Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

UN, Alec Baldwin honor grass-roots efforts to slow climate change

Indigenous communities protecting land rights, resources are ‘true face of sustainable development,’ UNDP chief says

An indigenous group living on the border of Guyana and Brazil has used drones, smartphones and GPS units in a grass-roots effort to pinpoint deforestation and other environmental damage caused by illegal logging and mining in their territory.

These tools allow the South Central People’s Development Association, a federation of Guyana's Wapichan communities that had been reporting illegal logging and mining activity for years, to more quickly detect such activity and alert the community authorities who can then take action to stop perpetrators.

The association is just one example of a growing movement of indigenous and community-led efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainable development around the world.

The federation, along with 21 other groups, was honored Monday at the United Nations headquarters in New York City with the Equator Prize, an international award that recognizes outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty, protect nature and strengthen resilience in the face of climate change.

“This prize recognizes courageous indigenous and local communities who have developed and implemented innovative solutions around tackling deforestation and climate change and other forms of environmental degradation,” Helen Clark, administrator for the United Nations Development Program, said at a press conference.

“At the same time, they are also creating jobs, strengthening food security and improving local environmental well-being in other ways,” Clark said.

The prizes were announced Monday by U.N. officials as well as Academy Award-nominated actor Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria Baldwin.

“I’m here today as an activist who is genuinely concerned about climate change and how it affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” Alec said.     

Each winner will receive $10,000 and will send representatives to join a two-week community summit in Paris during the Conference of the Parties 21, in which a global climate treaty will be signed.

Iran’s Umbrella Group of Naghadeh NGOs, which succeeded in restoring over 3,953 acres of wetlands where previous government initiatives failed, also won. In the process of restoring the wetlands, the group improved livelihoods, water security and ecosystem functioning. The Oromia Pastoralist Association on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya won the prize after successfully using cross-border dialogue and resource sharing to end the cycles of violence resulting from climate-related resource conflicts.

The winners were chosen from a record number of 1,461 nominations from 126 countries, Clark said — a sign that these types of initiatives were part of what she called a “global movement.”

“This is the true face of sustainable development,” Clark said, adding that the examples show the world that “low-cost, innovative and local solutions do help the world to battle climate change and realize sustainable development.”

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told reporters that it is “at the local level that global action starts.”

Baldwin said he was inspired by the prizewinners, particularly by the Movimento Ipereg Ayu in Brazil — in English, the group's name means, “I am strong, I know how to protect myself.” The group succeeded in blocking the development of a Tapajos River dam complex that would have flooded their territories — 3,861 square miles of Amazon rain forest.

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