16th Biodiversity Conservation Awards

The BBVA Foundation recognizes ADENEX’s defense of natural heritage in Extremadura, the global seed bank run by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the environmental reporting of Fernando Valladares

The defense of Extremadura’s natural heritage by the association ADENEX; the global seed bank set up by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to preserve plant biodiversity worldwide; and the exceptional contribution of CSIC researcher Fernando Valladares to knowledge dissemination on core environmental issues take the honors in the 16th edition of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation.

30 September, 2021

The Asociación para la Defensa de la Naturaleza y los Recursos de Extremadura (ADENEX) wins the award in the Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain category for “its work in defense of the Extremadura region’s natural heritage over a span of four decades, in which time it has contributed to the designation of numerous protected spaces including large areas of dehesa and Mediterranean forest, woodland and scrub,” in the words of the citation. The jury described the association as exercising “solid leadership in Spanish nature conservation, working across a broad and diverse range of environmental issues. Its numerous Extremadura-based biodiversity conservation campaigns include wildlife conservation projects, the Biological Reserve Network to protect dehesa biodiversity, environmental education and surveillance, and heritage restoration.”

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London takes the Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation “for its extraordinary contribution to the preservation of the world’s plant biodiversity, through the creation of a seed bank holding 2.5 billion samples of plants from 190 countries.” The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), the jury says, “has established a global network of partners that have helped protect over 46,000 species” and “contributed significantly to preserving many of the world’s most threatened plant species.” This exemplary initiative, the citation continues “reflects how cooperation without borders can advance nature conservation worldwide and successfully address the central challenge of preserving biodiversity.”

The award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain goes to Fernando Valladares, a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and head of the Ecology and Global Change group at the Museum of Natural Sciences, for “his exceptional contribution to the dissemination of scientific knowledge on the great environmental challenges of our time.” The jury singled out “his regular contributions to mainstream media,” “his innovative projects on digital channels and social media, which have achieved a wide-ranging impact,” and his ability to “transmit the scientific evidence on the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity to society at large” expressing complex facts in plain, accessible language. He was also praised for “successfully drawing attention to the need to safeguard ecosystem biodiversity as a protection against future viruses.”

The protection of nature is an ongoing priority for the BBVA Foundation, which for over twenty years has supported research in ecology and conservation biology, conservationist projects based on scientific evidence, and the communication of knowledge and mobilizing of social awareness around diverse facets of conservation. The runaway decline in species and ecosystems confronting our planet means we depend more than ever on the people and organizations working to achieve meaningful, lasting outcomes in the protection of nature, like the winners in the sixteen editions of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation.

Established in 2004, until their 12th edition these annual awards were organized into three categories, two of them devoted to projects in Spain and Latin America. Since 2018, this latter category has been replaced by another recognizing conservation projects of particular significance and impact undertaken in any country. The third category, finally, recognizes endeavors in communicating the best available knowledge and raising awareness on the multidimensional issue that is conservation.

The awards for projects in Spain and worldwide each come with a cash prize of 250,000 euros, while the communication award is funded with 80,000 euros, giving  a combined monetary amount that is among the largest of any international prize scheme. The jury deciding the awards is made up of scientists working in the environment field, communicators, experts in areas like environmental law and policymaking, and representatives of conservationist NGOs (see list below), who bring to the table complementary viewpoints on nature conservation.

Biodiversity Conservation Projects in Spain: Asociación para la Defensa de la Naturaleza y los Recursos de Extremadura (ADENEX)

More than four decades protecting Extremadura’s natural heritage

ADENEX, founded in 1978, is among the pioneers of nature conservation in Spain. What sets it apart, says its current President, Jorge Vega, is “the cross-cutting nature” of its campaigns. In its over forty-year existence, this association, which currently boasts some 3,000 members, has worked on the conservation of areas, habitats and species, with a particular emphasis on the dehesa ecosystem so widespread in the Extremadura region. ADENEX was behind some of the first nesting platform initiatives for populations of the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), as well as carrying out censuses of species like the common crane (Grus grus), the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus) and the black stork (Ciconia nigra).

