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...for his outstanding work with local communities and indigenous people to protect the environment and natural resources.
Raúl Montenegro was born in 1949. Since 1985 he has been Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the National University of Cordoba. In 1982 he was the principal founder of FUNAM (Environment Defence Foundation), and has been its President since 1995.
Raúl Montenegro, President
FUNAM (Fundacion para la defensa del ambiente)
Casilla de Correo 83, Correo Central
Since 1980 Montenegro has been involved, normally in an initiating role, in an astonishing range and number of environmental activities, which include:
In addition to all this Montenegro has had a full academic life, publishing in journals and keeping abreast of (and sometimes contributing to) advances in ecological science, which he then tries to implement.
In 2003 Montenegro joined indigenous groups in their struggle against logging and mining companies. In the case of the Mby'a Guarain, the threat is that logging will reduce the land available to them from 4,000 ha to 300 ha. Living with the Mbya Montenegro helped them map their land and biodiversity needs. Having documented their customary use of the land, he is now helping them to fight for their rights in the courts. His approach is spreading to other tribes. With regard to mining, Montenegro is helping to convene an historic and unprecedented meeting of 140 indigenous leaders to fight for their land rights.
Other work in the last two years has been with a number of citizens' groups to fight off environmental menaces. In one case Montenegro's scientific analysis of the drinking water, which seemed inexplicably to be making residents ill, revealed a toxic build up of arsenic and heavy metals in domestic water tanks, many of which had not been replaced or cleaned for 10-30 years. This simple discovery, with a new government campaign to ensure that all household water tanks are drained and cleaned, could save thousands of people from debilitating illness and death. More recently he contributed to stop the provision of polluted water in a 50,000 people area, and presented a judicial claim against governmental responsible and private companies. Two top governmental leaders resigned and 13 neighbourhoods are currently provided with clean water.
In all his activities Montenegro combines an expert use of science with community-based campaigning, and an ability to generate enormous media coverage.
Montenegro received University of Buenos Aires' Prize to Scientific Research when he was a student (1971) and the national 'Argentina has examples' prize in 1996. FUNAM received a Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1987, and Montenegro received the same Award personally in 1989. In 1998 Montenegro was in Salzburg as one of four recipients to be accorded the Nuclear-Free Future Award.
December 9th, 2004
Honorable guests, dear friends, according to the Mbya indigenous people I met in the Kuña Piru rainforests, problems and solutions live in different countries.
Our challenge is how to bring them together. From my personal point of view, human species has been discarding obvious solutions and increasing obvious problems. Why? A possible answer is our poor capacity for reading nature and society. We can read a book, but we cannot read nature or ourselves. We are illiterate, even having diplomas, postgraduate courses, and Internet.
Humans began as a species 160,000 years ago. Our main innovations were dependent on the capacity of our brains.
The human neocortex permitted the receiving, storage and processing of incredible amounts of information. Before us, most living species had only inherited patterns of behavior, with scarce capacity for processing flows of external information. Within living organisms such a lack of cultural variation was highly convenient for the survival of ecosystems.
Cloned behavioral patterns resulted in each species becoming more ecologically predictable. Homo sapiens, to the contrary, stored unprecedented amounts of information, and transmitted such information through several generations. With a flexible ecological niche, our behavior became more unpredictable - unfortunately for the ecosystems. How to combine our non-predictable species with predictable ones?
For at least 150,000 years our lack of predictability was not a problem. Small populations of hunter-gatherers and weak access to sources of energy diminished our impact on the environment.
Nevertheless something changed 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. In 9 different cultures and places, we invented the short food chain and called it "agriculture". For the first time in human history small amount of energy used for planting and collecting produced enormous quantities of chemical energy and nutrients. As a consequence of surplus products, the first green revolution was followed by first urban revolution. Meanwhile hundreds of indigenous groups from all over the world continued to live using long food chains. During the last 5,000 to 10,000 years the two strategies collided. Such silent battle nowadays grows, unseen and unheard by most people.
The short chain strategy needs deforested areas and extremely low biodiversity, in fact only one species. The long food chain demands the conservation of natural ecosystems and high biodiversity. Unfortunately, short chain strategies are the current winners. Agriculture, even organic, functions in a similar way to mining. Outputs are not balanced with inputs. Since the last century we know that only natural ecosystems can produce soil, manage freshwater and protect existing climates. Without natural ecosystems and their natural factories, environmental stability cannot exist. The tragedy of this collision is that most of our societies, from capitalist to socialist, ignore it. We are silently killing indigenous communities and unborn future generations by using only short food chain strategies. Long food chain practitioners face their own crisis in the short term but in contrast, short food chain nations transfer their current environmental disturbances (and suffering) to next generations.
The only way to survive is by being aware of this collision, and reacting to it as citizens, researchers or presidents. There is only one solution for each natural ecosystem of the world - by maintaining the balance between the surface covered by natural ecosystems and that used for agriculture, at least 50% of each. Unfortunately, in most of natural biogeographic regions such provision has not been accomplished. There are entire regions whose natural ecosystems have been replaced with crops or cattle grazing. By far, this is one of the main problems facing humanity. We are destroying invaluable resources, and ruling out the possibility of survival for future generations. The rich can migrate when times are hard but the poor have no option but to stay when the land is spent. When the land no longer bears fruit, it is the poor that die.
Which are the main causes?
What to do? There are a lot of counsels and recipes.
The simplest one is to know what is happening, and to decide where and how to act. Any journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. The collision of short and long food chains strategies are at the basis of our current crisis. Indigenous peoples living on their ancestral lands can help industrialized countries by living in a sustainable manner (not the contrary). If we destroy their environments and communities, we will lose the answers they have to solving our problems, and to the protection of our common futures. The most complex nuclear power station is less important than a tropical tree, and the most simple and sustainable answer more useful than any National Library.
I receive this award as a new window for transmitting old doubts, old practices and old knowledge. The Right Livelihood Award transforms our small words into great headlines. It's a wind from the North that empowers the South, its peoples, its forests, our truth. According Martin Luther King the great tragedy of contemporary peoples is not only the roar of dictatorship, but also the silence of good people. Since its creation, the Right Livelihood Award has contributed to breaking that silence.
There are now 25 years of broken silences.