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ICRAF scientist wins National Geographic-Buffett Award

June 14th, 2012

The creator of a grassroots environmental movement in Mexico and a forestry/agroforestry conservationist in Cameroon are this year's winners of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation.

Martha "Pati" Isabel Ruiz Corzo, founder of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda I.A.P., is the recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation; Dr. Zacharie Tchoundjeu, principal scientist and regional director for West and Central Africa for the World Agroforestry Centre, wins the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

The award ceremony will be held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 14. Established through a gift from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to recognize and celebrate unsung heroes working in the field, the awards acknowledge the winners' outstanding work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation in their countries.

"It is an honor to participate with National Geographic in recognizing the achievements of these two remarkable visionaries who are making such a positive difference to conservation in their countries," said Howard Buffett.

Zacharie Tchoundjeu has made invaluable contributions toward the conservation of biodiversity in the Congo Basin, the development of sustainable agricultural techniques for small-scale farmers and the training of a new generation of African scientists and environmentalists. As the regional director of the World Agroforestry Centre, based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, he leads international teams in 21 West and Central African countries that are focused on agroforestry, forest conservation and domestication of high-value indigenous fruit trees and medicinal plants, with the aim of enhancing the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

Throughout his life Tchoundjeu has worked with local farmers to find solutions to ending poverty and environmental degradation. He currently works with farmers and indigenous communities to select plant species from the wild and adapt them for cultivation on small farms. He has developed and adapted vegetative tree propagation methods that lead to early fruiting, replication of desired traits, easy reproduction of species whose seeds are difficult to collect and conservation of valuable species. Through these efforts, thousands of small-scale farmers have been trained in simplified but efficient techniques of domestication and have been able to generate sustainable incomes, especially in the area of fruit trees, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and other important crop production.

Recognizing that environmental education was largely lacking in Central Africa, Tchoundjeu created the International Bilingual Academy of Yaoundé (BAYSUP) in 2010. A joint project with the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Gent and the University of Yaoundé 1, it is dedicated to enhancing agroforestry, environmental management, sustainability and conservation of Central Africa's tropical forests and the people whose welfare they sustain. A central goal of BAYSUP is to teach environmental sustainability and conservation to students starting at kindergarten level. A Higher Institute of Environmental Sciences will be operational in January 2013.

Tchoundjeu also has published more than 115 papers and co-authored four books. He helped launch the new Cameroon chapter of COACh International, a grassroots organization aimed at building scientific leadership capacity that develops and provides training workshops to women faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Pati Ruiz Corzo founded Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), a local grassroots organization, with her husband and local residents in 1987 to rescue the Sierra Gorda bioregion in Mexico from the destruction of unregulated development. GESG has set the standard in Mexico for a "conservation economy," establishing a new paradigm in natural protected area management with widespread local community participation.

GESG is a living model of community-based conservation management. Thanks largely to GESG's efforts and Ruiz Corzo's leadership, the Sierra Gorda — comprising a third of Mexico's Queretaro State and considered the area with the most ecosystem diversity in Mexico — is now a UNESCO and federal Biosphere Reserve and is the largest federal protected area with participatory management in the world. It spans 1 million acres, and its 35,000 residents own 97 percent of the Reserve's territory.

Ruiz Corzo's efforts to include local communities in the management of the Reserve make her a pioneer in the conservation field. Her leadership has created opportunities for rural, low-income communities in the areas of ecotourism, reforestation, soil restoration, ecological livestock management and other profitable microenterprises.

Over the past 25 years, GESG has organized environmental education for the community members, who regularly take part in clean-up campaigns, solid waste management, soil restoration and other conservation activities. Community volunteers operate 115 recycling centers. Thanks to the residents' stewardship of the Reserve, more than 13,000 hectares of regenerated forest and woodland has been recovered over 15 years.

Ruiz Corzo and her team have developed online and on-site courses that allow others to replicate the GESG model, which is now being applied beyond the borders of Mexico.

Ruiz Corzo also has pioneered the concept of valuing the "natural capital" of the region — the Sierra Gorda has been validated by the Rainforest Alliance and is the first forest carbon project to achieve this milestone in Mexico.

National Geographic Society/Buffett Award recipients are chosen from nominations submitted to the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, which screens the nominations through a peer-review process.

"This year's awardees are recognized for their outstanding leadership and the vital role they play in managing and protecting the natural resources in their regions. They are inspirational conservation advocates, who serve as role models and mentors in their communities," said Peter Raven, chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration.

Provided by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

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