Rhett Butler – Mongabay

5th Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication

The BBVA Foundation recognizes ‘Mongabay’ for creating an environmental news platform with a global network of reporters working on the ground in regions harboring the world’s richest and most endangered biodiversity

Digital media organization Mongabay receives the BBVA Foundation’s 5th Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication “for its outstanding track record in communicating on nature and biodiversity conservation, especially in the countries of the Global South, thanks to the contributions of over 800 journalists, scientists and other correspondents in more than 80 countries and six languages,” said the committee in its citation.

18 October, 2023

5th Edition

Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication

Founded in 1999 by American journalist Rhett A. Butler, this non-profit environmental news platform publishes articles and reports in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Hindi and Indonesian. Its primary focus is on biodiversity-rich tropical regions within Asia and Latin America. Over its twenty odd years, Mongabay has set up bureaus in Indonesia, India, Brazil and Peru, and will shortly open its first newsroom in Africa.

“Our approach is to focus on areas where we feel we can have a high marginal impact. The tropics are the places that have the most biodiversity and suffer the greatest degree of threat, which means they have the most to lose,” explained Butler in an interview shortly after hearing of the award.

In the view of the committee, Mongabay “successfully makes the connection between science and journalism by disseminating research on environmental protection and making studies available under conditions of maximum access,” a formula that has enabled it “to highlight specific situations or serious environmental problems affecting communities that tend to be overlooked by mainstream news sources.”

The Biophilia Award, with annual prize money of 100,000 euros, was launched by the BBVA Foundation in 2019 to recognize the work of professionals and organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues.

The growing importance of environmental journalism

The founder and CEO of Mongabay sees environmental journalism as increasingly relevant to people’s lives, because, he says, it is no longer just about future scenarios, since “we are all experiencing first hand the effects of climate change, pollution or habitat loss.”

For this reason, “it’s really important for environmental journals to put these impacts in a context that explains why they are happening,” using accessible narratives that get across the scientific evidence. As Butler puts it: “We are a translation service between the scientists and their data and what people are observing with their own eyes. And this is of great value both in informing the public and possibly leading them to change their behavior.”

“We are not an advocacy organization,” he insists. “Our job is to present information on what’s going on rather than telling people what to do. But it’s still possible to drive change by focusing your journalism on certain topics that mobilize citizens so they reach out to their political leaders.”

A news ecosystem tainted by ‘fake news’

And yet the increasingly evident impacts of the environmental crisis have coincided with a phenomenon Butler defines as “a degradation of the information ecosystem, due to the effects of fake news and its spread via social media, where people don’t necessarily know how to discern between what’s real and what’s not.”

While convinced that society’s awareness and sensitivity to the environmental crisis has expanded in these past decades and that “journalists have played a vital part in this success,” he also admits that we are enduring serious setbacks due to the growing influence of social media: “Stories carried in the mainstream media are not achieving the impact they once did, so there’s a lot of uncertainty about the influence we can exert.”.

In the face of ever more prevalent misinformation, Mongabay is at pains to ensure the credibility of its reporting, “providing links back to the original sources of a story to show the scientific data on which it is based, so any reader can check them out.” And its newsroom employs “a due diligence process and fact-checking to avoid being part of the misinformation problem.”

The challenge of political polarization and distrust in science

Another complex challenge is the widespread problem of political polarization, which, says Butler, “leads people to stop trusting scientists because they believe they are concealing an ideological bias or prejudice.” In this scenario, he says, the challenge environmental journalists have to navigate is that “people prefer to believe what fits their worldview rather than what the facts say.”

The way the Mongabay team deals with this, Butler explains, is to try to frame its reporting in a way that will seem relevant and interesting even to readers who habitually reject environmental stories on ideological grounds: “We know from public opinion studies that people identifying as to the right of the political spectrum tend to avoid news about climate change. So, if you want to reach those audiences, you need to cover those issues with a framing that’s relevant to them, so they don’t just tune out. This could mean, for example, talking about the economic impact of environmental degradation, its health or security implications, or perhaps the science or tech behind possible solutions.”

