9 February 2012

Press Conference on 2011 Forest Heroes Awards

9 February 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on 2011 Forest Heroes Awards

Everyday people — from a Japanese oyster fisherman cultivating his business by planting trees in an estuary devastated by the 2011 tsunami, to two Michigan teenagers campaigning to ensure Girl Scout cookies and other palm oil-based products were deforestation-free — were among the panellists sharing their grass-roots approaches to forest preservation at a Headquarters press conference today.

The press conference was convened to celebrate the first-ever Forest Heroes Awards, bestowed by the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat on winners from five regions, as part of the events in New York marking the end of the International Year of Forests (2011).  The international selection jury chose the winners from among 90 nominees from 41 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America.

Jan McAlpine, Director of the Forum on Forests Secretariat, hailed the winners as “quite an amazing group of people who have made a huge difference around the world”.  They were:  Paul Nzegha Mzeka from Cameroon; Shigeatsu Hatakeyama from Japan; Anatoly Lebedev from the Russian Federation; Paulo Adario from Brazil; and Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva from the United States.  Also present was Laisa Santos Sampaio, participating on behalf of special award honourees José Claudio Ribeiro and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo, two Brazilian anti-logging activists tragically murdered in late May 2011 while trying to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Speaking through a translator, Ms. Santos Sampaio, sister of the late Ms. do Espírito Santo, said that for 10 years, the couple had worked tirelessly — and under constant threat — to protect indigenous lands by denouncing the illegal logging and charcoal production that was decimating indigenous plant species in the region.  Moreover, the companies carrying out megaprojects there did not respect the culture of the Amazon’s indigenous communities, she said, noting that extractive agencies were destroying the forest at an alarming rate.  The murdered couple “wanted the world to help the people living there and to help preserve the forest”, she recalled.

Mr. Mzeka painted an equally troubling picture of a vastly different ecosystem, the Cameroonian Highlands, saying that as Director of the Apiculture and Nature Conservation Organization, he had teamed up with other activists to help 30 communities protect watersheds and conserve community forests by planting some 685,000 trees there.  Such work was critical because the highlands were continually being cleared for firewood, timber and new farmland, said the 77-year-old activist.  The 15,000 square mile area only maintained an estimated 3.5 per cent of its historical forest cover, he said, recalling that, in his youth, forests had covered 48 per cent of the region.

“This has happened in my lifetime,” he said, explaining that today the forest merely dotted the vast region “in patches”.  Yet, where wooded areas existed, his organization and other groups insisted that people living around them work to preserve them.  Scientists had recently discovered 18 new varieties of plants, several of which were on the World Wildlife Federation’s list of endangered or threatened species, he noted, agreeing with the other winners that political will was essential for success in the struggle against forest destruction.  In Cameroon’s case, the Government had given individual communities the right to own and exploit their local forests, as an incentive for preserving them.

Also speaking through a translator, Mr. Hatakeyama recalled that earlier in his career he had written a book about the history of oyster harvesting in New York.  However, on arrival in Manhattan for the events marking the end of the International Year, he had visited the famous Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station only to find that barely anything on the menu was locally sourced.  Everyone should recognize that what had once been a legendary industry in New York City had been decimated by pollution and the introduction of invasive species, he said.

Mr. Hatakeyama said that similar concerns had spurred him to promote the critical role of forests in maintaining clean water for his oyster beds and others throughout Japan, adding that he had been planting trees in the forest surrounding Kesennuma Bay for 20 years to protect the natural habitat of oysters.  In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, he had stepped up his calls to tackle mountain, forest and ocean issues simultaneously, including by promoting education and awareness-raising programmes for young people living by the Bay.

Mr. Adario, describing his work through the Greenpeace Amazon campaign, said he had been living in the region since 1997, documenting and investigating forest destruction.  “But this is not a local problem in Brazil,” he said, stressing that when tress were cut down in that great rainforest, or equally important ones in Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “it affects you in Sweden and the United States”.  The humidity produced by the Amazon generated most of the rainfall for an area stretching from central Brazil down to Paraguay and even to the Midwestern United States.  “This is not a game we can lose,” he emphasized, warning that, “if we do, it will be a moral failure for us all.”  Protecting forests was not only for environmentalists, he said, stressing that it required political will from Governments.  The International Year had been established not to celebrate their beauty, but to consider ways to protect and preserve them.

Ms. Vorova said that she and Ms. Tomtishen had become interested in the fate of the world’s forests as 11-year-olds searching for a project that would earn them a Bronze Award from the Girl Scouts.  Inspired by Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, they had looked into the situation of orang-utans, under serious threat in Indonesia and Malaysia due to the palm oil industry’s “clear-cutting” forest practices.  Ms. Tomtishen added that, when they had turned over a box of Girl Scout cookies and discovered that palm oil was a key ingredient, they had realized that there was “no reason that such destruction should take place so we can eat cookies and candy bars”.  A five year campaign to press multinational corporations to change their practices had been born.  “We never considered that our daily decisions were leading to deforestation, human rights abuses or species extinction,” she said.  Kellogg’s, maker of Girl Scout cookies, and Cargill, a major player in the palm-oil industry, had taken some action towards sustainable practices, which was “a step in the right direction”, although not a solution.

Recounting a similar story, Mr. Lebedev said he had led a successful 20-year campaign against a construction project that threatened indigenous and wildlife territories in Siberia, a region under immense ecological pressure as it sat squarely between the world’s two largest tiger habitats.  His efforts had resulted in a national ban on logging in cedar forests, as well as measures to bolster protection for the critically endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard.  He said he had always been struck by that fact that humans, who lived a mere 80 years on average, believed they could decide the fate of trees that lived thousands of years.  Those “amazing creatures” held centuries of knowledge and culture, and created unmatched ecosystems, he stressed.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.