ICRAF Scientist wins National Geographic-Buffett Award

Dr. Zacharie Tchoundjeu, principal scientist and regional director for West and Central Africa for the World Agroforestry Centre, wins the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation while Martha “Pati” Isabel Ruiz Corzo, founder of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda I.A.P., is the recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. 

The award ceremony will be held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 14. Established through a gift from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to recognize and celebrate unsung heroes working in the field, the awards acknowledge the winners’ outstanding work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation in their countries.

Zacharie Tchoundjeu has made invaluable contributions toward the conservation of biodiversity in the Congo Basin, the development of sustainable agricultural techniques for small-scale farmers and the training of a new generation of African scientists and environmentalists. As the regional director of the World Agroforestry Centre, based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, he leads international teams in 21 West and Central African countries that are focused on agroforestry, forest conservation and domestication of high-value indigenous fruit trees and medicinal plants, with the aim of enhancing the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

Throughout his life Tchoundjeu has worked with local farmers to find solutions to ending poverty and environmental degradation. He currently works with farmers and indigenous communities to select plant species from the wild and adapt them for cultivation on small farms. He has developed and adapted vegetative tree propagation methods that lead to early fruiting, replication of desired traits, easy reproduction of species whose seeds are difficult to collect and conservation of valuable species. Through these efforts, thousands of small-scale farmers have been trained in simplified but efficient techniques of domestication and have been able to generate sustainable incomes, especially in the area of fruit trees, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and other important crop production.

Recognizing that environmental education was largely lacking in Central Africa, Tchoundjeu created the International Bilingual Academy of Yaoundé (BAYSUP) in 2010. A joint project with the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Gent and the University of Yaoundé 1, it is dedicated to enhancing agroforestry, environmental management, sustainability and conservation of Central Africa’s tropical forests and the people whose welfare they sustain. A central goal of BAYSUP is to teach environmental sustainability and conservation to students starting at kindergarten level. A Higher Institute of Environmental Sciences will be operational in January 2013.

Tchoundjeu also has published more than 115 papers and co-authored four books. He helped launch the new Cameroon chapter of COACh International, a grassroots organization aimed at building scientific leadership capacity that develops and provides training workshops to women faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

The other winner was Mexico's Pati Ruiz Corzo who founded Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), a local grassroots organization, with her husband and local residents in 1987 to rescue the Sierra Gorda bioregion in Mexico from the destruction of unregulated development. GESG has set the standard in Mexico for a “conservation economy,” establishing a new paradigm in natural protected area management with widespread local community participation.

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Image credit: Dr. Zacharie Tchoundjeu (right) of Cameroon, the World Agroforestry Centre’s regional director for West and Central Africa, was honored with the 2012 National Geographic Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation for his “outstanding work and lifetime contributions that further the understanding and practice of conservation,” at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2012. The award was presented by Dr. John Francis, National Geographic’s vice president for Research, Conservation and Exploration. Photo by Mark Theissen/National Geographic