“Solution journalism” not apocalyptic narratives

For Butler, another major obstacle facing environmental reporting is the kind of “apocalyptic narratives” that can lead to apathy; to the feeling that nothing can be done to stop the inevitable happening. “There is a clear risk of leaving people feeling hopeless, but then we know from a recent Reuters Institute study on media consumption that there is one kind of content people don’t avoid, and that is positive stories that offer solutions.”

Hence Butler and Mongabay’s recourse to “solution journalism” that puts the accent on how environmental challenges can be addressed and solved. “One example,” he explains, “is when we report on cases where Indigenous-led projects have achieved conservation outcomes, going on to get funding or recognition from institutions like the UN. We have also given a lot of space to regenerative agriculture projects in Indonesia that were subsequently replicated elsewhere.”

In sum, Butler believes there is cause for optimism, despite the severity of the environmental crisis, and that quality journalism can and should play a crucial role: “It is true that we have these ecological tipping points that could lead to large parts of Amazon disappearing or changes in ocean circulation with potentially devastating effects on climate, but there are also tipping points for positive change. whether that’s switching to renewable energy or to electric vehicles. The question is whether we can make these shifts in time to actually stop the huge problems we face. I honestly don’t know, but I am at least hopeful that environmental journalism can help us hit these positive tipping points and move to the kind of healthy, productive planet we want to live in.”

The birth of a website to shine a spotlight on the deterioration of tropical biodiversity

Butler founded Mongabay in 1999, just after finishing university, to draw the world’s attention to the threats to biodiversity he had experienced first hand in the tropics. As a child, he had traveled to Ecuador where he spent time with members of an Indigenous community living in the Amazon rainforest. Some months after this visit, he saw in the news that the area had suffered an oil spill. “And that’s what moved me from someone who was just interested in animals to someone who cared about the environment,” he recalls.

A few years later a similar experience in Borneo provided the second spur to action. After visiting the island’s rainforest as a teenager, Butler had kept in touch with scientists working in the area, one of the world’s most biodiverse. In this way he discovered that most of the forest was gone, converted firstly into a logging site and then into a palm oil plantation. “It was that destruction that inspired me to try to raise awareness about what was happening to rainforests.”

So he started writing, and while still at university completed a book on the region’s environmental deterioration. But the response of the publisher – that they would only release it without pictures unless he put up the money himself – was a blow to his hopes, since for the young author pictures seemed crucial to convey the beauty of the rainforest and convince readers that it needed saving. “I realized then that I didn’t write the book for money – I wrote it for impact!” So his next step was to put the whole text on the Internet for free. He set up a website he named Mongabay after an island near Madagascar he had visited while attending university.

After graduating and starting his first job at a tech startup, Butler continued posting articles he wrote at night on tropical ecosystems, rainforests and the wildlife they harbor. The site was initially supported by advertising, but as the revenues grew, he was able to quit his job to focus exclusively on Mongabay.

A network of local reporters with a major international impact

In its first ten years, the project gradually grew and took on more staff until, in 2012, it became a non-profit entity, funded by individual donations, governments and foundations that support its mission to communicate today’s environmental and conservation challenges. At the same time, it decided to make its contents available for reuse under a Creative Commons license, so other media outlets could republish them without charge. Thanks to this initiative, Mongabay articles were soon appearing regularly in top media outlets like the UK newspaper The Guardian (winner of the 2020 Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication) or the popular science magazine Scientific American. Further, its reporters began to be sought out as sources by leading international press agencies and major corporations like the BBC and CNN.

“The thing that really took us to the next level was building a network of local reporters who are on nature’s frontline,” Butler explains. These people relating their experiences directly in the language of the place where they operate, and setting them in a wider context, was key to positioning the platform as a reference in the regions featuring in its reports through the republishing of articles in local outlets like Africa Geographic and Asia Sentinel.

For Butler, the key to Mongabay’s success has been this “bottom-up” approach,” as local correspondents can gain the trust of communities hit by the biodiversity crisis far more readily than an outside reporter. In fact, in the last decade, he believes, there has been far wider recognition of the role played by Indigenous communities in delivering conservation outcomes. Logically, as “local communities, have a vested interest in maintaining healthy, productive ecosystems, and some of the systems richest in biodiversity are on Indigenous lands.”

