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BBC wins Zayed International Prize for the Environment

It was a visionary decision by General Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, to establish this Prize in honour of His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and a committed environmentalist.

His Highness’ remarkable achievements in “greening” the deserts by planting 100 million trees, and his personal commitment and interventions in areas from wildlife and the conservation of rare species to water and sanitation schemes, are well known.

The fact that his work is known across the world is in no small measure due to the world of journalism and the global reach of modern newspapers, radio, television and the Internet.

Increasingly the Zayed Prize, one of the youngest of the international environmental awards, is becoming as well known regionally and internationally as His Highness’ achievements in the realm of sustainable development.

The 2004 winners you see before you tonight honour the prize and the prize honours them.

Indeed when you see the calibre of the individuals and organizations winning awards, you are assured that the Zayed prizes can only be seen globally as laurels worth winning.

They are awards representing the highest ranks of environmental integrity and that winning one of the category’s is worthy of a front page headline or a slot on the night time news.

Category III Winners: Environment in Action Leading to Positive Change in Society

Professor Jamal Safi

The issue of communication runs through this year’s prize. The communication of ideas - sometimes tough ones - through the media, to governments and to communities, is an aspect of all the distinguished prize winners.

One area of the world that is never far from the headlines, sadly all too often for all the wrong reasons, is Palestine.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) of which I am the Executive Director, knows it well.

Two years ago, governments asked us to carry out an environmental assessment of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and I had the honour of personally visiting that land and holding face to face talks with Palestinian people including Yasser Arafat.

Tonight Palestine is again making headlines, but for all the right reasons as we honour Professor Jamal Safi of the Environmental Protection and Research Institute in Gaza City.

During the past decade and a half, Professor Safi and the Institute he founded, have made a real difference to the environment and health of the Palestinian public.

Ways of screening soils and crops for potentially toxic heavy metals have been developed and methods for cleaning up polluted water supplies and reducing the pesticide levels on fruits and vegetables devised and adopted.

The work has also cut the levels of disease including hepatitis B and parasitic infections. Childhood lead poisoning has been reduced from around five per cent to under half a per cent.

The Institute has helped train hundreds of Palestinians in its skills including teachers, agricultural engineers and specialists in refugee health.

The Zayed Prize jury, which I chair, believe that Professor Safi’s achievements would be remarkable anywhere in the world. But they are even more outstanding, given the difficult conditions prevailing in that part of the world.

He has really put science into action for the benefit of the environment and the benefit of the poor and needy. On behalf of the jury/judges I congratulate him on winning a joint Category III of the 2004 Zayed Prize.

Dr Badria Al Awadhi

Putting law into action has been the achievement of Dr Badria Al Awadhi from Kuwait, the other co-winner in this category.

A founding member of the Kuwait Environment Protection Agency, she is also an outstanding author of books on women and children’s rights and environmental awareness for children.

Other writings have covered international law during times of peace and war and the implementation of the Law of the Sea in the Gulf Area.

She is a leading light in numerous international organizations including the International Federation of Women Lawyers and the International Council for Environmental Law.

The Jury considers her one of the few women in the region whose work has led to improvements in international and regional legal structures in respect to the environment and sustainable development.

Category II. For Scientific and or Technological Achievement in the Environment

Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. Tolba, Obasi and Bolin.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is also never far from the headlines.

Behind all the big environmental issues facing human kind, from water to the loss of wildlife, lies the spectre of global warming.

How best to head off this mammoth threat has and continues to raise more than a few anxious heart beats around the globe’s capital cities.

It is to the credit of the IPCC that its impeccable science has informed, advised and galvanized political and grass roots action by the sheer authority and integrity of its assessments.

Established by the UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, this panel of top class scientists has done more than most to put the science of global warming, its likely impacts and the tough choices on how to defeat it, on the map.

The panel’s preliminary report led to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change approved at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

In the opinion of the jury, three individuals were the activists behind the founding and early days of this revolutionary approach to science and informing policy-makers.

Professor Mustafa Tolba is one of my distinguished predecessors and was the Executive Director of UNEP for over 20 years. Professor Godwin Obsai, was the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization at the time and Professor Bert Bolin, Head of the first scientific committee.

I am sure that they would be the first to acknowledge that this Category II prize, awarded for scientific and or technological achievement in environment, goes not only to these three pioneers. But to all the thousands of scientists from around the world who have worked on the various IPCC assessments and done so much to educate world leaders and the public.

Category I: Global Leadership for the Environment

The BBC

You would have to have been living on Mars, not to know of the BBC. In the view of the judges, this broadcaster has year in and year out covered some of the most pressing environmental and development issues across the full range of its output, both internationally and nationally.

It is the overall winner of this year’s Zayed Prize.

The Zayed International Prize for the Environment recognizes global leadership in the area of the environment and sustainable development.

In this media dominated world, it is not just statesmen and women who drive awareness and change, but also the world’s broadcasters and newspapers.

The power of the media is not a new phenomenon. It was recognized as long back as the time of Napoleon Bonaparte who once remarked that “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets?

As a former politician, responsible for the environment and nuclear safety in my home country of Germany, I can understand what the French emperor meant.

But as the BBC can demonstrate, the media has a great power for good and long may the organization’s standards to high quality reporting and documentary making continue.

The BBC’s reach, not only via television and radio but increasingly through its On-line Internet services is matched by its commitment to languages.

The BBC broadcasts and publishes in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, and other main-stream languages, but also in Hindi, Romanian, Somali, Swahili. In total, 43 languages. Environmental issues are also part of its children’s output.

I understand from some sources in the TV industry, that if as a programme commissioner you want to damage your career, you run an environmental series.

