Meet the four climate champions on 2022 International Women’s Day

On 8 March, International Women’s Day will be celebrated under the theme #Breakthebias. The Day serves to raise awareness of gender inequality around the world and celebrate women’s achievements.

Every year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recognizes heroes who inspire, encourage others to join them and defend a cleaner future through its Champions of the Earth Award.

Meet the women champions who are taking bold action to make our world a better place.

Sea Women Of Melanesia

To most people, fins, masks and neoprene wetsuits are recreational gear. But to the non-profit group SeaWomen of Melanesia, they are the tools of change. Clad in diving gear, the group’s 30-plus members chart the health of the fragile coral reefs that surround Melanesia, a grouping of island nations in the South Pacific. Their goal: teaching local women scuba diving and biology skills so they can monitor the health of coral reefs and create and restore marine protected areas.

The SeaWomen work in what’s known as the Coral Triangle, which covers some 5.7 million square kilometres between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and South East Asia. An area exceptionally threatened by surging human populations and waste levels.

The SeaWomen undergo rigorous marine science training, which is supplemented by practical training in reef survey techniques and coral reef ecology, and of course diving. Equally important, the SeaWomen say, is the fact they are challenging indigenous conventions about a woman’s role in her household, community and society.

“We’re trying to educate women, get women on board, so they can then go back and make an impact in their own families and their society as well,” said Apela.

Maria Kolesnikova

“We wanted to understand more about what was in the air that we were breathing, and what data the city was collecting in order to try and make things better,” – Kolesnikova, Director of MoveGreen.

In 2016, Maria Kolesnikova started volunteering for MoveGreen, a youth-led environmental organization based in Kyrgyzstan. Kolesnikova and MoveGreen were concerned with the air quality in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, a city of one million people that suffers from some of theworst air pollution in the world. During winter, it is often trapped under a dome of smog derived both from its natural environment.

Kolesnikova and the team first measured the air quality in Bishkek – something that had never been done before. They then started a campaign called School Breathes Easily to educate about the dangers of air pollution.

Today there are more than 100 air pollution sensors in Kyrgyzstan. MoveGreen – which Kolesnikova is now Director of – also developed an app called AQ.kg, which measures air pollution in real time in the country’s two biggest cities: Bishkek and Osh.

“So often, you can get demotivated as an activist – you work so hard, don’t see results of your endeavors and, finally, you feel like you don’t want to keep going,” says Kolesnikova. “But then you realize, no. Someone has to take responsibility for the future. Why shouldn’t it be me?”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

“We are really adapting the model of preventing zoonotic disease to COVID-19 prevention” – Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is a wildlife veterinarian who has spent three decades helping safeguard the world’s rarest and endangered primates – particularly mountain gorillas – in remote communities across East Africa.

Kalema-Zikusoka was the first-ever wildlife veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. There, she began to apply what was a new approach to working for wildlife – one that centred on improving lives and livelihoods in the remote villages that surrounded Bwindi.

She believes that enhancing the locals’ quality of life will lead them to be more supportive of conservation efforts. This ethos is the foundation of her own organization, Conservation Through Public Health, which she founded almost 20 years ago. The organization promotes hygiene, good sanitation practices and family planning in local communities. Kalema-Zikusoka’s model of village health is practised in areas near Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in areas of Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda.

Recognized globally for her work, Kalema-Zikusoka, says that she hopes she will inspire young Africans to choose careers in conservation. “There is a lack of local representation among conservationists,” she said. “We need more local champions because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries.”

Mia Mottley 

“Our world knows now what it is gambling with, and if we don’t control this fire, it will burn us all down” – Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados

When Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley stood up in front of the UN General Assembly in September 2021, she was not in a mood to pull punches. In front of world leaders, she decried the “faceless few” who were pushing the world towards a climate catastrophe and imperilling the future of small-island states, like her own.

The speech would grab headlines around the world and for many, it was an introduction to Mottley. But the Barbados Prime Minister, this year’s Champion of the Earth for Policy Leadership, has spent years campaigning against pollution, climate change, and deforestation, turning Barbados into a frontrunner in the global environmental movement.

Under her watch, the country has developed an ambitious plan to phase out fossil fuels by 2030. Her vision is for nearly every home on the island to have solar panels on the roof and an electric vehicle out front. She has also overseen a national strategy to plant more than 1 million trees, with participation from the entire population.

Mottley believes that addressing environmental decline can help stimulate economic development and combat poverty. She is also vocal about how developing nations, especially small-island states, are more vulnerable to climate change. 

About The Champions of the Earth

The Champions of the Earth award was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005. It is an annual awards programme that acknowledges noteworthy leaders from civil society, the private sector as well as the public sector whose actions have positively impacted the environment.

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