Real impacts in safeguarding nature

As well as reaching a huge audience of five million people a month, through both its websites and social networks, Mongabay reports have inspired real, on-the-ground initiatives in ecosystem conservation. Butler provides one example from 2021, when a Gabonese reporter wrote a story about an ancestral forest, maintained for generations through the effort of local communities, but shortly due to be handed as a concession to a Chinese logging company. The article in Mongabay caught the attention of Gabon’s environment minister who decided to visit, spent a whole two days there, and finally revoked the firm’s permit and recognized the site as a conservation priority area.

On another occasion, one of the organization’s reporters uncovered a secret carbon credits deal in Malaysia. The agreement specified the protection of some two million hectares in the Malaysian state of Saba, banning any logging, mining or industrial farming on the land for a period of 100 years. This protection would be extended in exchange for carbon credits.

However, the deal’s promoters had not consulted the local Indigenous communities, who stood to lose access to lands that they had been using sustainably for generations. The article was published in 2021 on the eve of COP26 and was influential enough to get the pact called off indefinitely. “The Malaysian press probably wouldn’t have picked up on this case, but once the story broke in Mongabay, local media were able to point to it and add more details,” says Butler.

The organization achieves impacts like these through effective reporting on the ground, but also through original research. The data they collect in their investigations, which can last for years, is made openly available for anyone to analyze and use. In one case, they discovered that one of China’s largest fishing companies was catching sharks to cut off their fins, an illegal practice that is highly detrimental to shark conservation efforts. The information gathered was key to the U.S. authorities sanctioning the company. “And that,” concludes Butler, “is the kind of impact we look for in our reporting.”

About the BBVA Foundation and the Biophilia Award

For two decades now, the protection of our planet has numbered among the BBVA Foundation’s key focus areas, translating as support for scientific research, the funding of projects to conserve species, habitats and ecosystems, the promotion of an environmental culture in society at large, and the recognition of communication professionals who have contributed decisively to inform individual and collective engagement with the ecological issues of our time.

In 2004, it created the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, distinguishing projects in defense of nature in Spain and worldwide along with achievements in communication and knowledge dissemination on environmental matters.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize scientific excellence in two environmental categories – Climate Change and Ecology and Conservation Biology – which take their place alongside the six other categories of these international prizes: basic sciences, biomedicine, information technologies, economics, humanities and social sciences. In their first fifteen editions, around 50 of the world’s most prestigious ecologists, conservation biologists, economists and climate scientists have received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, along with world-class researchers in other areas.

Effective solutions to today’s environmental problems can only be achieved by mobilizing ecological knowledge and awareness on a global scale, and this, in turn, calls for communication on environmental issues that is at once engaging and well-grounded. It is from this conviction that the BBVA Foundation launched its Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication in the year 2019. With annual prize money of 100,000 euros, this award recognizes the work of professionals and/or organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues, bringing to bear the best available evidence and knowledge.

The name of the award, which alludes to the “Biophilia hypothesis” proposed by naturalist Edward O. Wilson (2010 Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology), denotes the deep connection that we as humans instinctively feel with nature and all forms of life. In its first four editions, the Biophilia Award went to the BBC’s environment correspondent, journalist Matt McGrath; The Guardian newspaper, for its communication of environmental issues, debates and news; Marlowe Hood, environment correspondent at Agence France-Presse; and The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction.

Evaluation committee

The committee in this edition was chaired by Miguel B. Araújo, Research Professor at the Museum of Natural Sciences, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), with members Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, editor of newspaper La Verdad; Rosa Basteiro, Science and Environment editor, Spanish National Radio (RNE); Antonio Cerrillo, Environment editor of newspaper La Vanguardia; Patricia Fernández de Lis, Editor-in-chief, Science, Health and Technology, and head of the Materia science section at newspaper El País; Teresa Guerrero, head of the Science section of newspaper El Mundo; and Pedro Jordano, Research Professor in the Group of Integrative Ecology at Doñana Biological Station, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). The Foundation’s Deputy Director Laura Poderoso acted as technical secretary.