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14th edition award presentation ceremony

The Biodiversity Conservation Awards call for a greater collective and individual commitment in tackling the environmental crisis

Only by involving the whole of society will it be possible to alleviate the grave biodiversity crisis that is decimating life on the planet. This was one of the main messages to emerge from the BBVA Foundation’s Biodiversity Conservation Awards ceremony, held today in the Foundation’s Madrid headquarters. The gala paid tribute to the opinion-swaying power of the awardees, as well as their efforts to conserve ecosystems and species.

25 November, 2019

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Fondo para la Protección de los Animales Salvajes (FAPAS)

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The Jane Goodall Institute

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Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha

The laureates in this 14th edition are Fondo para la Protección de los Animales Salvajes (FAPAS), for protecting Cantabrian species and ecosystems; The Jane Goodall Institute, for its work conserving chimpanzees and their ecosystems; and Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha, for the exceptional quality of his nature documentaries.

The Director of the BBVA Foundation, Rafael Pardo, remarked on the fact that this 14th edition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, recalling the “invaluable environmental legacy” of that astonishing first image of our planet seen from the lunar orbit: “The ‘discovery’ of the Earth from space was a spur to the next decade’s wave of social activism calling for the protection of the fragile planet that is ‘humanity’s shared home’ – not just to ensure the survival of our own species, but also that of all the other beings with whom we share and cohabit this singular oasis of life. But advances in changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviors do not last forever. They need to be reactivated periodically, seeking new ways to amplify the evidence-based conservationist message and translate it into action.”

For this reason,” he continued, “the work of our awardees, both individuals and organizations, is of incalculable worth,” contributing to “activate citizens’ engagement with the preservation of nature. They encourage us to make changes in numerous aspects of our personal lifestyles; changes which, together with public policies and business strategies, can have a decisive impact in finding solutions to the current situation.”

A situation, adds Pardo, which science has shown to be of alarming proportions: “The expression ‘sixth great extinction’ is not just a media label, but evidence based on the best research. So when political leaders question the existence of a serious environmental crisis, they are in fact using the public space to convey an archaic and idiosyncratic outlook that turns its back not only on the best knowledge but also on the views of the great majority of people who have made the researchers’ diagnosis their own.”

For the Director of the BBVA Foundation, it would be “excellent news” if the upcoming climate summit in Madrid “concluded with a firm commitment by world leaders to put in place mechanisms that limit global warming to significantly below 2º C on average with respect to pre-industrial levels.”

A sustained commitment

The Biodiversity Conservation Awards ceremony has become an annual meeting point for researchers in conservation biology, ecologist associations, environmental communicators and institutions engaged in conservation.

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 mobilizing of social awareness on this crucial issue.

Established in 2004, the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation are funded with a total of 580,000 euros across their three categories: Biodiversity Conservation in Spain (250,000 euros); the Worldwide Award (250,000 euros); and Knowledge Dissemination and Communication (80,000 euros). The awards jury is made up of scientific experts, media professionals and representatives of NGOs (see list below), who contribute their complementary experiences and perspectives on nature conservation.

In their fourteen editions, the awards have found their way to a diverse range of people and projects, from organizations focused on a particular species – like the Iberian lynx or Cantabrian brown bear – to campaigns to preserve extensive habitats such as the Iberian south-east or wetland systems, or even ways of life, like transhumant grazing, compatible with the sustainable use of resources.

Also distinguished have been public agencies performing an essential role in the defense of nature, including environmental police force SEPRONA or the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office.

The Communication award likewise reflects the multiple ways that the conservationist message can be forcefully put across, with laureates working in such diverse areas as the print and audiovisual media, photojournalism, illustration and sound stories.

FAPAS: Biodiversity Conservation in Spain

The award to FAPAS distinguishes the extensive trajectory of this association born in Asturias in 1982, when a group of friends set out to halt the disappearance of vulture populations in the Picos de Europa. FAPAS has since become one of the most active groups in the conservation of the Cantabrian ecosystems’ most representative species, among them the wolf and the Cantabrian brown bear.

Its work draws on a deep-seated knowledge of the terrain, its inhabitants, and the interdependences that link them together. To sustain that knowledge, it has called on the support of a simple but effective technology known as the photo trap, with cameras that fire automatically when an animal crosses in front of the lens.

FAPAS began installing these cameras in the early 1990s, and now has over one hundred in place, providing round the clock surveillance. The thousands of images generated in this period have delivered findings with major implications for conservation practice, among them the observation that the region’s brown bears eat carrion on emerging from hibernation, and that when this food source fails they have more conflicts with beekeepers, whose hives they attack in search of alternative proteins.

