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Communities can be role models for sustainable development

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UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner presents a certificate to Equator Prize winners during an awards ceremony in New York. Photo: Arnaldo Vargas

The United Nations, governments, civil society, business, thought leaders and media gathered in New York on 17 September to celebrate the winners of the Equator Prize 2017. The 15 prize winning communities successfully advance innovative solutions for poverty, environment, and climate challenges.

The Equator Prize 2017 winners joined a prestigious group of 208 previous Equator Prize winners that have been recognized by the UNDP Equator Initiative partnership since its inception in 2002. Together, these prize winners tell a compelling story about the power of local action. This year, among the winners is the Federación de Tribus Indígenas Pech de Honduras, a cooperative that sells an essential ingredient in the international fragrance and flavor industry.

Across the Atlantic, the Mali Elephant Project works in a region torn asunder by violent extremism to protect the endangered African elephant and advance local development priorities. Moving further east, in Indonesia, Raja Ampat Homestay Association has created an innovative, community-run web platform for ecotourism, garnering over 600 new jobs for the community and catalyzing the creation of 84 community businesses, all while conserving fragile marine ecosystems.

The stories of these groups are not simply colorful reminders that people can live in harmony with nature. They illustrate how community action is essential to achieve sustainable development.

In 2015, the world agreed to an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From ending extreme poverty and hunger, to ensuring resilient communities, to ensuring water security, to sustaining life on land and life below water, this agenda defines the world we want in 2030. Achieving these goals will require a significant departure from business as usual.

A small boat carrying several people across a tranquil waterwayIn Indonesia, Equator Prize winners Raja Ampat Homestay Association has created a web portal for community homestays that promote local development and ocean conservation. Photo: Raja Ampat Homestay Association

Take the environment as an example – on our current trajectory, we will lose 68 percent of biodiversity by 2020. We are losing a rhino every eight hours, and an elephant every 15 minutes. Losing biodiversity also hurts the economy – we have lost US$20 trillion dollars in economic value since 1970 due to the degradation of ecosystems and the disappearance of biodiversity.

Further challenges arise from the trends we will face over the next 13 years, as we look towards 2030. With 1.3 billion more people on the planet, demand for food will increase by 35 percent, for water by 40 percent, and for energy by 50 percent.

We are approaching, and may have already surpassed, the planetary boundaries that define the thresholds of sustainability. We must learn to stay within these limits, to address the coming challenges, and to not only stem the loss of biodiversity but to transform nature to become an engine of sustainable development.

We at UNDP believe that no one actor – not governments, not companies, not cities and not NGOs – can achieve the SDGs alone. We also believe that local action will be an essential component to achieve the goals. Local communities and indigenous peoples face the very real consequences of biodiversity loss and climate change daily – consequences which can mean life or death for their families, communities, and ways of life.

The Equator Prize teaches us that these same communities excel in developing innovative tactics that deliver high-impact, scalable solutions to address these challenges and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Group photo of Equator prize winners on stage during the awards ceremonyThe 2017 Equator Prize winners gather on stage during the award ceremony. They join a prestigious group of more than 200 previous winners honoured by the UNDP Equator Initiative partnership since in 2002. Photo: Arnaldo Vargas/UNDP

Our awardees demonstrate that successful approaches combine multiple sustainable development benefits. Each Equator Prize 2017 winner’s actions address at least five SDGs in a holistic way. In Kenya, for example, Mikoko Pamoja is the first community-based initiative of its kind to sell carbon credits generated through the protection of mangrove forests. The community reinvests income from these credits into clean water and education, providing a virtuous cycle of development dividends that deliver on SDG1 (no poverty), 4 (quality education) and 6 (clean water and sanitation), in addition to SDG13 (climate action), SDG14 (life under water), and SDG15 (life on land).

Equator Prize winning communities also show that investing in nature is an effective and efficient pathway to sustainable development. Because its mangroves were intact, the village of Bang La in Thailand was largely spared the devastating force of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The community formed an association – the Mangrove Forest Conservation Group of Bang La Community – to legally protect their mangroves for future generations, at a fraction of what the cost of rebuilding a devastated community would be.

Every year I look forward to celebrating and honouring environmental heroes like these. Our venue for the Equator Prize Award Ceremony gala is a testimony to the power of local action – The Town Hall theatre in New York City was built in the early 1920s as a meeting place for a vibrant group of suffragists. The success of their struggle shows us how the commitment and perseverance of a small group of individuals can change the world for the better. Just like these suffragists, the Equator Prize 2017 winners provide powerful stories of hope amidst chaos, showing us that local action can create powerful impacts for people, planet and prosperity.


This article was first published by IPS.

Nik Sekhran Blog post Agenda 2030 Sustainable development Indigenous people Development Effectiveness

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