If you want to commit professional suicide, you make it about sustainable development in the developing world.

This may be the view of some broadcasters, but this obviously is not the ethos at the BBC. Indeed, at a time when many broadcasters are running down, or “dumbing down”, their environmental coverage, this broadcaster is at the very least maintaining a high level of output or increasing it.

Many of its presenters have become world-wide household names.

David Attenborough springs easily to mind for his compelling series including “Life on Earth” and “The Trials of Life”.

Before the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg two years ago, Attenborough fronted the ground-breaking 90 minute special on the state of the global environment.

Audiences around the world saw how we humans are, through impacts such as pollution, habitat clearance and fragmentation and by the introduction of alien species, forever changing the Earth.

Throughout the summit, as is the case so often at many of the key environment and development summits and conferences, BBC crews were there, reporting and investigating the issues, cajoling and pressing ministers, UN officials and non-governmental organizations, bearing witness to the failures and successes of our collective efforts to save the planet.

At the time, my press officer nearly resigned in despair, after I turned down one after another interview request from the BBC because of the pressure of attending so many meetings and side events!!.

“Do you realize just how many global viewers they have, how many people are not hearing and seeing the UNEP message"? He kept reminding me. By the end of the second week, the numbers of people failing to get our message as a result of my failure to “be on the Beebe” had, in his estimation, reached hundreds of millions.

(Maybe Siam Kevil, who is receiving the prize tonight for the BBC, can put me out of my misery and give me the true, expert, figure.)

Fortunately, we managed to squeeze a couple of interviews in with the veteran broadcaster and journalist John Simpson.

Those, on climate change and poverty I recall, were reasonably painless.

But that is not always the case when in front of BBC cameras, microphones and notebooks. Rarely are you allowed to duck the questions or ignore the real issues.

Anyone who has had the experience of being face to face with Tim Sebastian on “Hard Talk”, will know what the boxer George Foreman must have felt when facing Muhammad Ali in the ring 30 years ago.

It took Ali eight rounds to knock out Foreman, Tim Sebastian is a bit quicker. Sometimes he knocks you out with a flurry of tough questions in the third or fourth rounds!!

Its commitment is underscored by the five times a week airing of Earth Report, produced by Television Trust for the Environment (TVE).

This series, broadcast on the BBC since 1997, reaches nearly 300 million homes world-wide and around one million hotel bedrooms in 200 countries and territories.

Frank Lloyd Wright, deemed by some to be the father of modern architecture, once said despairingly: “TV is bubble gum for the eyes”.

Earth Reports cannot be so glibly dismissed. They, along with so much of the BBC’s environmentally-related out put, not only shock, provoke and entertain, but inform and have led to positive change.

- White Gold exposing the devastating impact on the albatross and Patagonian toothfish of long line pirate fishermen led to a world outcry - Mauritius closed its ports to the pirates, Norway has ended the practice too.

- Conserving the Peace documenting UNEP's initiative to show that environmental destruction is feeding insecurity within and between nations, has won praise from NATO which is now taking this key issue on board.

- The monthly interactive Earth Reports which document how firms, communities and individuals can make a profit from sustainable development, continue to make a measurable impact via the BBC broadcasts.

- In Nepal a broadcast has helped to clean up Katmandu's air through the new electric three-wheel vehicles; a Chinese engineer copied a radically improved Indian biogas design and now tens of thousands are being sold in China, a broadcast featuring a solution to the fire hazard in the shantytowns of Lima led the government to change its policy

- the Earth Report - Children of Rio - in which the lives of ten children born at the time of the Rio Earth Summit have been documented over a decade resulted in an outpouring of concern by viewers, with unsolicited funds going to help the children on the poorest families in school

Another reason for honouring the BBC with the overall Zayed Prize, is that the organization has “put its money where its mouth is”.

It has adopted its own in-house sustainable development strategy with commitments to reduce waste and energy consumption, adopt a green procurement policy and promote recycling. For example, the organization is on track to recycle 55 per cent of its waste by 2005, up from 17 per cent in 2001.

John Prescott, the British Deputy Prime Minister who was initially responsible for the environment, once remarked: “What is biodiversity, is it a kind of washing powder”?

One of the great afflictions of the world-wide environmental movement, is the way its language has become so specialised, exotic and down right mystifying.

As another politician once remarked, “You and I come by road or rail. But bureaucrats come by infrastructure!?

Here the BBC is also helping to bring us back to Earth. It has developed an Online dictionary of environmental terms becoming an A-Z reference source for complicated phrases and words such as Carbon Sequestration, the Cartagena Protocol and CFCs.

One of the BBC’s great assets is its freedom from funding from large multi-nationals or media moguls.

These powerful multi nationals and individuals increasingly see their TV and radio stations as advertising arms for products and merchandise, including the latest pop and rock band or film, produced by one of their other companies.

This leaves less space for the serious and thought provoking subjects that are at the heart of the Zayed Prize.

I know that commercial pressures of the modern world are such that even the BBC through its World Television must seek funding from outside sources.

Let us hope that the network does not fall victim to the pressures of excessive advertisement which are increasingly sapping the power to persuade and inform of so many modern commercial networks.

As the 20th century TV and radio writer Rod Serling once observed: “It is difficult to produce a documentary that is both incisive and probing, when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper”.

UNEP believes that independent critical journalism is at the heart of change in this world.

We promote and organize journalist workshops in many parts of the developing world in order to educate a new generation of media experts on important environment and sustainable development issues.

So it is our sincere hope that over the coming years the BBC’s unassailable position of excellence in this field will get a real challenge from those journalists in Africa, Asia and Latin America that we have helped train.