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Women sweep UN’s 2021 ‘Champions of the Earth’ awards 

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the all-female Champions were chosen for their impact and leadership in advancing bold action on behalf of people and the planet. 

“These Champions of the Earth inspire, defend, mobilise and act to tackle the greatest environmental challenges of our time, including ecosystem protection and restoration”, the agency said in a statement.  

Environmental standard bearers 

The Champions of the Earth award is UN’s highest environmental honour. 

This year’s award recognises laureates in four categories: Inspiration and Action, Policy Leadership, Entrepreneurial Vision, and Science and Innovation.  

For the 2021 prizes, UNEP received a record number of nominations from all over the world. 

The agency’s Executive Director, Inger Andersen, said the winners’ profiles “demonstrate that all of us can contribute.” 

Every single act for nature counts. The entire spectrum of humanity has both a global responsibility and a profound opportunity”, she said. 

“This year’s Champions are women who not only inspire us, but also remind us that we have in our hands the solutions, the knowledge and the technology, to limit climate change and avoid ecological collapse.”   

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, by United Nations Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean/Bajanpro

Driving action  

Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados was honoured in the Policy Leadership category for her “powerful voice” for a sustainable world coming from the global south, consistently raising the alarm about the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States. 

UNEP calls the Prime Minister “a driving force” for climate action across the Latin American and the Caribbean region, the first region to agree on the Action Plan for the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. 

Under her leadership, Barbados has adopted ambitious renewable energy targets, committing to a fossil-fuel free electricity and transportation sector, by 2030. 

At the same time, the country is implementing numerous conservation and restoration projects, from forests, through cities, to the coastline and the ocean. She also co-chairs the One Health Global Leaders’ Group on Antimicrobial Resistance. 

The Sea Women of Melanesia, from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, were recognized in the Inspiration and Action category. The group trains local women to monitor and assess the impacts of widespread coral bleaching on some of the world’s most endangered reefs using marine science and technology. 

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, from Uganda, was given the top honour in the Science and Innovation category. She was the first-ever wildlife veterinarian of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and is a recognised world authority on primates and zoonotic diseases. 

As the CEO and founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), she leads the implementation of three integrated strategic programmes.  

The population of Solomon Islands, a nation made up of hundreds of isladns in the South Pacific, mostly live on high islands.
The Sea Women of Melanesia, from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands,  trains local women to monitor impacts of coral bleaching, by Aleta Moriarty/World Bank

Finally, Maria Kolesnikova, from the Kyrgyz Republic, was honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category. She is an environmental activist, youth advocate and head of MoveGreen, an organization working to monitor and improve air quality in Central Asia.  

Under Ms. Kolesnikova, the organization developed an app called AQ.kg, which collects data, every 20 minutes from the two largest Kyrgyz cities, Bishkek and Osh, about the concentration of pollutants in the air, including PM2.5, and PM10 and nitrogen dioxide.  

Ecosystem Restoration 

This year’s awards highlight the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which runs until 2030, coinciding with the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  

According to UNEP, by halting and reversing the degradation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the world can prevent the loss of one million endangered species 

Scientists say restoring only 15 per cent of ecosystems in priority areas and improving habitats can cut extinctions by 60 per cent. 

Since its foundation in 2005, the Champions of the Earth award has distinguished 101 laureates, including 25 world leaders, 62 individuals and 14 organizations. 

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