Earth Guardians

As industrial civilization continues to destroy the planet, the Equator Prize recognizes indigenous solutions that come from the natural world.

September 26, 2019

1:35 pm

"I don’t need computers to do magic for me," said Kelson “Uncle Mac” Poepoe. "My computer is nature."

Uncle Mac, of the Hawai'ian fishing collective Hui Mālama o Moʻomomi, is not a curmudgeon. But like many other members of indigenous communities around the world — the ones that are almost all on the front lines of the climate crisis and who bear the brunt of nature's wrath — he has more confidence in traditional methodologies than modern approaches. And for that, he was rewarded on Tuesday night with an Equator Prize.

The Equator Initiative announced 22 winners of the Equator Prize this year at a ceremony in New York's Town Hall. Each of the 22 winners of the UNDP-sponsored project "represents outstanding community and indigenous initiatives that are advancing nature-based solutions for climate change and local sustainable development."

Uncle Mac's Hui Mālama o Moʻomomi was one of two winners from Hawai'i this year, as the judges rewarded the organization for "Drawing on traditional ecological knowledge and values passed down for generations," including using the art of kilo, "which monitors moon cycles and their effects on marine species and ecosystems," and pono (responsible) fishing, which "ensures a healthy and abundant ecosystem."

Other winners were truly from around the world, from Micronesia to Indonesia, from Peru to Pakistan, from Brazil to Benin. And the proceedings had the pageantry of an Olympics ceremony, as each of the 22 winners strode onstage to accept their award in their traditional attire and draped in national flags for a colorful celebration, that also served as a reminder that the West doesn't have all the answers. Far from it — it is Western practices and behaviors that have caused the climate emergency in the first place, and the traditional ways of these winning ideas from indigenous communities might have some of the solutions to reverse Western transgressions.

Consider the plastic-alternative "miracle fruit" from Nigeria, the leaves of which "can be used as an alternative to the use of nylon for packaging local hot food." The winning team from Nigeria, Environmental Management and Development Trust (EMADET) "has built a dynamic network of women market traders of miracle fruit leaves in six towns by providing them with training in cooperatives and microcredit financing." Or the Ser-Thiac project of our Vanuatu, which "protects and restores tropical rainforests, sequestering carbon while reducing vulnerability to flooding, drought, and wind damage." The scalability of the latter is especially encouraging. "This initiative has reduced approximately 15,000 tons of CO2 emissions from avoided deforestation and forest regeneration. Ser-Thiac is entirely self-sustaining and will generate income from carbon sales for 30 years, with the option to extend through new generations."

The Equator Prize aims to level the playing field by rewarding the ingenuity of indigenous peoples. As National Geographic reported and was noted onstage at the ceremony, indigenous people comprise less than 5% of the world's population, but they live on land that contains 80% of global biodiversity. So they are, in essence, planetary protectors, the ones who most live up to the title of Earth Guardians.

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