The Equator Initiative: 20 years of local action tackling global challenges

April 5, 2022

For 20 years, the Equator Prize has been shining a spotlight on local solutions for climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressing challenges.

Image: Equator Initiative

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Equator Prize, when UNDP and partners of the Equator Initiative recognized the local successes of 28 Indigenous and local community initiatives for their cutting-edge solutions on nature, climate and sustainable development.

The winners’ solutions tackled the pressing issues of the time – biodiversity loss, climate change and deforestation, exacerbated by the crushing weight of inequality. Twenty years on, evidence abounds that these issues have only intensified, to the point of becoming existential for humanity.

The latest UN Biodiversity report shows that we are entering a period of mass extinction – we are on track to lose a million species within the next three decades. The latest UN Climate report states that the window for action to keep damage at a minimum is closing rapidly, even as the impacts of climate change are starting to outpace our world’s ability to adapt. This year, deforestation in the Amazon was on track to see the fastest pace in 14 years, while we have already lost more than 62 million hectares of tropical forests between 2002 and 2019. And a recent UNDP report on human development showed that inequality has reversed as much as 20 percent of development gains.

The 2002 Equator Prize winners tackled these challenges and many others, including food security, water security and land rights, with their innovate and integrative nature-based solutions. For example a new model of ‘locally managed marine areas’ put sustainable fisheries management – and food security – in the hands of local communities in Fiji, a rubber tappers’ collective in Brazil helped secure Indigenous rights and sustain livelihoods while keeping trees standing, and a community conservation area in Kenya showed how a community-based ecolodge could sustain the needs of local pastoralists while benefiting nature conservation. In fact, many of the gains in land protection and biodiversity conservation over the past two decades have been at the hands of Indigenous peoples.

This year’s Equator Prize categories – systemic transformations

This year, the Equator Initiative is running the 13th Equator Prize, which will shine a spotlight on initiatives by Indigenous peoples and local communities that represent three systemic transformations from business-as-usual practices, showcasing a path for a sustainable future.

Creating a planetary safety net

The first transformation is the urgent need to create a nature-based planetary safety net for humanity. This category includes solutions to both protect and restore essential ecosystems that can safeguard food and water, sequester carbon and sustain the livelihoods of billions of people. Given that up to a quarter of land’s terrestrial surface is managed by Indigenous peoples, safeguarding the rights of Indigenous people to their lands and territories is central to creating a planetary safety net.

Redefine prosperity and development

The second transformation is the urgent need to redefine the very nature of development. In 2020, UNDP released a ground-breaking Human Development Report focusing on human development and the Anthropocene. The report found that no country had achieved a high level of human development without first having had a significantly negative environmental impact. This category includes integrating nature into development plans and policies, ensuring the rule of law in defending nature, and promoting nature-positive policies for communities around the world so that society can finally decouple human development from environmental harm.

Creating a new green and inclusive economy for the future

The third transformation is the urgent need to create a new economy – one that provides for society’s needs without undermining the natural capital upon which all life depends. This category includes accelerating a shift from business-as-usual practices in natural resources to sustainable and regenerative practices in agriculture, agroforestry, forestry and fisheries. It also means putting local communities and small businesses at the heart of fair and sustainable supply chains, ensuring that commodities do not contribute to deforestation, and promote just and inclusive bio-economies.

Now is the time to act – we can’t wait another 20 years

Fifty years ago, the United Nations Conference on the Environment launched a new era in global environmental action, creating the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment. The same year, the Club of Rome published a landmark report, called ‘The Limits to Growth,’ the first to clearly state that maintaining a trajectory of unchecked population, industrialization, over-consumption and pollution would result in an existential crisis for humanity. That crisis is now upon us.

Thirty years ago, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro launched a blueprint for international action on the environment – Agenda 21 – including launching the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

We already knew fifty years ago that we needed to drastically change the trajectory of our development decisions. But actions at the national level have been slow and sporadic, and we are running out of time. Supporting, replicating and scaling up innovative local action on nature and climate is one of the fastest ways to catalyse progress. For 20 years, the Equator Prize has been shining a spotlight on local action. So far 264 Equator Prize winners have been awarded the prize, each of them showcasing a viable path toward a more sustainable, liveable future for all.

Never has the process of identifying Indigenous and local success stories been more important. The nomination for this year’s Equator Prize is now open through 8 April. Please visit the Equator 2022 online nomination system to nominate candidates today!