Experts' profiles - Martha Ruiz Corzo
Martha Ruiz Corzo

Champion of the Earth Laureate
A grassroots environmental campaigner credited with securing the future of one of Mexicos most critical ecosystems, and supporting the livelihoods of disadvantaged rural communities, has received a 2013Champions of the Earthaward; the UN systems highest environmental accolade.

Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, better known as Pati, 60, is Director of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Mexicos most ecologically diverse protected area and described as a green jewel in the heart of the country.

The reserve is heralded as a model of public-private ecosystem management, where eco-tourism, waste management, and conservation projects provide income for hundreds of local residents, as well as securing the future of a rich habitat once threatened by deforestation and unregulated development.

TheChampions of the Earthprize is awarded annually to leaders from government, civil society and the private sector, whose actions have had a positive impact on the environment. It is organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Ten years after Ms. Ruiz Corzo, her husband, and local residents established the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, they successfully lobbied the Mexican Government to grant the area Biosphere Reserve status in 1997. It remains the only case in Mexico of a protected area resulting from a grassroots initiative.

Today, over 380,000 hectares of forest and other ecosystems are afforded special conservation status. Improved community stewardship of the environment has led to a marked decline in destructive land practices, and resulted in some 13,000 hectares of regenerated woodland over the past 15 years. Once-threatened species which inhabit the reserves 14 distinct ecosystems, including jaguar, butterflies, and aquatic life, are increasing in number.

A love for the Earth, safeguarding the sacred fabric of Nature, promoting individual and collective efforts, being alert to emergencies, and a maintaining the commitment, creativity and passion to relieve the weight that our society places on the planet; this is what continues to inspire my work, said Ms. Ruiz Corzo.

The transformation of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere from a critically threatened ecosystem to a living example of conservation through green economic development and community action is testament to Patis inspirational work over the past three decades, said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner.

Conservation Economy

Ms. Ruiz Corzo has long advocated a conservation economy, combining natural protected area management with widespread civil participation.

The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve aims to diversify the regions economy by harnessing the benefits of ecosystem services, and training community members in conservation-based skills, to alleviate poverty and build social entrepreneurship.

A "payment for ecosystem services" programme has been central to the success of the reserve.

The scheme, which gained the backing of the federal government, assigned an economic value to fresh water, land, and other key natural resources. Local residents were paid US$30-40 per hectare of land for reducing cattle numbers and not cutting down trees, which improved local watersheds and reduced soil erosion.

Among a range of community schemes, the Biosphere Reserve operates over 100 recycling depots, which manage 900 tons of recyclable materials per year. The depots are run on a voluntary basis by local women.

A community environmental education programme has reached 18,000 children in 170 schools in the region, while a network of eco-clubs across five states trains young people in environmental leadership.

Hundreds of local families have shared revenues of around US$2 million from the sale of carbon credits in the reserve.

Ms. Ruiz Corzo received her 2013Champion of the Earthaward in the Inspiration and Action category at a special ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The event, sponsored by Guangdong Wealth, was hosted by environmental activist, supermodel and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Gisele Bndchen.

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