Big Names Turn Out to Celebrate Community Conservationists

Gisele Bündchen with one of the award winners.

Gisele Bündchen with one of the award winners.

The Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Video Music Awards… here in the U.S., our culture has become so accustomed to awards ceremonies that news of yet another star-studded event with shiny trophies barely seems to raise a collective eyebrow. But I want to tell you about a very unique and special awards ceremony that I attended earlier this week with leaders from Conservation International, during our trip to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, which focused on biodiversity issues for the very first time.

The occasion was the 2010 Equator Prize Dinner, a high-profile event designed to honor and celebrate indigenous people from around the globe who have worked at the grassroots level to advance conservation initiatives for the benefit of local communities. You’ve probably never heard of the Equator Prize, and I doubt you’ll read much about the awards dinner in mainstream news. But these awards represent truly inspiring leadership by some of the least recognized but most deserving people on the planet.

Sponsored by the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) Equator Initiative, in partnership with CI, The Nature Conservancy and others, the Equator Prize is awarded to 25 individuals or programs every other year in an effort to highlight the critical connections between biodiversity conservation, healthy ecosystems, climate change and achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for people such as poverty alleviation.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the evening as I gave my name at the check-in tables inside the massive American Museum of Natural History. But within minutes, a steady stream of celebrities, presidents, journalists, U.N. delegates and Secret Service agents joined a kaleidoscope of indigenous people dressed in their cultures’ traditional clothing, and filled nearly every corner of available space. Flashbulbs lit the room as supermodel and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Gisele Bündchen greeted each honoree individually, speaking in English, her native Portuguese, and Spanish to ask questions about their work and offer congratulations, before posing for what seemed like a thousand pictures.

Edward Norton with one of the award winners.

Edward Norton with one of the award winners.

Academy Award nominated actor Edward Norton, also a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, immersed himself in the middle of the crowd to speak to guests and honorees about the importance of indigenous contributions to protecting biodiversity. Then philanthropist and Chairman of the United Nations Foundation Ted Turner took the stage to thank everyone for coming.

As the throng moved into the museum’s Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life and sat down to dinner, I scanned the sea of more than 450 world leaders and dignitaries and saw CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann seated next to President Anote Tong of Pacific Island nation Kiribati – one of nine heads of state attending the dinner. Nearby sat His Highness, Prince Albert of Monaco and Philippe Cousteau, looking intently at the stage, while CI’s President Dr. Russ Mittermeier snapped photos of the winners with his personal camera. With each award presentation, honorees smiled, waved, bowed, and seemed almost overwhelmed with the prestigious recognition for their unique contributions to Earth’s stewardship.

CI's Kristen Walker, Peter Seligmann and Russ Mittermeier pose with award winners.

CI's Kristen Walker, Peter Seligmann and Russ Mittermeier pose with award winners.

“More than anything else, local knowledge and local people are the keys to helping communities successfully adapt to the effects of climate change, and thrive in a changing world”, said Seligmann in announcing the winner for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Their ingenuity in turning conservation into profit-making opportunities is an inspiration for the rest of us that should be acknowledged and celebrated.”

During the dinner, I was lucky enough to be seated next to the honoree from Venezuela, Alexis Bermudez, whose Fundación para la Agricultura Tropical Alternativa y el Desarrollo Integral (FUNDATADI) has received support from CI in its efforts to conserve forests and promote community development through the cultivation of medicinal plants in family plantations – a new and alternative livelihood to coffee-growing that puts less strain on the local ecosystems. In broken English, he told me it was his very first visit to the United States, and a very exciting experience. In broken Spanish, I offered him my hearty congratulations.

Equator Prize trophy.

Equator Prize trophy.

Three other honorees and CI partners – from Ecuador, Bolivia and Madagascar – also received special recognition during the dinner, and an additional $25,000 US in support of their continuing work (for more information about their initiatives, please read our press release). They were presented with a handcrafted trophy made from reclaimed woods and designed to symbolize a halo, for their benevolent contributions.

When the evening wrapped, and I watched the incredibly diverse group of people leave with the intention of protecting Earth’s biological diversity for future generations, I thought to myself, “Now this was an awards program of a very different nature and a heartwarming affirmation of the power each of us has to make a positive difference for the planet.”

Kim McCabe is CI’s U.S. media manager.

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