We’ve created our very own list of our top “Eco-Warriors” from around the world. These five people have done some pretty amazing things for the environment and have made their own significant impact in both their local communities and on the international stage.
Wangari Maathai, Founder of the Green Belt Movement
Born in Kenya, Wangari Muta Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. While serving on the National Council of Women in 1976, Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. This initiative grew into a grassroots organization known as the Green Belt Movement. Since its beginnings, Maathai has assisted women in planting more than 40 million trees on community lands.
The Green Belt Movement continued to expand and established a Pan African Green Belt Network in 1986. The network served as an encouragement for other African leaders, resulting in successful launches of similar initiative projects throughout other African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, among others.
Maathai has taken her advocacy for human rights and environmental conservation worldwide. She has addressed the UN on several occasions and represented women at special sessions of the General Assembly during the five-year review of the Earth Summit. Her efforts with the Green Belt Movement have been internationally recognized and rewarded. While her list of achievements is extensive, her most notable award was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
While Maathai has been beaten, tear-gassed and imprisoned for her work, she is still committed to her initial vision that “all beings have intrinsic value and an inherent right to live, grow and evolve to their full potential through their self organization.” In an interview with the Nobel Foundation, Maathai makes it clear that her work has just started.
“Well, the issue of environment in Africa and the issue of good governance are issues that still need a lot of work on this continent,” she says. “And therefore I will continue to work in this work, and I know that [The Nobel Peace Prize] has given me a special responsibility as spokesperson, not only here in Kenya, but in the whole of Africa. And there is plenty to be done.”
Sir David Attenborough, Nature Documentary Presenter
Since joining BBC Television in 1952, David Attenborough has given the world a rare glimpse of desolate locales and their endangered species. His images, accompanied by his passionate narration, have made an impression on today’s media world. But most importantly, Attenborough has captured mankind’s impact on the environment.
According to BBC, an estimated 500 million viewers worldwide tuned in to Attenborough’s 13-part series, Life on Earth. Five years later in 1984 came its sequel The Living Planet, and the 1990 The Trials of Life completed the trilogy.
Attenborough’s other works include Life in the Freezer, a celebration of Antarctica, The Private Life of Plants and an epic 10-part series, The Life of Birds. In April 2005, Attenborough was awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen of England for his outstanding work in the arts, sciences and other areas.
Recently, Attenborough’s Planet Earth series has been a major success. After more than five years in the making, the 11-part series depicts never-before-seen animal behaviors and awe-inspiring scenes of isolated locations. In an interview with BBC, Attenborough illustrates the planet’s current situation and explains change is so important.
“There are things to be done at all levels: from using less power and being more modest about the demands that we put on the environment; to not using CFCs; voting for the right politician, who you think is supporting these ideals; and giving a few pence, every now and again, to appeals,” Attenborough says. “It’s about cherishing the woodland at the bottom of your garden or the stream that runs through it. It affects every aspect of life.”
Vandana Shiva, Founder of Navdanya (Nine Seeds)
“Over the past three decades I have tried to be the change I want to see,” says Vandana Shiva. Once one of India’s leading particle physicist, Shiva now dedicates her life to what she calls “Earth democracy.”
After leaving the academic world of science and technology in 1982, Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a participatory, public interest research organization with a mission to improve the wellbeing of small and marginalized rural producers through nonviolent, biodiverse organic farming and fair trade.
In conjunction to RFSTE, Shiva also started Navdanya (Nine Seeds), an organization that promotes indigenous culture, sustainable farming and biodiversity. Navdanya has a membership of more than 70,000 farmer families throughout 13 states of India. The organization has also established 40 Community Seed Banks, trained 200,000 farmers and conserved 2,000 varieties of rice.
Shiva gives heavy credit to the marginalized farmers she represents. She says her experience with this group has proven that literacy and doctoral degrees do not define knowledge. The tribals, peasants and women have exceptional ecological experience. Shiva calls them “biodiversity experts, seed experts, soil experts and water experts.” While Shiva holds a doctorate in Quantum Theory, she admits that she learned a great deal from these farmers about the roots and causes of their marginalization and poverty.
“The defense of nature’s rights and people’s rights have come together for me in Earth Democracy – the democracy of all life on earth, a living democracy which supports and is supported by living culture and living economies,” Shiva says.
Captain Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
“If the whales survive and flourish, if the seals continue to live and give birth, and if I can contribute to ensuring their future prosperity, I will be forever happy,” says Paul Watson.
Call him the good pirate. As an aggressive defender of wildlife, Paul Watson has lead more than 225 ocean-going expeditions, in the name of wildlife protection. While Watson spends most of his time patrolling the seas, he’s also made his own impact on land as a founding member of the Greenpeace Foundation.
When Watson parted ways with Greenpeace, he established the Earthforce Environmental Society in Vancouver, which later became the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977.
Today, Sea Shepherd still roams the sea under its mission to “end destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”
In October 2008, the organization announced the launch of its fifth Antarctic Whale Defense Campaign to defend whales from Japanese whaling fleets.
“We intend to sink the Japanese fleet economically,” Captain Paul Watson states in a press release. “Our strategy is to prevent whales from being killed, to force the Japanese whalers to spend money on fuel without killing whales. We will once again intervene against illegal Japanese whaling and once again we intend to save the lives of as many whales as we can with the resources available to us.”
Check out Watson’s latest expeditions on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. The show follows Watson and his crew into dangerous operations against whaling fleets in Antarctica.
Majora Carter, Founder of Sustainable South Bronx
It starts with one voice, and Majora Carter is the perfect example of just how important that one voice is. A native and current resident of South Bronx, N.Y., Carter proves that you don’t have to leave your own neighborhood to make a huge impact.
In 2001, Carter successfully shifted the Giuliani administration’s plans to more municipal waste handling to positive economic development. Shortly after, she took this idea and created Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental justice solutions corporation.
Her first project led to a $1.25 million grant that called for 11 miles of alternative transport, local economic development, low-impact storm water management and recreational space, resulting in the first new waterfront park in South Bronx in more than 60 years.
While the landscape of South Bronx has blossomed into a neighborhood of parks and recreation, Carter’s main focus is on intensive urban forestation, green roofing/walls and water permeable open spaces. Carter says these advancements will lead to cleaner air, less urban heat, reduced poverty and more jobs.
Poverty is a top issue for Carter as she continues to expand her organization. Sustainable South Bronx opened the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program in 2003. The program is one the nation’s first urban green-collar job training and placement organizations. Today, BEST has an impressive 85 percent employment rate.
In a 2008 interview with CNN, Carter explains how Sustainable South Bronx has evolved over the past seven years into an army for the people, improving the quality of life both economically and environmentally. She says design is the key to the future of any urban community – it should be a place where people want to make a life.
“Just because you have a piece of trash and you throw it away and it gets hauled away, it doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting someone else,” Carter says. “If we had bothered to recognize how close our worlds are, it would be harder for people to dismiss places like the South Bronx.”
Planting the Seeds
Twelve-year-old Madhav Subrmanian is different than most of his classmates. Subrmanian spends his free time writing poems, singing songs and selling merchandise on the streets of Mumbai to raise money for tiger conservation. After two years, the young Indian schoolboy has raised more than $9,500 for his Kids For Tigers program.
Subrmanian is the youngest activist to be featured in The Guardian’s “50 People Who Could Save the Planet,” further proving that it doesn’t take millions of dollars or worldwide fame to make a difference on a grand scale. These eco-warriors are perfect examples that change starts with one person and one goal.