The BBVA Foundation recognizes FAPAS for the protection of ecosystems in Cantabria, the Jane Goodall Institute for its work conserving chimpanzees and Gutiérrez Acha for the beauty of his documentary films

The protection of species and ecosystems promoted from its base in Asturias by the Fondo para la Protección de los Animales Salvajes (FAPAS); the conservation of chimpanzees and their ecosystems led by the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania; and the exceptional quality of the nature documentaries directed by Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha have been distinguished in this 14th edition of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation.

2 October, 2019

FAPAS takes the award in the Biodiversity Conservation in Spain category “for its sustained and wholly independent on-the-ground activity over more than three decades on behalf of the species and ecosystems of Cantabria,” in the words of the jury, which singled out “its contribution to the protection of the brown bear, scavenger birds, wolves and ospreys, and the recovery of pollinators including bees.”

The BBVA Foundation Worldwide Award for Biodiversity Conservation has been bestowed on the Jane Goodall Institute “for its extensive track record and major global impact in conserving biodiversity, particularly chimpanzees and their ecosystems in Tanzania, with a pioneering approach that privileges the involvement of local communities.”

Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha, director of documentaries like Guadalquivir and Cantábrico, receives the award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain “for capturing the essence of nature in diverse regions of Spain through a sophisticated and striking audiovisual language that incorporates traditional lifestyles and activities.” His work, adds the jury, “has resonated with the international public on account of its extraordinary rigor, quality and beauty.”

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 biodiversity afflicting 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 fourteen editions of the BBVA Foundation Biodiversity Conservation Awards.

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. As of the last edition, this latter category was 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, communicators, experts in areas like environmental law and enforcement,  and representatives of NGOs (see list below) who bring to the table complementary viewpoints on nature conservation.

Biodiversity Conservation in Spain: 35 years conserving the wildlife of Cantabria

The BBVA Foundation Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Spain has been granted to the Fondo para la Protección de los Animales Salvajes (FAPAS) for its project FAPAS in Action: Over 35 Years Conserving Biodiversity.

The award distinguishes the extensive trajectory of this association born in Asturias in 1982, when a group of friends set out to stop the disappearance of vulture populations in the Picos de Europa, which by then had dropped to an all-time low of just eight pairs. Throughout these almost four decades, FAPAS has become one of the most active groups in the conservation of representative species of Cantabria; some of them, like the brown bear and the capercaillie, seriously under threat. FAPAS technicians were also the first to warn of the dwindling of bee populations in the Cantabrian Mountains, a phenomenon with serious consequences for biodiversity and the rural economy and now recognized on a global scale.

For Roberto Hartasánchez, President of FAPAS, speaking on the phone after hearing of the jury’s decision, the award is not just a recognition of the work done over all these years, but also “a vital injection of support at a time when the ecologist movement is in danger of disappearing.” Environmentalist associations, he continues, “have become increasingly dependent on the support of the authorities. We have turned down all kind of public funding in order to keep our independence, and this award means we can continue to do so.”

FAPAS pioneered the use of a nature observation tool whose results have fed back into conservation practice: the “phototrap,” or the installation of cameras that fire automatically when an animal crosses in front of the lens.

These cameras, which were first installed in the early 1990s, allowed FAPAS to document little known animal behaviors, like the Cantabrian brown bear’s appetite for carrion. This insight led them to campaign against a European regulation in the mid-2000s that ordered the removal of all dead animals from fields as part of the fight against “mad cow” disease: “We went to Europe and warned them that this provision could jeopardize the survival of an already threatened species,” Hartasánchez recalls, “and the great thing was that they changed their minds.”

This example is more than merely anecdotal, because it touches on the bears’ coexistence with human communities: “In the absence of carrion, the animals began to consume proteins in the form of beehive larvae, which meant a new clash between the bear and beekeepers,” Hartasánchez explains. Today, much of FAPAS’ activity  involves convincing the population to go back to leaving carcasses in the fields, a practice that is once again legal and that benefits not just the predators – bears and also wolves – but beekeepers, and of course farmers.

