By Sarah Frazer, SEEd Wellbeing and Community Lead

The Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a fundraising and grant-giving nature conservation charity working with 200 conservation leaders in 80 countries across the Global South, benefitting wildlife, landscapes, and people. The Whitley Award is not just about receiving financial support but also accelerates the careers of conservationists by welcoming them to the world stage. The recent 2024 award ceremony was a rare opportunity to stand in the same room as a group of people from the Global South making significant change in their community, and for us to feel the positivity of real change happening.

Inspiring Change Makers from the Global South

As in previous years, the awards winners displayed extraordinary creativity in developing models of change and ingenuity in overcoming barriers to change. What struck me most was the value of the award winners’ intimate knowledge of the land, sea and habitats and the humans that also inhabit the spaces. All award winners possessed exceptional abilities to understand the issues they are faced with and the people who are impacted.

Award winner Leroy Ignacio from Guyana told me “There has been enough researching, measuring and thinking, the thing that really makes a difference is doing something”. He told me with great pride that he has not been educated beyond high school. His work with the Red Siskin, a small and endangered finch, required a deep understanding of the local people. By raising awareness amongst his kin folk, they were not only able to adjust their land use practices, but also negotiated management of neighbouring government owned land. This opened up opportunities for paid employment for local people to become respected partners in preserving the biodiversity.

There is a great deal we can learn from their example of deep awareness of the physical and human landscape in which they operate. This enables them to analyse what needs to change and how they can facilitate that change. It is so different in each case, for example in the case of Raju Sharma safeguarding owls in central Nepal, he had to take into consideration 10 different ethnic groups each with their own set of social norms and superstitions. A major task for him was bringing such diverse beliefs towards a single shared goal.

The gold award winner Purnima Devi Barman told of her ingenious plan to change the decline in numbers of the Greater Adjutant Stork, another species that was victim to image difficulties. As a result of its more recent habit of scavenging off human garbage, this species had come to be seen as dirty vermin. Purnima looked to the strengths in community to change the fate of this important link in the wetlands ecosystem of Assam and across the region. She harnessed girl power! The Hargila sisterhood, as she called them, wove scarves bearing the image of this once highly regarded bird. They told stories that reversed the negative image, protected nests, and have inspired an army of conservationists. “When children accompany their mothers in the Hargila Army, it imbues our mission with deeper meaning.”

It is the lived experience of Naomi Longa that has enabled her to overcome some of the traditional barriers to women becoming involved in conservation in the Seawomen of Melanesai project. Women are trained to dive and undertake surveys of the coral reef, and advocate the change needed to protect the reefs from the effects of overfishing and habitat degradation. This also enables the women to develop skills and to take leading roles in the community, working alongside men as equals in the conservation work of the region. Here again, The Whitely awards are supporting environmental as well as positive social change.

The work of Fernanda Abra has involved respectfully gaining the trust of the Waimiri-Atroari indigenous community in the Brazilian rainforest in order to overcome the physical barriers that the construction of highways through the forests has presented. The road cuts through the territory and community of the Waimiri-Atroari and the local wildlife habitats. Fernanda has worked with the local people to build different types of rope bridges that act as wildlife highways through the canopies.

Aristide Kamla has taken a multi-pronged approach to tackling the devastation of Lake Ossa. Using biological predators to reduce an invasive species of marine plant and changing land use practice around Lake Ossa in Cameroon have all impacted not only the habitat of the native manatee but also the livelihood of locals who now are developing community managed fish farming.

Kuenzang Dorji is employing ingenious techniques to prevent Golden Langur monkeys of Bhutan from straying onto subsistence farmers’ land and risking being killed. Life sized toy tigers with recordings of their roar keep the Langurs away. Monitoring these margins is crucial to preventing further slaughter of this species.

I look forward to following the progress of each of these remarkable winners and to use their example of what can be achieved – to protect and preserve – through understanding the physical and human landscapes that influence our own territories. I also look to my local community to see where the changemakers are, and to amplify their work where I can.

Photograph from https://whitleyaward.org/2024/05/02/meet-the-2024-whitley-award-winners/