27 October 2003


Press Release


NAIROBI, 27 October (UNEP) -- Xie Zhenhua of China, who has worked tirelessly to steer the world's most populous country and fastest growing economy on an environmentally friendly path, is co-winner of this year's prestigious United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Sasakawa Environment prize.

He is joined by Dener Jose Giovanini of Brazil, whose innovative approach to curbing illegal wildlife trafficking has become a model, not only in Latin America, but also for the rest of the developing world.

The Prize, worth $200,000, which will be shared equally by the winners, is considered one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world.

Mr. Xie, Executive Vice-Chair of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development and Minister of State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA), will receive the prize from Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 19 November 2003.

He will be joined by Mr. Giovanini, founder of the National Network for Combating Wild Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS), at a special evening ceremony to be held at the New York Historical Society.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said:  “It is a real honour to award the 2003 Sasakawa Environment Prize to Mr. Xie and Mr. Dener Giovanini.  Both individuals have demonstrated, one at the governmental and the other at the grass-roots level, how the complex and apparently insoluble problems facing the world can be tackled.  Both have shown vision, patience, pragmatism and an understanding of the need to engage and encourage numerous actors and partners if sustainable development is to be realized.”

“It had, until recently, been an almost unchallenged belief that China's dramatic economic growth threatens the environment and health of the region, as well as the world.  By working through national, regional and local governments, Mr. Xie has shown that this does not have to be the case.  He has demonstrated that economic growth can occur without sacrificing the water, air and land upon which we all depend", he added.

“As Mr. Xie so clearly stated in his speech on Sustainable Consumption and Production, delivered to UNEP's Governing Council last February, ‘we must take the recycling economy road based on efficient use of resources and protecting the environment, and we then have the chance to achieve sustainable development’”, said Mr. Toepfer.

“Mr. Giovanini's achievements towards curbing illegal wildlife trafficking highlight that creative solutions to one of the world's biggest illegal trades can only succeed if the root cause – namely, poverty -- is also tackled.  His success is even more outstanding when one considers the constant death threats and intimidation aimed at him by those eager to see him fail”, added Mr. Toepfer.

Xie Zhenhua

Xie Zhenhua has, for over two decades, been engaged in environmental protection, working first in the Radiation Division of what was then the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) before, in 1998, becoming Minister of the newly formed SEPA.  The challenges facing China's environment have been unprecedented as a result of that country's remarkable economic growth which, in recent years, has been as high as 8 per cent a year.

That China has managed to achieve such growth while, at the same time, tackling such issues as water and air pollution and wildlife conservation, is in no small part due to the unflagging enthusiasm and vision of Mr. Xie.

Indeed official government figures show that, year after year, overall pollution levels have fallen as a result of measures taken by SEPA in close cooperation with other government departments and local authorities.

One of Mr. Xie’s most important contributions has been to persuade colleagues, both inside and outside Government, and both nationally and internationally, that economic growth without environmental protection cannot last.

Indeed, he has championed the need for sustainable development, for development that respects people and wildlife, well before the term became common currency.

In 1994, he mobilized efforts to introduce water pollution treatment projects in the Huai River Basin, which has given an estimated 200 million people clean drinking water.

In 1996, Mr. Xie, working with local government and economic departments, helped phase out polluting and out-dated processes, products and equipment linked with over 100,000 small- and medium-sized companies.  It has led to a shift in Chinese manufacturing towards low-pollution, low-resource-intensive industries and products.

Other notable achievements include the promotion of protected areas and reserves.  China now has over 1,700 nature reserves covering an estimated 13 per cent of the country.

Mr. Xie is credited with diverting a new natural gas project, which was originally planned to run through a reserve established to protect some of the world’s last wild Bactrian camels.  Thanks to his efforts, the project was re-routed at a cost of $25 million.

He has taken an active, personal role in promoting model cities that combine economic growth with environmental protection.  There are now an estimated 32 such cities in China including Dalain, Shenzhen and Xiamen.

During his tenure at NEPA and SEPA, China has enacted seven key national laws dealing with issues such as air pollution and solid waste, more than 30 environmental regulations and over 400 environmental standards.

Mr. Xie has piloted China's involvement in international environmental treaties, including the Montreal Protocol, which covers the protection of the ozone layer.  Measures have included spearheading low-cost substitutes for ozone-damaging chemicals.  The World Bank estimates that the total amount of ozone-damaging chemicals phased out in China amounts to half of the developing world’s reduction of such substances.