FAPAS now operates around a hundred automatic cameras that survey the territory 24 hours a day. As well as producing thousands of images of scientific interest, they  are a vital arm in the fight against poaching, another threat that FAPAS has stayed alert to, and which it has reported as being on the rise in recent years.

An early milestone in FAPAS’ history was its discovery of a particular link between bears and bees, at the end of the 1980s. Members of its expert teams put the various pieces together: beekeepers’ complaints that their bees were dying from some unknown cause; the absence of blueberries; and an increase in bear attacks on hives. “We realized that if there were no bees there could be no blueberries, which are part of the diet of the bears,” Hartasánchez relates. FAPAS’ response was to plant more than 1,500 fruit trees in bear-inhabited zones, complementing this initiative with the design and installation of bear-proof beehives.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the natural world’s foremost pollinating agent; an essential link in the fruit-producing process for more than 80% of our flowering plants, but now totally reliant on humanity for its survival. With its “Hives for the Bear” project, FAPAS has installed over a thousand bear-proof hives in lands the animals inhabit; now bears can get to the food without destroying the hive, favoring the direct pollination of flora and the formation of new swarms of bees.

FAPAS is also active on the Cantabrian coast. Among its goals is to boost the presence of the osprey in  the region’s river mouths, a raptor considered to be a marker of a well-conserved nearshore environment. Since 2006, specifically, FAPAS has been rolling out conservation measures like the installation of nests and perching sites along the coastline of Asturias, where the species is known to have once bred.

Biodiversity Conservation Worldwide: the saving of the chimpanzee

It was in 1960, at the age of 26, that Jane Goodall made her first venture into the Gombe forests (Tanzania), to initiate her pioneering research on the behavior of chimpanzees under the supervision of celebrated British anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey. Her observations there brought the first proof that these primates are able to make and use tools, a revolutionary finding that challenged the long-held notion of a boundary separating human beings from all other animal species. Not only that, Goodall showed that chimpanzees are individuals with their own distinct personalities, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions and of forging strong social ties within their groups that withstand the test of time.

But Dr. Goodall did not stop at discovering chimpanzees’ astonishing cognitive and affective abilities. She also realized the critical situation these primates were facing as a consequence of deforestation, hunting and the overexploitation of land, and reached the conclusion that they would shortly be extinct unless steps were taken to halt the deterioration of their habitat.

But she was also sure that the chimpanzees would only survive if something was done to improve the living conditions of the human residents sharing this African land. “You can’t ask people to protect chimpanzees,” said the primatologist yesterday after hearing of the award, “when they have to struggle every day to meet their families’ most basic needs.” It is for this reason that the conservation program led by the institute that bears her name lends support to local communities, offering them economic, healthcare and educational resources, and getting them fully involved in the implementation of its projects through the medium of environmental education programs.

“It is vital to get local communities engaged in conservation, so they understand that it is their own future that is at stake. We have achieved this goal in as many as 100 villages in the region,” Goodall explains, “with training programs that have turned many young people into forest rangers who fight for the conservation of chimpanzees and are now very proud of their work.”

In a  sustained effort of over thirty years, starting in 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute has conserved more than half a million hectares of Tanzania’s chimpanzee forests by creating new protected areas that cover 42% of their habitat in the African country. This initiative has served to stabilize the decline in the primates’ population inside Gombe National Park, with records showing an average of 96 individuals between 1994 and 2016. The success of the project is evidenced by the fact that its “community-centered” conservation model – based invariably on providing support and environmental education to local communities – has been replicated to preserve biodiversity in a further four African countries (Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Uganda).

