Two Endangered Landscapes Programme project leads awarded prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize

Posted: 26th April 2023

Photo: Phillippe Fayt

Awarded annually to environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions, the Goldman Environmental Prize honours the achievements and leadership of grassroots environmental activists from around the world, inspiring all of us to take action to protect our planet. The prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment. To date, the prize has honoured 213 winners—including 95 women—from 93 nations. This year, among the six winners, are Dr Tero Mustonen and Zafer Kizilkaya, leads on the Endangered Landscapes Programme funded Koitajoki Watershed project and Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project.

The Koitajoki Watershed project in southeast Finland involves large-scale catchment restoration, which will re-establish connectivity through creation of aquatic and forest corridors. On top of this, up to 1000 hectares of boreal peatlands will be restored. The Koitajoki Watershed project is part of the most recent cohort of seven landscape and seascape restoration projects funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme, beginning in late 2022.

The Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project is now on its fifth year of Endangered Landscapes Programme funding, and has worked with local fishers and authorities to reduce illegal fishing, restored marine habitats, and worked to expand Turkey’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along 310 miles of the Mediterranean coast. The newly designated areas were approved by the Turkish government in August 2020 and include an expansion of the MPA network by 35000 hectares of no trawling/no purse seine fishing, and an additional 7000 hectares of no fishing zones.

Dr Tero Mustonen

Dr Tero Mustonen, president of Endangered Landscapes Programme project partner Snowchange, is an adjunct professor at the University of Eastern Finland, and served as the head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland until 2022.

Tero was able to learn winter fishing with some elders, including Kalevi Vierikka who was born in 1928. Tero says “This was another university but in reality and on the ice.” Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

How did you get started in conservation?

I grew up in a fishing household in the Finnish boreal region. Growing up in and engaging with our communities and natural environment, I witnessed the proliferation of peat mining and clear-cutting timber industries from a very young age. Now, millions of hectares of peatlands have been affected and 95% of the boreal forests south of the Arctic Circle are ‘economic’ forests, managed for their timber. Everything has been affected. Also, I realised the villages had no say at all in the way the ecosystems and their resources were being used. Then between 2010 and 2022 I coordinated a basin wide effort on Jukajoki in Selkie, southwest Finland, to restore it from a ‘dead’ river, a result of mining and timber extraction. This experience gave me faith in how traditional knowledge and science can work together to bring nature back.

Why are communities so important in restoration efforts?

All of this really grew out of a fight against a peat mining company by the village of Selkie. We restored Linnunsuo, an area of 180 hectares. We are fiercely proud of our independent cooperative and the villages working on this, especially the fishers and the women leading the work. A special part of our work is to restore the Sámi Indigenous peoples’ boreal northern forests from the state they have been left in by commercial logging activities. This work is led by Pauliina Feodoroff, an internationally accomplished Indigenous leader and Venice Biennale level artist.

Tero takes part in a panel discussion during Saimaa European Region of Gastronomy 2024 Award Ceremony. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

What are the key opportunities for restoration in the Koitajoki Watershed in the coming years?

Koitajoki can be seen as a “test run” due to its large size and preserved parts of the wilderness. Can we nurture nature to a better place? Koitajoki contains the village of Megrijärvi where the spiritual person Simana Sissonen lived in the 1800s. His legacy demonstrates a model for what we should be thinking about in restoring – not only our environment but also the traditional “mind” and practices. Koitajoki will emerge as a world class example, and we look forward to the next steps with the Endangered Landscapes Programme.

Snowchange are planning on restoring peatland in the Koitajoki Watershed as part of their Endangered Landscapes Programme supported project. Photo: Mika Honkalinna.

How do you hope this prize will help you with your mission in future?

This year, the Goldman Environmental Prize comes to Finland for the first time. It’s a personal prize but Snowchange and I celebrate this as a recognition of the 23 years of work we have done with the villages, Finnish people, and Indigenous Sámi.