It was FAPAS too that first alerted to the drastic decline in honey bee populations, now acknowledged as a global environmental and economic problem of the first magnitude. One culprit was the Varroa mite, a parasite introduced by Asian bees imported to Europe, but so was the gradual abandonment of mountain beekeeping, a millennia-old practice in these parts. FAPAS’ campaigns have since succeeded in improving pollination in montane ecosystems to the benefit of bees, bears and beekeepers alike.

“We started from nothing, when there was next to no interest in nature conservation,” said FAPAS president Roberto Hartasánchez in his acceptance speech. He also expressed his satisfaction that “among the endeavors that have earned us this wonderful award are, precisely, our organization’s independence and its work with wolves, a species that has a fraught relationship with human society.”

Environmental associations have, in his view “become increasingly dependent on the support of the authorities. We, however, have refused to accept any kind of public funding so as to keep our independence, and this award means we can continue to do so; it provides a vital injection of support at a time when the ecologist movement is disappearing.”

Jane Goodall Institute: Worldwide Award

It was in 1960, at the age of 26, that Jane Goodall ventured 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 unique capacity which distinguishes 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

In the early 1990s, Goodall chose to shift her focus from science to conservation. Since 1994, the Institute that bears her name has conserved over half a million hectares of chimpanzee forests by creating new protected areas that cover 42% of the animals’ Tanzanian habitat. Its activities have focused from the outset on lending support to local communities, offering them economic, healthcare and educational resources, and getting them fully involved in the development of its projects.

And the strategy has worked. The decline in the primates’ population inside Gombe National Park has stabilized, with records showing an average of 96 individuals between 1994 and 2016. At the same time, the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education Project – abbreviated as TACARE and pronounced “take care” – has helped the people restore fertility to their land while introducing water management programs throughout the region. The model, moreover, has been replicated in a further four African countries (Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Uganda).

“This award is a significant recognition for JGI’s efforts in conserving chimpanzees and other biodiversity, using our Tacare approach which ensures that communities are involved in the decision-making process of conservation,” said Alica Macharia, the Institute’s Vice President for Africa Programs, in her speech at the ceremony. This model, “unique in its time,” has amply proved its worth. “Over the last three decades, the commitment we have experienced from communities has fueled the continued growth of our work and impact into even more parts of Tanzania and the chimpanzee range. Women, men and youth have become champions for chimpanzees and their habitats.”

Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha: Knowledge Dissemination and Communication

The work of filmmaker and naturalist Joaquín Gutiérrez Acha ( Madrid, 1959) combines scientific rigor in the observation of Iberian wildlife with great formal and artistic beauty. These qualities shine through in films like Guadalquivir (2014) and Cantábrico (2017), premiered in leading cinemas to wide and emphatic acclaim.

Gutiérrez Acha started out as a largely self-taught environmental reporter, contributing articles and photographs to the top specialist magazines of the early 1980s, Quercus among them. A decade later, with several industry awards behind him, he began exploring the world of the nature documentary “in rough and ready fashion, with a second-hand film camera.” He was in awe, he recalls, of the storytelling skills of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, to whom he declares himself deeply indebted.

The product of these labors was El latido del bosque (1997), a documentary on the Los Alcornocales Nature Park between the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga, and the first commission from National Geographic entrusted to a Spanish director shooting in Spain. He went on to make El diablo de los matorrales (2000) with the BBC, a documentary on the Egyptian mongoose, one of the most violent of Iberian wildlife species. And that same year he again worked with National Geographic, on Blindados en la noche (2000), a feature-length film on scorpions and other armed arthropods.

In 2010, he made the leap to the big screen with Entrelobos, a story based on real events about a child raised in the wild by wolves. The film was shot in Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro Nature Park (province of Córdoba), with Gutiérrez Acha taking on the direction of Radio Television Española’s Nature Unit. In 2014 came Guadalquivir, the first feature-length wildlife documentary to be nominated for a Goya Award, following in 2017 by Cantábrico, one of the most ambitious productions to date on the subject of Iberian wildlife, which also earned a Goya nomination for the Best Documentary Film.

Soon to see the light is his film Dehesa, which depicts the ecosystem of the title, Gutiérrez Acha explains, as “an artificial, manufactured woodland, where man and wild animals walk together.”

“Spain is an inexhaustible store of resources for a nature documentarian; we live in the most biodiverse country in the European Union,” remarked the filmmaker in his speech. “Nature documentaries are an important educational tool and a fundamental means to better understand the world we live in. This knowledge base is the foundation stone for advancing in its conservation.”

Jury members

The jury 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 Royal Botanic Garden (CSIC); and Antonio Vercher, Chief Public Prosecutor for Environment and Land Planning.