The so-called “sixth great extinction” is never far from Goodall’s mind. She laments that “we have cut ourselves off from nature, despite the fact that we are part of it and depend totally on ecosystems for our survival.” The great paradox of our species, in the view of this primatologist, is that we may end up causing our own downfall. For, as she puts it, “how is it possible that the most intelligent creature on the planet is destroying its only home?”  Yet despite what she describes as the “inexplicable” rise of political leaders who question the deterioration of the environment and the importance of protecting nature, Goodall believes that the mass protests in defense of the Earth being staged by young people in the world’s major cities “are our best hope for the future.”

“I am truly thrilled and honored at this recognition of the extraordinary work being done by all those forming part of our project in 34 countries ,” said Goodall yesterday in reference to the  award. “And I am sure that it will give a new impetus to our work, including the magnificent job being done by the Spanish group on our project in Senegal.”

Knowledge Dissemination and Communication: capturing the essence of nature with “quality, beauty and rigor”

Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha (Madrid, 1959) is a naturalist, director, producer and photographer of nature documentaries for cinema and television.  The “extraordinary rigor, quality and beauty” that the jury finds in his work, are precisely the attributes, he says, that he aspires to in all his films: “It is important to strike a balance between doing things with absolute truthfulness and letting the animals speak for themselves through their actions.”

He defines himself as a member of “the generation that grew up in thrall to the documentaries of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente,” an influence that awoke in him an early yet passionate vocation: to become a maker of wildlife documentaries. Self-taught, he learned on his own to handle film cameras in formats of 16 millimeters and super 16, the standards demanded by the main specialized production companies of the time.

“Leaving my skin print on the image,”as he graphically describes it, his goal from the outset was “to capture hitherto unseen images, and film things in an unconventional way, with the help of the newest emerging techniques.” And his reward came with a commission for the first co-production financed by National Geographic entrusted to a Spanish director shooting in Spain: El latido del bosque (1997), a documentary on the Los Alcornocales Nature Park.

For more than twenty years he worked on co-productions for television distributed by prestigious global leaders in nature documentaries like the BBC or Survival Anglia Television, as well as the aforementioned National Geographic, almost all of them featuring the wildlife  and natural spaces of Spain: “I believe that what we have here is an endless bounty that was still waiting to be explored, especially through the use of advanced filming techniques.”

In 2009, he embarked on his first cinematographic  project, Entrelobos, a fictional work based on real events, with the collaboration of Radio Televisión Española. Gutiérrez Acha was at the helm of the Nature Unit that  carried much of the film’s weight.

He has since focused on large cinema productions that have reached a wide audience. In 2014 he produced Guadalquivir, the first feature-length exclusively nature documentary nominated for a Goya Award. But perhaps his biggest success was Cantábrico, nominated for a Goya in 2018 and also a major box office hit.

Gutiérrez Acha sees his métier as a vehicle to raise awareness: “Mounting a camera in the countryside is something very special; it is an instrument that can draw attention to the life of an endangered animal and showcase our country’s species and landscapes. Scientific research is important to understand species and their conservation, but so too is the communication side, since it can attract a public that might be put off by the technical language scientists employ.”

He is currently finishing editing a new documentary for cinema, Dehesa, alerting to the grave threat confronting this “artificial forest, created by man,” an ecosystem unique to the Iberian Peninsula. He is hopeful that it will achieve a similar audience success to his two previous films, indicating that “we have managed to raise awareness and effect a real change in society”.

Jury members       

The committee in this edition was chaired by Rafael Pardo, Director of the BBVA Foundation. Remaining members were Araceli Acosta, Chief Press Officer at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Caty Arévalo, Head of Communications at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Miguel B. Araújo, Research Professor at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC); Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of WWF España; Javier Gregori, Chief Science/Environment Editor with radio broadcaster Cadena SER; Eulalia Moreno, Research Professor at the Arid Zones Experimental Station (CSIC); María Teresa Tellería, Research Professor at the Real Jardín Botánico (CSIC); and Antonio Vercher, Chief Public Prosecutor for Environment and Land Planning.