Latina Environmentalist Wins National Geographic Award

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Conservationist Mónica González, who works to empower local residents in the Choco rain forests of northwestern Ecuador to slow and reverse the tide of habitat and species loss in the tropical Andes, is the 2015 winner of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. Ornithologist and conservationist Roger Fotso, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cameroon country program — one of the most effective field conservation programs in the country — is this year’s recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

Established through a gift from The Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2002 to celebrate and recognize unsung conservation heroes working in the field, the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation is given each year to two outstanding conservationists, one in Latin America and one in Africa. The award acknowledges the winners’ remarkable work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation in their countries.

Dr. González and Dr. Fotso received their $25,000 awards at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 11, during National Geographic’s annual Explorers Week, when National Geographic explorers, grantees and others affiliated with the Society gather to share findings from their research and fieldwork and take part in panel discussions.

“It is an honor to participate with National Geographic in recognizing the achievements of these two remarkable visionaries who are making such a positive difference to conservation in their countries. Both are inspirational mentors and role models to their communities,” said Howard G. Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Dr. Mónica González, executive director of Fundación para la Conservación de los Andes Tropicales (Foundation for the Conservation of the Tropical Andes) (FCAT), began working in the 1990s with communities living near the Mache Chindul Reserve in northeast Ecuador, a biodiverse tropical rain forest region. The heavily populated area offers few financial opportunities, thus people rely heavily on exploiting natural resources. González focused her efforts on finding financial support to develop environmental education programs in the villages around the reserve. She traveled long distances through difficult terrain to reach the most isolated communities. Several times she was injured getting to these areas: Once, a mule kicked her, breaking her leg; another time, she broke her arm falling off a horse. But the enthusiasm of the people and their desire to learn kept her going back.

In 2011, she created FCAT to implement on-the-ground conservation measures. The organization focuses on scientific research, environmental education, community development, capacity building and the empowerment of local leaders. The imminent construction of a highway crossing the reserve is of great concern to the communities. Although the reserve is a protected area, much of it is composed of private fragmented patches of forest that vary from 2 to 200 hectares. A new highway will bring an increase in logging and settlers. Because of this, González and her team have spent the last year documenting the diversity of birds, amphibians, orchids, bees, beetles and soil microbes in 23 forest fragments. The project is also implementing reforestation to link priority forest fragments and is promoting ecotourism by fragment owners to bring financial benefits to the local communities. So far, more than 12,000 hardwood tree species have been planted and ecotourism projects are underway at six priority fragments.

After years of working in the area, González has witnessed changes in the communities’ management of water and soil, a decrease in the use of pesticides, and coordinated communal ways of managing trash that used to contaminate the rivers and watersheds. One of her success stories is the awareness she has brought to the plight of the threatened long-wattled umbrella bird, which is disappearing as the forest becomes more fragmented. With the trust and cooperation of local communities, González has made important steps toward protecting the species, which is now a symbol for conservation among the local people.

National Geographic Society/Buffett Award recipients are chosen from nominations submitted to the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, which screens the nominations through a peer-review process.

“This year’s awardees are recognized for their outstanding leadership and the vital role they play in managing and protecting the natural resources in their regions. They are exemplary conservation advocates who often battle difficult odds with courage and commitment,” said Peter Raven, chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration.