Saving the environment is exhausting work, but you’d never know it by looking at these five champions. These individuals have spent their lives working to ensure sustainable living models, and that work has paid off immensely.
Some started their efforts in their own backyards, with nary a degree or education in sight, a few spent decades educating themselves on eco-friendly alternatives; others paid the ultimate price for their work. So let’s take a moment to applaud these five green pioneers from around the world.
1. Chico Mendes – Preserving the Amazon
At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.
Born in 1944, Mendes started life as a rubber tapper in Xapuri, Brazil. Spending the formative years of his life doing hard labor, like many children on these plantations, he was not allowed to attend school. Mendes didn’t actually learn to read until he was 18 years old.
That didn’t stop him, though. In the mid-1960s, the rubber market fell out and tappers across the country began selling their lands to farmers, who cut down the trees so their cattle could graze. Not only did Mendes stop them through nonviolent protests, he also set up a number of labor unions for tappers, in order to protect their rights and the rights of the environment. Working to develop sustainable forms of rubber tapping, he fought for the rights of indigenous people, and created policy that still influences how we view the Amazon to this day.
He received numerous awards throughout his life, and was invited to Washington DC where he convinced the Inter-American Development Bank to rescind plans for a road through the Amazon.
Sadly, Mendes was assassinated in 1988 by a cattle farmer who had grown tired of his activism. His death made international headlines, and he was mourned as a pioneer of Brazil’s environmental activism.
2. Yacouba Sawadogo – Halting desertification
From my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, we were always here.
Yacouba Sawadogo was born to a peasant farmer in a small village of Burkina Faso. Growing up, he saw how the desertification of the Sahel was stripping away his village and culture piece by piece. The Sahara Desert, which is as large as the United States and spans the breadth of Northern Africa, has been moving into towns and villages for years, wiping out ancient cultures and civilizations. Unable to sit by and do nothing, Sawadogo began a process of trial and error that would end with him succeeding where so many before him had failed.
A single man, digging holes, or ‘zai’ around the encroaching desert, Sawadogo has done more to combat this problem than any organization, scientist or development fund. In fact, numerous environmentalists now come to Burkina Faso to study him, and the methods he created. First he placed small stones around the parched soil, which acted as a catchment, keeping water soaking in for longer periods. Then he dug holes and filled them with manure and termites, who helped break up the soil. The combination of water and cultivated soil created an amazing result: crops and forests began to grow.
Although his fellow villagers thought he was a madman at first, and burned down the forest he was able to create out of the desert, Yacouba persevered, and simply started over again.
This man, with a simple vision of preserving his childhood village, now speaks at environmental conferences in Washington DC and beyond.
3. Sim Van der Ryn – Green Architecture
The issue was much larger than the building. I never forgot that.
Seeking refuge during WWII, the family of Sim Van der Ryn emigrated to New York City from Holland. It was here he discovered his passion for architecture, but unlike most engineers, he took it a step further, and let his love for nature inform his work. Incorporating materials and designs that would work in symbiosis with nature while meeting the needs of humans became his life’s work.
Not only did Van der Ryn start positioning homes to maximize solar potential and natural light, but he took risks with a number of innovative materials. One of his goals was to use only materials developed locally, to cut energy dependence and scarcity issues. Re-purposing and recycling became a driving force for Van der Ryn. So it became his life’s work to develop cost efficient ‘green’ housing.
After being appointed the State Architect of California, he spearheaded the first government sponsored campaign for environmentally sustainable office buildings, helped the state adopt a number of energy standards, and then to top it all off helped create disability access standards across California.
He has won numerous awards for his life’s work and currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
4. Craig Venter – Scientist
Most people working on these problems talk about linear progress. I like to think in terms of exponential patterns of change.
One of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, Craig Venter is a man that plays by his own rules. Born in Salt Lake City, he spent his early life without direction. However, after working as a paramedic during the Vietnam War, he decided to study medicine. Focusing on biology and genetics, he not only successfully discovered genetic ties to different diseases, but mapped out whole sequences of the human genome.
However, it’s his environmental work that really gave him a spotlight. He is working on a way to harness deep water microbes for renewable energy. One method that has gained considerable attention is turning carbon dioxide into methane. If this program were to be accomplished, we could use emissions from fuel, put it back into the ground, and reuse it all over again.
He can been found sailing around the oceans, collecting samples of microbes for his work. It was during such trips he lamented the amount of plastic garbage he’s found in the ocean, stating, “We’re treating the planet as our toilet and we think when we flush the chain the problems disappear, but they don’t. We have to find ways to change.”
5. Rajendra Singh – Water Conservationist
It is very essential that we realize water as a limited resource. Though there is a balance between the rainfall and density of population, there is no balance in usage of water. Everybody wants more water.
Born in the village of Daula in Uttar Pradesh, Singh had a fairly normal childhood. His father worked in agriculture and his mother stayed at home, raising him and his seven siblings. He received a standard education and went to work in government service.
While working on government education programs in villages, he became interested in traditional sources of conserving water. Noticing that bore holes rarely worked in the long term, and that you had to keep digging them deeper and deeper (as you deplete the resource) he started getting his hands dirty working on johads (earthen check dams). These work by retaining the rain and natural monsoons that visit India every year, a sustainable method of capturing the rain. This old fashioned method was largely given up on during colonialism, and most johads were in need of incredible repair.
So Singh did the only thing he could do: he gave up the administration and began working on de-silting old johads.
It is through his work that areas that lacked water for years have now become lush again. More than three rivers, such as the Sarsa and Ruparel, once long dry, have begun flowing again. Reforestation and community projects to maintain the water have followed. A winner of multiple awards for his work in the field, Singh continues to raise charity events and explore traditional farming methods throughout India.
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