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Equator Prizes Put Heroic Indigenous Enterprises on the Map

21 winners of the Equator Prize for sustainable indigenous community development projects worldwide came from 1,461 nominations out of 126 countries.

A million acres of traditional land regained. A successful fight against a dam project that would have decimated sacred territory. A once-barren remote mountain region converted into thriving habitat and sustainable agriculture.

These are just three of the 21 projects, culled from 1,461 nominations out of 126 countries, that won the 2015 Equator Prize, considered the Academy Awards of sustainable development. The awardees were feted in Paris on December 7, during the international climate summit known as COP21, at a gala and ceremony emceed by award-winning actor Alec Baldwin and attended by the likes of famed anthropologist Jane Goodall and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Each award includes US$10,000 to help fund the initiatives. This year marked the first year that the Equator Prize is being given to groups from Afghanistan, Guyana and Iran, noted the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which first announced the awards in September. For the recipients, being recognized publicly was perhaps even more important than the money.

“The Equator Prize is a big hope for us, a dream come true,” said Farkhunda Ateel Siddiqi, gender officer of the Rural Green Environment Organization, an Afghan community adaptation and poverty reduction program that has restored degraded lands in a remote poor area about 300 miles from Kabul.

“We work in difficult and challenging security situations,” said her father, Ahmad Seyer, director of the organization. “So this award will help us, giving us courage, and allow us to work with more strength.”

Hailing from Africa, Asia and Latin America, the groups included the Environment Organization of Afghanistan (Movimento Ipereg Ayu Amazonia), Instituto Raoni of Brazil, and Muskita Asla Takantaka from Honduras, among many others. An impressive evening reception brought together Native populations from all over the world, ranging from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to environmental activists such as Bianca Jagger, founder and president of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation.

“We will not be able to address climate change without indigenous people,” Jagger said. “Indigenous People’s rights have been at the heart of what I have done in my foundation for years, with communities in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and India.”

This was echoed by Tauli-Corpuz, who spoke of Indigenous Peoples' longstanding relationship with their lands.

“You cannot doubt the commitment of Indigenous Peoples to conserving their world,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “They are still saying the same thing and espousing the same values they have for hundreds of years, passed down from their ancestors.”

The ceremony brought these extraordinary projects under way in remote, isolated communities onto the international stage—highly symbolic and meaningful for the awardees.

“I am very happy and grateful,” declared Deborah Sanchez, from the Muskita Asla Takantaka project in Honduras, an indigenous federation that represents the Miskitus of the Honduran Mosquitia. “The recognition by the United Nations gives us a voice to the world. The small indigenous community of Miskitus is finally recognized, and we can say that we are working together for our rights.”

Other awardees included Movimento Ipereg Ayu (the name means, “I am strong, I know how to protect myself”) from Amazonia in Brazil, a resistance movement to block development of a Tapajos River dam complex, and heroic enterprises like the Afghan Green Rural environment Organization.

The ebullience was shared by Maria Leuza, from Amazonia, who spoke for many in saying, “We believe we will win our fight, as we are supported by others, and it is important to us.”