The association was also to the fore in what was a milestone achievement for conservation in Extremadura: the creation of Monfragüe National Park. The campaign began as a push-back against a scheme to plant eucalyptus woods to supply the paper-making industry planned for the region, in the late 1970s: “The area was home to the country’s highest densities of birds of prey, and the world’s largest colony of cinereous vultures,” explained ADENEX in its submission. So “after making countless representations to the Spanish authorities and international organizations, [we launched] an extensive media campaign and a fund-raising drive, and by this means were able to take a lease on two of the area’s biggest estates, which had been earmarked for forestry crops.” Shortly afterwards, in 1979, Monfragüe received the designation of National Park.

The creation and upkeep of biological reserves was another of its initiatives. In the mid-1980s, when Extremadura still lacked any official body charged with protecting its natural heritage, the association purchased a series of estates of high ecological value for conservation purposes. This was the start of the ADENEX Network of Biological Reserves, which today covers more than 367 hectares spread throughout the region. It also promoted the establishment of an Environment Agency in Extremadura, to manage this extensive natural territory and liaise between landowners and the administration.

ADENEX is also active in environmental education in the region, through activities like bird ringing, repopulation, the clean-up of natural spaces and school camps, which help connect local communities to their environment and promote volunteering. One example is Plantabosques, a voluntary reforestation scheme launched in 2003 in the wake of the wildfires that had ravaged the region. In its 17 editions, Plantabosques has annually mobilized around a thousand volunteers of every age, who have planted 360,000 trees in all of Extremadura.

“We see environmental education as vital,” says Vega. “Today’s Extremadura might look very different if we hadn’t spent forty years promoting these values. And they are values that remain: the association is older than I am! When it came into being, democracy was only just starting, and associations to defend nature were practically unknown. Now citizens are far more involved and there are more associations, many of them offshoots of ADENEX.”

But there is much still to do, he adds: “We have this constant tension between the conservationist movement and the prevailing model of industrial development, the ‘anything goes’ of economic growth.”

“We believe conservation should come first, but it has to be paid for. To date conservation has only been funded through tourism, the visitors who come to enjoy nature. But our natural heritage should be valued just as highly as the industrialized environment. We are the lungs of Spain and of Europe, and that has an economic value. In Spain, formulas to financially encourage the conservation of our natural heritage have yet to be developed, but models do exist.” In effect, working groups within ADENEX are drafting proposals to ensure that policies like the European CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and forest management in Extremadura make conservation a priority.

Worldwide Conservation Projects: The Millennium Seed Bank

A global network to safeguard plant biodiversity

“The plant biodiversity crisis is huge. Two in five plants are threatened with extinction, and all our lives depend on plants. The problem couldn’t be more serious.” Ecologist Elinor Breman, Senior Research Leader of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, sums up the climate of alarm that catalyzed the setup in the year 2000 of this global seed bank at the Wakehurst site of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (United Kingdom). “The project,” she explains, “started 20 years ago, but in fact evolved out of more than thirty years previous experience in seed physiology and biology at the Kew laboratories,” which employ over 300 scientists.

Today, the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) holds some 2.5 billion seeds from 190 countries, including Spain. Through its global network of partner organizations, the bank has already safeguarded over 46,000 species, equating to 16% of the world’s seed plants. For Breman, the key to its success has been international cooperation: “None of this would have been achievable,” she says, “without working with the fantastic organizations all over the globe who see the need to conserve their native flora and have joined us in the project.”

The MSB is not a single-site operation, but rather a network of interconnected banks located all across the world. These partner seed banks store material in their own countries, and send part of their collections to the MSB, where they are kept in cold storage rooms at 20 below zero. “The seeds we bank at our Kew site,” explains Breman, “are sort of a safety back-up, so if something goes wrong in-country, we can always repatriate material to them.”

In deciding which seeds to bank, the normal course is to prioritize the most threatened species. In fact, the MSB holds the seeds of species that are unfortunately now extinct in the wild. “Once a plant is gone, it is gone forever, but the seed bank means we have the opportunity not only to preserve it for now, but also for future generations.”

A cornerstone of the project, singled out by the jury, is the training of specialized seed storage staff. In its twenty-year existence, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has trained more than 2,000 people in a hundred countries to ensure that seeds are stored under the highest standards of efficiency and security.

“Training is central,” Breman affirms. “It is one of the things that keeps the worldwide partnership together, and one of the major things Kew has to offer our partners from its own knowledge base. Some organizations within the network have state-of-the-art facilities, but others have virtually no expertise or resources, so our aim is to progress those with less experience and help them arrive at a place where they can store material to international standards.”

