Portraits of Forest Defenders: From Russia to the Amazon

September 3, 2015

Next week is the 14th World Forestry Congress where the global forestry community will gather to address key forestry issues. The event takes place only once every six years, presenting a unique opportunity for Prize winners and staff members to join the conversation. The theme for this year’s Congress is “Forests and People: Investing in a Sustainable Future.” With the latest count at 3 trillion trees which is the fewest there have been at any point in human civilization, this Congress couldn’t happen at a better time.

Since 1990, we have been recognizing grassroots environmental heroes who have dedicated their lives to forest conservation, and ensured that millions of acres of the world’s forests have been spared from destruction. Their methods have ranged from staging blockades, to social media campaigns, even putting their lives on the line. They have succeeded in their work by inspiring their communities to act for the greater good; and by recognizing that the importance of trees is beyond ‘root’-deep.

We profile six of these inspiring activists and Goldman Prize winners working in forestry conservation. Each share their personal significance of forests; from the ancestral and cultural to the ecological:

“In 1977, when we planted seven trees, many people thought that we were just joking because we were just a bunch of women. But many years later we are talking about millions of trees.” ~ Wangari Maathai

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Then-Senator Barack Obama plants a tree with Wangari Maathai during a ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya in 2006. (Green Belt Movement)

When Maathai was a young girl, she was told “study hard, so you can do something for the people of Kenya.” After seeing the almost total destruction of her country’s forestland — by 1977, Kenya’s forests had been cut down to 3 percent of what they’d once been — Maathai started a small tree nursery in her own backyard. What began a grassroots tree planting program, then became the foundation for the internationally recognized Green Belt Movement. By 1990, 10 million trees had been planted. Maathai’s movement has helped Kenyans become the protectors of their land.


“We are extremely connected to the land and river, both spiritually and practically. This place is sacred to us culturally as Asháninka.” ~ Ruth Buendía

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Ruth Buendía sits at the Ene river bank. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

2014 Prize winner Buendía united the Asháninka people of Peru to stop large-scale dams that would have flooded huge sections of the Ene River valley, one of the last remaining intact rain forests in the Amazon. Buendía’s leadership led to the rights of the Asháninka people to be recognized:

“My anger motivated me to protect my people. The hydro electric dam project was our wake-up call.”


“The forest is the abode of the spirits of our ancestors. If the forest disappears, the spirits of our ancestors will disappear with it.” ~ Dr. Nat Quansah 

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Baobab trees and their reflections in Madagascar. (Dr. Nat Quansah)

Dr. Quansah is an ethnobotanist working in Madagascar, a country believed to contain almost half of the world’s plant species. He opened the first clinic in the country that uses both traditional and Western medicine to serve thousands of the local Malagasy people. The clinic also serves to educate the community about the need for forestry conservation:

“They call Madagascar the land that time forgot. This island nation of ours is one of the richest storehouses of the planet’s biodiversity.”

Nat explaining importance of plants for healing to   American undergraduate students in the presence of a traditional healer at   Kingory Madagascar

Nat explains importance of plants for medicine to American undergraduate students in the presence of a traditional healer. (Dr. Nat Quansah)


“It became clear to me that bat conservation was at serious risk due to illegal logging, housing development and tourism near their habitats. This was an issue not just for the bat species, but for the complete balance of nature in several precious ecosystems.” ~ Suren Gazaryan

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Suren Gazaryan stands in a forest in Estonia. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

A zoologist by trade, Gazaryan was studying bats in the unique forests of Krasnodar region when he discovered that their numbers were falling due to habitat loss from development and government corruption:

“We are losing the site we’ve been studying. What is the point in studying it if we know we’re going to lose it tomorrow?”

After successfully halting illegal logging in the bat’s critical habitat, Gazaryan turned his attention to the Utrish Wildlife Refuge, home to plants and animals found nowhere else. The area also happened to be the planned site for then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s private summer villa. He staged a blockade and a successful social media campaign which reinstated the area’s protected status and stopped the project:

“Going forward my main goal is to continue to try to change people’s consciousness, so that they better understand nature isn’t just something we can sell off and get rich on. We have to preserve these places for future generations.”


“The philosophy of our people is that we regard the earth as the human body; that stone is our bone, water is our blood, land is our flesh and forest is our hair and our arteries. If one of them is taken away, we are paralyzed.” ~ Aleta Baun

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Mama Aleta stands in sacred forestland on Mutis Mountain, Timor island. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

When miners began to cut marble stones from Mutis Mountain on the island of Timor, Mama Aleta mobilized the women living in sacred forests nearby in peaceful protest. The women surrounded the mountains for nearly a year to protect their precious resources, leading the miners to evacuate the operation. However, this led to her becoming a target for the authorities and mining companies. Her life was threatened to the point she and her family had to go into hiding. Mama Aleta continues to work with communities in West Timor to map their traditional forests and protect their land from future mining projects:

“This struggle actually brought strength to me; to fight for the forest, the water and the stones.”

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“Conservation is the ultimate indigenous issue for these people to protect their forest.” ~ Paul Cox & Fuonio Senio

COX (found in outreach folder)
In 1988, people living in the village of Falealupo on Savai’i Island in Samoa were facing a hard decision; build a school by selling their rainforest or have no school at all. Using a combination of science, community engagement and sheer determination, ethnobotanist Cox and Village Chief Senio raised the funds needed to both build the school and protect one of the last remaining lowland forests in Polynesia. Chief Senio continued to defend the forest, even running 3 miles with a machete to stop illegal loggers:

“A lot of people talk about conservation. This man put his life on the line.” – Paul Cox

Through their unique partnership, Cox and Senio worked together to create a 30,000 acre rainforest preserve in Samoa.

Join our conversation on Twitter (@goldmanprize) as we follow the World Forestry Congress (#Forests2015).

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