Honors in the 13th edition go to Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre, for its efforts to protect the resources of the Western Iberian Peninsula, in the Biodiversity Conservation in Spain category; Fundación Moisés Bertoni para la Conservación de la Naturaleza de Paraguay, for its work on the Mbaracayú Reserve, in the new Worldwide category; and journalists Rafael Serra, José Antonio Montero and Miguel Miralles, for their achievements at the helm of Quercus magazine, in Knowledge Dissemination and Communication.
22 November, 2018
As little as a century ago, only 15 percent of the Earth’s surface was given over to crops and livestock. But a recent global map of ecosystems, published in the journal Nature, reveals that over 77 percent of land, excluding Antarctica, and 87 percent of the oceans have been directly modified by human activity. In paper after paper, scientists have warned that these changes are driving a runaway extinction of species whose consequences for humanity are at least as serious as those of climate change. This problem cannot be addressed without the efforts of civil society organizations like those distinguished with the 13th BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation. In their honor, a broad cross section of the conservationist community gathered last night for the presentation ceremony in the Foundation’s Madrid headquarters, including naturalists, researchers, environmental organizations and members of the media.
The BBVA Foundation’s President, Francisco González, reflected on the social impact of environmentalist groups: “Conservationist labors were once a minority pursuit confined to a small number of organizations. But today, fortunately, the public has assimilated many elements of the conservationist message. We are lucky enough to have a wide spectrum of organizations, some local and some global, with the ability to get major programs off the ground: at times through collective forms of action or approaches to public and private decision-makers, at others by launching and managing conservationist programs. Both strategies are indispensable, given the scale of the threats confronting us in these first decades of the 21st century.”
“We still fail to realize how completely we depend on biodiversity,” remarked González, pointing out that without pollinating insects or the plankton that sustain the trophic chain, our civilization would cease to exist. “We take for granted that we will go on uninterruptedly enjoying the services that ecosystems provide, at the exact same time as we are gravely altering their balance.”
For the BBVA Foundation President, “it is fundamentally wrong to set the human species apart from the rest, as if the Earth’s remaining inhabitants were occupants of a stage and ourselves mere spectators. We humans too walk the stage of nature, and are the leading actors in all that unfolds there. Our very survival depends on being able to preserve the extraordinary richness of the planetary home we all inhabit, humanity’s shared abode; for the moment, the only place in the universe where we can say for sure that life exists.”
Aside from this “utilitarian” take on biodiversity conservation, Francisco González defends the complementary approach known as “biocentric conservationism,” whereby we choose to conserve out of a recognition that the forms of life with which we share this planet are valuable in themselves and deserving of respect.”
Francisco González had words for “politicians who continue denying or disregarding the evidence about the severity of the environmental challenge,” but also for “those leaders and decision-makers” who despite being better informed express “only lukewarm, generic support when we have the right to expect much more.”
“An encounter between society and nature”
The awards distinguish two long-running conservation initiatives promoting a sustainable relationship between humans and nature that benefits both the land and its inhabitants.
The winner in the Spain category is Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre for its work in protecting the lands of Western Iberia. The Foundation’s President, Carlos Sánchez, believes that “biodiversity conservation still receives little attention, despite the horrific crisis unfolding. The United Nations has warned that biodiversity loss is just as dangerous as climate change, and halting it is the responsibility of society and its institutions.”
On being presented with the award, Sánchez explained that “in the areas where we work we not only help preserve species and habitats, we also foster human development. We may not be able to legislate, but we can ‘reach agreements.’ And in that sense our work is an encounter between society and nature.”
In the new Worldwide category, the award has been granted to Fundación Moisés Bertoni para la Conservación de la Naturaleza de Paraguay for their work in the Mbaracayú Reserve, a relict patch of the forests that covered the region less than a century ago. Its Executive Director, Yan Speranza, took time in his acceptance speech to express the conviction that “the simultaneous, on-the-ground creation of economic, social and environmental value is what development is truly about, the development we call sustainable.”
For Speranza, “the conservation paradigm cannot be to be cut off from people, as if we were defending ourselves against them. Instead we have to keep integrating actively into local communities. This award commits us to go on innovating, to develop cutting-edge social technology that unlocks new opportunities to solve the complex problems facing these areas.”
The award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain goes to journalists Rafael Serra, José Antonio Montero and Miguel Miralles, for their work at the helm of Quercus, the doyen of Spanish nature magazines.
“Quercus is a monthly miracle,” said its director Serra, speaking on behalf of the three. “If someone proposed something similar today, any sensible person would reject it as unworkable. But there it stands, about to celebrate 37 years and 400 issues.” The reporter also referred to this being the first time in the history of the awards that recognition was extended to “a team, a collective that has made it their life’s work to keep Quercus coming out regularly”; three professionals who always believed that “this was a necessary magazine.”
The BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation
Established in 2004, the BBVA Foundation’s environmental awards previously included two categories for projects in Spain and Latin America. In the present edition, however, this last category has been scaled up to encompass conservation projects throughout the rest of the world, reaffirming the BBVA Foundation’s engagement with biodiversity conservation at a global level. Finally a third category is reserved for educational and communicative labors in this terrain so crucial to the future of life on Earth. The jury deciding the awards, which come with a combined cash prize of 580,000 euros, is made up of scientific experts, media professionals and representatives of NGOs (see list below), who contribute their complementary perspectives on nature conservation.
The awards in their time have found their way to a diverse set of winners, including major ecologist and naturalist organizations like WWF and SEO/Birdlife; associations concerned with a particular genus or species, like the Fundación Oso Pardo in Spain, the Program for the Conservation of Mexican Bats or the Southern Right Whale Program in Argentina; interventions on specific ecosystems, like the wetland campaigns of Fundación Global Nature; and public agencies performing an essential role in the defense of nature, such as environmental police force SEPRONA or the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office.
Awardees in the 13th edition
- Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre: sustainable human presence as an agent of biodiversity
The Western Iberian Peninsula contains one of Europe’s largest natural areas. A total of 2.5 million hectares stretching across the provinces of Salamanca, Cáceres and Zamora and the middle of Portugal, and home to species like the cinereous vulture, the black stork and the Bonelli’s eagle, as well as a multitude of habitats: among them, holm oak dehesa, river gallery forests, rock walls and temporary Mediterranean ponds. Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre is working to ensure that its human inhabitants remain on the land, engaging in sustainable activities.
This is a large but not very fertile terrain, with a harsh climate, far from major cities, and with no major transport infrastructures. These characteristics have favored the region’s robust state of conservation, yet some serious challenges hang over its future; foremost among them demographic ageing and depopulation. For, as Sánchez observes, “the history of this land is closely bound in with human settlements. The dehesa, in particular, is a landscape sculpted by man over the course of the centuries.”
For Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre “this zone is in urgent need of the kind of intense, active, coordinated management it is currently lacking, due to earlier failures to arrive at a coordinated approach.”
- Fundación Moisés Bertoni (Paraguay): the power of education as a conservation instrument
The area of influence of Mbaracayú Forest Nature Reserve in Paraguay ranks among the world’s richest in biodiversity: the last continuous remnant of Atlantic Forest in a country that has suffered severe deforestation, with over 90 percent of its tree cover swept away in just fifty years. Conserving Mbaracayú is the core purpose of Fundación Moisés Bertoni, established in 1981. And as part of this mission, it has resolved to bring on board the 30,000 people living in the zone, a diverse mosaic of groups including indigenous and peasant communities, generally of very limited means. The Foundation’s conservation model has forged a successful synergy between human wellbeing and the wellbeing of nature.
“When we began,” recalls Yan Speranza, “we realized that the only way to sustain the project to perpetuity was to work with the area’s inhabitants. Back in the 1990s, the paradigm in the conservation world was to keep away from people. But we said no, we cannot separate ourselves off, we need to connect with those who live here.”
The Foundation’s star project is the Mbaracayú Education Center, offering subsidized study places to young local women. “Educational access is generally poor in these parts, but girls suffer disproportionately. And that’s why we have concentrated our efforts on female education. Also, studies have found that, given the power, women will choose to invest in the family, with notable benefits for the welfare of their communities. It is amazing to see the effect training has on people that have never travelled beyond their immediate surroundings.” Between 2009 and 2017 some 250 pupils of limited means from peasant and indigenous communities earned a high-school diploma in environmental sciences at Mbaracayú Education Center, half of whom have since gone on to university.
- ‘Quercus’ magazine: “An unstinting commitment to nature conservation”
Month after month, the pages of Quercus offer the latest news in ecology and conservation biology, drawn always from the most reliable sources. It is without doubt the “doyen” of the Spain’s environmental press, in the words of the award jury. The magazine was born in 1981 amid the “ferment” of the country’s democratic transition, explains director Rafael Serra.
These were also the years of a burgeoning ecologist movement in Spain, and Quercus became a channel “for all that activity, and all those concerns.” From 1988 to 2013, the magazine was brought out by a powerful editing group, América Ibérica, but this support was withdrawn in the throes of the crisis and Serra, together with editor-in-chief José Antonio Montero, and design director Miguel Miralles, decided to acquire the Quercus name and take over its publication.
“It was pretty nerve-racking,” Serra relates, “but we were determined to keep Quercus alive. And in a sense we have returned to the spirit of those first years; to a magazine that is put together almost artisanally, with next to no advertising and relying basically on the support of buyers and subscribers.” Today’s magazine has a circulation of some 15,000 copies. However its impact is considerably greater, given that 700 of its subscribers are collective customers like libraries, universities and NGOs.
It owes much of its success to the fact that its main sources are “the people encountering environmental stories at first hand: NGOs, the scientific and technological communities and also incidental observers,” says Montero. That and “an unstinting commitment to nature conservation,” which the magazine’s editorial team shares with its readership.
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; Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, Director of daily newspaper La Verdad, Murcia; Caty Arévalo, Head of Communications at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Marta Barluenga, a Senior Researcher at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC); Miguel B. Araújo, Research Professor at the Spanish Museum of Natural Sciences (CSIC); Javier Benayas, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Marta Coll, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (CSIC); Juan Carlos del Olmo, General Secretary of ADENA/WWF Spain; Jesús Muñoz, a Scientific Researcher at the Real Jardín Botánico (CSIC); Josep Peñuelas, Principal Investigator in the Global Ecology Unit at CREAF (Centro de Investigación Ecológica y de Aplicaciones Forestales, CSIC); and Antonio Vercher, Chief Public Prosecutor for Environment and Land Planning.