A strong believer that dialogue and cooperation between nations can help solve shared environmental problems, Mr. Xie has helped China sign agreements with more than 30 countries, and last year, in Beijing, he assisted in bringing together environment ministers from Asia and Europe for the first time.

Mr. Xie said today:  “This award represents the full recognition and affirmation by the United Nations and the international community of China's endeavours and achievements in the field of environmental protection and sustainable development.”

Dener Giovanini

An estimated 12 million animals, ranging from parrots and macaws to monkeys and reptiles, are illegally traded in Brazil each year to supply collectors and laboratories across the globe.

It is part of a global illicit trade in wild animals which, according to estimates by some experts, is the third largest after the illegal drug and arms trade.  In Brazil alone, the value of trade is thought to be around $1.5 billion a year.

The trade not only puts pressure on wildlife, already suffering from a range of other environmental threats, but also continues a cycle of dependency among some sections of the rural Brazilian population that, for generations, have hunted and fished in the forests.

The cycle is being driven by rapid urbanization and other pressures, which in turn, are making it harder and harder for them to catch food.  In order to survive, many have turned to illegal hunting and poaching to supply the illicit trade.

In 1999, Mr. Giovanini established a revolutionary scheme to curb and, it is hoped, ultimately end the illegal trafficking.  It holds great promise for other developing countries facing similar threats.

Called the National Network for Combating Wild Animal Trafficking, or RENCTAS, the Network addresses both the cause and effect of the illegal trade by harnessing public support and offering alternative, wildlife-related livelihoods for would-be poachers.

One key element of the scheme involves linking police and customs officials with a national network of over 230 voluntary veterinarians to ensure that any wild animal that is seized at an airport, or roadblock, or during a raid, gets the best possible care.

An increasing number of seizures are as a result of tip-offs from the public to RENCTAS, which in turn passes the information on to police and customs personnel.  A special Web site has been established to help informants to give information.  It is now getting around 150 tips a day.  The scheme has resulted in the arrest of 100 individuals since it was established.

The RENCTAS also believes that training and public awareness are key to fighting the illicit trade.  Over a two-year period, it has trained more than 1,600 government agents including police personnel and customs staff.

The Network has also helped rehabilitate offenders and those on low incomes who have become involved in the illegal wildlife trade.  In collaboration with Brazil's National Zoo, former wildlife poachers have been taught how to develop habitats and to care for wild animals.

This has helped boost the number of animal-care centres.  The number of people trained through these programmes rose from 35 in 1999 to nearly 900 in 2001.

It is a measure of RENCTAS’ multifaceted, creative and successful approach to wildlife trafficking that the Network has not only attracted a great deal of media attention but now boasts a membership of 600 non-governmental organizations and 39,000 individuals.

Mr. Dener said today:  “The UNEP Sasakawa Award is highlighting a much over-shadowed problem in Brazil.  Most certainly, the award will not only give the issue greater visibility, but also make us stronger in our efforts to overcome it.  We would like the world to know we are waging a battle of uneven forces and that we are fighting against the economic power of organized crime that destroys our fauna.  We hope everyone will gain awareness of, and become committed to, this cause.  Biodiversity is the most valuable heritage we can possibly convey to future generations, and it is ours to preserve.”

The UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize, sponsored by The Nippon Foundation and founded by the late Ryoichi Sasakawa, has been awarded annually since 1984 to individuals who have made outstanding global contributions to the management and protection of the environment.

Past winners include:  Nobel laureate Professor Mario J. Molina, for discovering a new reaction sequence involving chlorine peroxide, which accounts for most of the ozone destruction in the Antarctic; Dr. Ashok Khosla, one of the world’s great environmental thinkers and innovators, who has combined life in the glittering halls of academia with on-the-ground livelihood and development schemes for the rural poor; Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper from Brazil who died leading the fight against cattle ranchers’ destruction of the rainforest; Lester Brown, former director of the Worldwatch Institute, whose writings were instrumental in alerting the world about the threats to the biosphere; Dr. M. S. Swaminathan of India, father of the economic ecology movement; and Ian Kiernan of Australia, founder of the Clean Up the World campaign, in which more than 120 countries participate.

The 2003 Prize winners were selected on 1 July 2003 by an independent and distinguished panel of international leaders and environmentalists chaired by Lord Clinton-Davis, Chairman of Europe 21, Joint President of the Society of Labour Lawyers, a Life Peer of the House of Lords and former Minister for State, Department of Trade and Industry in the United Kingdom.

For more information and to obtain the 2004 nomination forms, please contact:  Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, on tel.: 254 20 623292, mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org; or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on tel.: 254 20 623084, mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, e-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org.

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For information media. Not an official record.