local food security.
SGP-supported indigenous seed fairs and the broader ongoing efforts of the Indigenous Council of Roraima contribute to the resilience of the 55,000 indigenous people it represents.
The council continues to advocate for recognition of indigenous tenure rights and promote measures to adapt to climate change. Their work is increasingly imperative in a hostile political environment and a rapidly changing climate.
Ridge-to-Reef Conservation in Micronesia
Prize Winner: Tamil Resources Conservation Trust
Marine resources in Micronesia are threatened with habitat destruction compounded by climate change, with severe effects on local communities.
In response, the Tamil Council of Chiefs in the state of Yap established the Tamil Resources Conservation Trust (TRCT) to promote ridge-to-reef conservation for community and ecosystem resilience.
In 2014, support to TRCT to amplify protection of their oceans and coasts was provided through the SGP-supported project, Implementation and Management of Tamil Marine Conservation Area.
This project addresses problems concerning overfishing through traditional resources management, fisheries habitat protection, and community-based enforcement and monitoring protocol to increase community support and compliance.
On land, watershed-wide conservation projects ensure the provision of clean water to over half the population of Yap, while the first-ever community nursery cultivates climate-resilient native species such as nipa palm to reduce coastal erosion, and produces traditional food crops such as taro.
Promoting use of the nursery to support agroforestry, the initiative decreases reliance on vulnerable coastal fisheries for 848 families.
At sea, TRCT has established a systematic marine conservation plan in collaboration with international partners.
TRCT is a leader in the Pacific, illustrating how interwoven traditional knowledge and science can foster climate change mitigation and adaptation for future generations.
Fighting deforestation & single use plastics in Nigeria
Prize Winner: Environmental Management and Development Trust
Green packaging alternative to plastic
Created in 1997, the Environmental Management and Development Trust (EMADET) has created a powerful alternative to deforestation and single use plastics in southwestern Nigeria.
Through the promotion of cacao agroforestry, the organisation has supported the cultivation of economically useful understory crops, including the so-called miracle fruit (Thaumatococcus daniellii).
Miracle fruit leaves can be used as an alternative to plastic when packaging local hot food.
EMADET has built a dynamic network of women market traders of miracle fruit leaves in six towns by providing them with training in co-operatives and microcredit financing.
By building capacity for more production of miracle fruit and other understory crops in cacao agroforests, the initiative strives to reduce biodiversity loss while enhancing food security. At the same time, its innovative promotion of alternatives to plastic provides an influential model for local economies around the world.
Supported by the SGP since 2017, EMADET has been able to expand their efforts and was able to implement the project, Integrated Agroforestry, Waste Management and Livelihood Enhancement. This project helped to increase the cultivation of miracle fruit leaves, and promote its use for packaging food items.
Working with farmers, community leadership, private sector groups, the media, and research institutions, the project was able to promote the environmental and market values of the T. danielli miracle leaf – as an available natural resource which is biodegradable and contributes to human health, sustaining local food culture, and replacing plastics with renewables.
The cocoa farmers who have embraced the cultivation of T. danielli are a mix of men and women from 35 communities, but all the leaf traders are women. Many of the younger women are returning and or embracing the leaf trade after seeing the increasing prospects. Additionally, they have formed their own subgroup within the market.
The project carried out a total of five months of weekly campaigns, directly reaching over 3,500 farmers and traders, creating awareness through regional radio in Osun state. The project also established and continues to strengthen the value chain for the leaves, to enhance distribution and ensure continuous availability.
"This support, and the entire project, was a key catalyst - including the original development and promotion of miracle leaf in the market."
Ibironke Favour Olubamise, SGP National Coordinator, Nigeria
Today, there is a growing demand from food companies and restaurants, and SGP support is expected to be scaled up through advocacy effort with government and private sector.
EMADET will continue to support their dynamic network of women - promoting cocoa agroforestry and the production of the miracle fruit as a plastic alternative for local markets in southwestern Nigeria.
Fruits of their labour
Over the past 17 years, the Equator Initiative has recognised 245 outstanding local and indigenous initiatives from 81 countries.
The SGP is proud of the achievements of these grantees and winners of the 10th Equator Prize, gratified that the Equator Initiative is honouring leadership in the protection, restoration and sustainable management of ecosystems and communities.
The SGP team knows that recognition via awards only comes after many years of work - and is pleased to have been there along the way – providing direct funding and technical support, and offering an additional affirmation for what these organizations have been working to achieve.
This piece was originally published by the GEF Small Grants Programme. Photos: SGP Guinea-Bissau, SGP Brazil, SGP Nigeria, SGP Micronesia and additional photos courtesy of the Equator Initiative, © Mike Arrison 2019 and Andrea Egan.