But the MSB is not only making a salient contribution to the preservation of endangered plant species, it is also a leading-edge laboratory for research on plant biodiversity, with potential applications of enormous interest in the current climate crisis. Alexandre Antonelli, Science Director at Kew, offers the example of the coffee plant, describing how varieties studied in Kew’s labs have been found to be “more resistant to drought and heat waves, able to tolerate temperatures up to 6 degrees higher.”

In sum, the Millennium Seed Bank is not only helping to conserve plant biodiversity worldwide. It is also, says Breman, “providing opportunities to find solutions to global challenges like climate change, through holding and studying this precious material.”

Knowledge Dissemination and Communication: Fernando Valladares

A leader in popularizing environmental sciences

Fernando Valladares (Mar de Plata, Argentina, 1965) is described by the jury as a leader in science communication in Spain, and an example of how “a researcher with a world-class scientific career can leave the laboratory to communicate knowledge to the wider society in such an all-important area as the environment.”

Holder of a PhD in Biological Sciences from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Valladares is today a research professor with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), heading the Ecology and Global Change group at the Museum of Natural Sciences, and a lecturer at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His research has focused on the impacts of global change on terrestrial ecosystems and mechanisms of tolerance and resilience to extreme environmental conditions. However, beyond his scientific contributions, Valladares has for two decades now devoted much of his energies to disseminating knowledge. An endeavor which, the jury says, “stresses the need, indeed the duty to transmit the scientific evidence on the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity to society at large.”

A regular contributor to mainstream media, where he comments on the latest developments in the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and other environmental news, he is also an active communicator on social media, posting daily updates via his Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook channels, as well as running the ‘Ciencia Critica’ section of digital newspaper and publishing thought pieces on environment issues in media like The Conversation-España.

He began giving talks on the environment at the start of his career in science, but the turning point came when he turned his research attention to the impact of climate change on vegetation. “I had to keep up with the latest knowledge about climate change and then, before I knew it, I was delivering lectures aimed at the general public: in cultural centers, conference rooms, schools… ”

The definitive boost to his career as a communicator came at the end of 2018. “There was an international call for scientists to raise their voices, and I felt it was important to talk about climate change beyond what the IPCC reports were saying,” he recalls. “So I started to get involved in outreach through my social media, and in 2019 opened my own YouTube channel, The Health of Humanity, to explore the connections between people’s health and the health of the environment.”

Then came the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  And Valladares was moved to post a video on the origin of the virus, which caused a considerable stir on social networks. “I pointed out that it was not a question of bad luck, but more like an accident waiting to happen. In fact, the UN had been warning for years about the risk of a pandemic.”

Precisely one outcome of the pandemic has been an increased interest in scientific matters, and Valladares has taken pains in his outreach work to stress the linkage between biodiversity loss and the likelihood of new viruses of zoonotic origin (from other species) making the leap to the human population. “The pandemic,” he notes, “has taught us how vulnerable we are.”

One of the main stories going forward, he believes, will be the connection between economic, ecological and societal issues. “What kind of world do we want? Which direction do we want to go in? This debate about our model of society and an economic model that has unsustainable impacts is nothing new, but it is becoming more and more urgent.”

For the researcher, part of his success as a communicator owes to his ability to make the complex seem simple. “I like to do this exercise of conveying very complex things in the smallest possible number of very simple words, using language that is scientific but at the same time understandable. Every week I try to condense a scientific article, then explain it without straying from the truth, but locating it in everyday life and appealing to the emotions.”

“My ultimate goal is to help bring about a critical society with a bit of a scientific mindset, which looks for the truth behind each piece of news that comes along.”

Jury members

The jury in this edition was chaired by Pedro Jordano, Research Professor in the Department of Integrative Ecology at Estación Biológica de Doñana (CSIC). Remaining members were Araceli Acosta, Chief Press Officer at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, editor, La Verdad, Murcia; Caty Arévalo, Senate advisor and expert in environmental communication; Javier Benayas, Professor of Ecology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Abel Grau, Head of Communication with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC); Pablo Jáuregui, Head of Scientific and Environmental Communication at the BBVA Foundation; Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of WWF España; Cristina Ribas, Lecturer in Journalism at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF); Antonio Vercher, Chief Public Prosecutor for Environment and Land Planning; and Rafael Zardoya, Research Scientist at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC).