Biodiversity loss and climate change have already seriously upset the balance of life on Earth. Finding solutions to such vast challenges calls for a realist approach, and the design of global policies aligned with both the scientific consensus and the demands of a social majority. This was the message driven home at the ceremony for the 11th edition of the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, which took place this evening in the Foundation’s Madrid headquarters.
Speakers at the gala – attended by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and Food and Environmental Affairs, Isabel García Tejerina, and bringing together the leading voices in environmental protection in Spain – stressed the value of the interventions recognized at the event, which show that it is possible to provide solutions to the big ecological challenges facing humanity. “In addition to the direct benefits of their actions, the winners here tonight map out a path of promise that the rest of us can follow,” affirmed Francisco González, President of the BBVA Foundation. “The current situation is grave enough to warrant an alert call to society,” he continued, “and will require sustained and effective action from policy-makers in the public and the private sphere.”
Photo: Laureates and jury members during the presentation ceremony of the 11th BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, led by BBVA Foundation President Francisco González (in the center of the image), and with the presence of Isabel García Tejerina, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Environmental Affairs, and the Director of the BBVA Foundation, Rafael Pardo.
“A majority of the population consider biodiversity conservation and climate change priority issues,” explained the BBVA Foundation President, who went on to describe the laureates as “an example of how a clear-eyed reading of reality can lead to action, and action to solutions.”
“Guardians” of nature
The BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation seek to foster knowledge, action and awareness-raising in ecology and conservation biology by distinguishing individuals and institutions that have marshaled scientific knowledge to implement informed actions on the ground or to influence public opinion by means of outreach and awareness raising. They come with a cash prize of 580,000 euros distributed across three categories: two reserved for conservation projects in Spain and Latin America, and one devoted to biodiversity awareness. Nominees are evaluated by an independent jury made up of scientists, communicators and NGOs.
This year’s winning projects in Spain and Latin America were led respectively by Grupo para la Rehabilitación de la Fauna Autóctona y su Hábitat (GREFA), pursuing the recovery in Spain and Europe of the cinereous vulture and other threatened species, and the Conservation Land Trust (CLT), the NGO founded by philanthropists Douglas and Kristine Tompkins, whose work has enabled the creation of eight major protected areas in Argentina and Chile spanning over one million hectares of high-biodiversity land.
The award in the Knowledge Dissemination and Communication category goes to soundscape creator Carlos de Hita, for a body of work that has conveyed the beauty and fragility of nature by letting its sounds be heard in top news media, exhibitions, films and documentaries – from the song of birds to the roaring of an oil slick tide.
A corridor to Europe for the cinereous vulture
GREFA received the award "for its high-impact projects to conserve species, with a focus on birdlife,” in the words of the jury’s citation. Since its founding in 1981, GREFA has provided care to almost 70,000 wild animals, making its Hospital de Fauna Salvaje the largest of its kind in Europe. Many of the cured patients are subsequently enrolled in GREFA’s threatened species recovery programs, which include captive breeding, the reintroduction or reinforcement of wild populations, the tracking of released individuals and the monitoring of nests.
The recovery program for the cinereous vulture is one of GREFA’s most advanced. The first census of the species conducted in Spain, in the early 1970s, recorded 190 pairs at fifteen sites; now there are more than 2,000 pairs spread across over thirty colonies. GREFA has been at the forefront of this effort, working to recover species in strategic areas. In 2007, the group began recovering cinereous vulture colonies in the Pyrenees – in the Boumort National Game Reserve – where the species had been extinct for over a century. This project would prove “a total success,” in the words of GREFA’s President, Ernesto Álvarez: “We now have a Pyrenean population of over ten pairs, with a total of six chicks born to them in 2016.”
Last year, the group began work on forming a new cinereous vulture colony in Sierra de la Demanda, in the province of Burgos, from where this great, carrion-eating bird of prey had disappeared at least 60 years before. The project’s ultimate goal is not without ambition: to strengthen the species by connecting Spanish populations with recovering populations elsewhere in Europe.
Pioneers of environmental philanthropy
CLT is distinguished “for its major contribution to biodiversity conservation in Chile and Argentina.” In the early 1990s, Kris and Douglas Tompkins were at the head of two major corporations – he the founder of The North Face and Esprit, she the CEO at Patagonia Inc. – but they decided to change course and devote their fortune to preserving biodiversity. Their organization operates by buying up high-biodiversity tracts of land in Chile and Argentina for subsequent transfer to the state, on condition that it guarantees their upkeep in perpetuity. It is currently the world’s largest private land conservation initiative for the purpose of biodiversity conservation, straddling regions of Atlantic forest, wetlands, grassland, temperate rainforest, steppes and endemic Patagonian forest.
Doug Tompkins died of hypothermia in December 2015 after a kayaking accident in southern Chile. But the work he began continues today under the leadership of his widow. CLT’s latest achievement, the product of more than twenty years’ labors, is Iberá National Park in Argentina, whose creation was announced just one month ago. Iberá will join the other protected areas which owe their existence or expansion to the Tompkins’ endeavors over the space of a quarter century: national parks Monte León, Patagonia-Argentina and El Impenetrable in Argentina, and Corcovado and Yendagaia in Chile, along with the provincial parks of El Piñalito in Argentina and El Cañí in Chile, and a major enlargement of existing Argentine national park Perito Moreno.
The Trust not only buys up tracts of land but works to restore them through wildlife recovery programs, reintroducing or reinforcing populations of species such as the puma, the Andean condor or the giant anteater. It also facilitates the sustainable use of the ecosystem by local communities.
“Biodiversity conservation has been at the heart of our work since we left the business world. My husband always believed that the biodiversity crisis was the ‘mother’ of all our present crises,” says Tompkins, alluding to the “sad reality” that “only 3% of global philanthropic funding finds its way to the environment.”
Nature’s “soundscape artist”
Carlos de Hita takes the award “for his groundbreaking, innovative endeavors in recording and disseminating a wide range of nature sounds,” in the words of the prize jury. His “passionate dedication to familiarizing the public with the sound dimension of the natural world has earned him international recognition.”
De Hita is a sound technician but also defines himself as a “soundscape creator” or “story teller.” For almost thirty years, he has traveled Spain and most of the planet compiling the voices of Spanish, African, Asian and Amazonian fauna, along with the sounds of traditional labors and natural landscapes. The reality he captures is not always pleasant: his archive also finds room for the oil slick spilled off the coast of Galicia, or the inferno of forest fires, with what he described in his reports as “the anguished wailing of the pines, which seem to cry out as the resin catches light beneath their bark.”
Much of this sound repertoire has reached the wider public through leading news media, or forming part of exhibitions in museums, art galleries, interpretation centers or rural churches. Also films. De Hita has worked on some two hundred documentaries and six feature films with national and international producers, as well as publishing records, apps and guides to identifying animals by their sounds. He, however, describes his work as primarily “an excuse to get out into the country.” The best thing about the job, he insists, is “that to do it, you need to be in the midst of nature.”
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