Finland is a rather unique part of Europe in the sense that our linguistic and cultural links to nature are very old, and some of them have never broken down. For example, the Finnish language has hundreds of words for snow and ice, fire, forest. On the other hand, Finland has not ratified Sámi land rights, the state licences 20% of the land base to international mining company activities, 95% of the natural forests have been lost, and at least 5 million hectares of peatlands have been ditched and churned.

In short, I hope the Goldman Environmental Prize will open new, positive ways that the Finnish and Sámi villages can demonstrate exciting and empowering conservation of nature through rewilding and ecosystem restoration that combines traditional knowledge and the latest science but also builds and re-builds community governance of our unique boreal and Arctic sites.

The Goldman Environmental Prize is a catalyst for the change Finland, Europe and the planet needs and we’ll do our small part to be a part of the new, better future on the way. We’ll come out of this and will survive.

Zafer Kizilkaya

Zafer Kizilkaya is a conservation photographer, marine conservationist, and co-founder of Endangered Landscapes Programme project partner Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (Mediterranean Conservation Society). Since 2012, he has dedicated his career establishing marine protected areas in the eastern Mediterranean.

A civil engineer by training, Zafer grew up in Ankara watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries and became enamoured with the sea. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

What inspires you and gives you hope?

I grew up watching the documentaries made by the French oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Diving and filming underwater was my biggest passion. I saw there was so much to be explored and living things to be discovered. Later, I noticed that fishing and coastal development of all kinds are the major threat to marine life. When I started working in Indonesia, I noticed that even those remote coral reefs are in danger.

There are so many things worth saving when we look at marine ecosystems. Existing resource use and management arrangements are unsustainable. It is time to change our attitude from viewing marine life as food to seeing it as an indispensable part of our planet’s life support system. Every single effort in the hands of conservationists gives me hope that marine ecosystems can be conserved, and their resources can be used sustainably. The ocean is our best friend in making this unique planet liveable, and we need to help our best friend now.

Could you explain why the link between coastal communities and healthy seascapes is so important?

Coastal communities have been exploiting marine resources over thousands of years, but the technological developments in industrial fishing over the past 40 to 50 years have threatened the very existence of coastal communities due to overfishing causing the loss of their livelihoods. Healthy seascapes today are only possible through highly protected areas under proper enforcement. Those healthy seascapes enable coastal communities to practice sustainable fishing.

Working with communities is an essential part of any restoration project. Photo: Omer Ozyilmazel.

What was key to the success of expanding the marine protected area network across Turkey’s coastline?

The key success, apart from convincing the local communities how marine protected areas would secure their livelihoods, was convincing the government bodies and rule makers for the necessity and urgency of more marine protected areas. Governmental support is key for future expansion of marine protected areas. Having successful examples of restoration is another key factor as a crucial leverage.

What are the key opportunities for marine restoration in the Mediterranean in the coming years?

The Mediterranean is one of the fastest changing seas in the world and scientifically we know that Marine Protected Areas with sufficient scale and enforcement can save the biodiversity and depleted fish populations. Restoration is a complex situation with challenges including continuously increasing temperatures and number of invasive species. The Mediterranean has great potential to be restored from its current degraded state with bigger Marine Protected Areas. Currently, fully protected areas only cover 0.04% of the entire Mediterranean, and official Marine Protected Areas (that aren’t sufficiently enforced) cover 8%. There is a lot to do to align with the 30 X 30 targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Before the expansion of overall Marine Protected Areas, with the limited protection that they offer, we immediately need to increase the extent of fully and highly protected areas.

Aerial view of Gokova Bay MPA.

Turkey’s marine ecosystem has been severely degraded by overfishing, illegal fishing, tourism development, and the effects of climate change. Protected areas help mitigate these challenges. Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya.

How do you hope this prize will help you with your mission in future?

The prize will be great leverage for us domestically to reach rule makers and for more robust cooperation with government institutions. Our marine conservation successes will be heard by the public and we will have the opportunity to expand our goals to new levels with broader local and international support. More funding and partnership opportunities will help our research and restoration work. The prize will attract documentary companies to our work, giving us the chance to share the lessons learnt and the way ahead of us.

The Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organisations and individuals. You can watch the 2023 ceremony on YouTube.

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