The Initiatives, Organizations, and Governments on the Forefront of Conservation and Sustainability Today

By spearheading policy and protecting vulnerable land in destinations like Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe, these Global Vision Awards honorees are doing the work to protect our planet.

Sunset over Nkhotakota National Park
Photo: Naudé Heunis

The Travel + Leisure Global Vision Awards aim to identify and honor companies, individuals, destinations, and organizations taking strides to develop more sustainable and responsible travel products, practices, and experiences. Not only are they demonstrating thought leadership and creative problem-solving, they are taking actionable, quantifiable steps to protect communities and environments around the world. What’s more, they are inspiring their industry colleagues and travelers to do their part.

Now more than ever, it's crucial to stay informed. But as we do, it's also good to remember Fred Rogers' iconic advice: Look for the helpers. Headlines sometimes focus on struggling ecosystems and climate change, but what they don't always register is that there are organizations and government bodies taking measurable, impactful steps to protect the natural environment and make our economies more sustainable — acting not with fatalism, but with pragmatism and genuine hope for the future. It’s going to take drastic changes to address the climate crisis, and the conservation efforts of these Global Vision Awards honorees can be a model for us all. — T+L Editors

African Parks

A rhino being released into Liwonde National Park
Kyle de Nobrega

The story of Zakouma National Park in Chad is one of remarkable resurrection. Between 1998 and 2010, more than a dozen rangers were killed by armed poachers, who also slaughtered 95 percent of the park’s elephants. The nonprofit took over the park’s management in 2010, and, as of 2018, the elephant population had risen to 560 — of which 127 were calves. At the same time, the first black rhinos to roam the park in more than four decades were reintroduced.

African Parks, which manages 16 reserves in 10 countries, owes much of its success to a top-down approach of taking on full park oversight, rather than simply handling the conservation work within state-run parks. It deploys a holistic ecosystem-management philosophy that combines high-tech tools, including tracking devices and surveillance drones, with a zero-tolerance anti-corruption policy to help combat poaching. Education, job creation, and cooperation with local communities are also essential elements of the sustainable model. One key initiative: developing schools and leadership programs that teach the skills needed to advance conservation efforts. Of the organization’s 5,214 employees, roughly 90 percent now come from the local communities.

African Parks’ work has procured high-profile support — Prince Harry is now its president — and prompted new requests for help. In November, Zimbabwe’s government enlisted the group to restore Matusadona National Park, where mismanagement and poaching have decimated the rhinos, lions, and elephants.

Climate Neutral

Product showing the Climate Neutral certification
Courtesy of Climate Neutral

It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of carbon-offsetting programs and corporate promises. That’s why Climate Neutral is working to standardize and streamline certification of corporate carbon neutrality. This organization outlines a step-by-step process by which companies can measure their emissions and offsets, and asks them to identify steps to reduce their environmental footprint — such as reducing the number company-owned vehicles, or using more energy-efficient data centers.

If a company measures and then mitigates — whether by changing manufacturing or purchasing offsets — all the carbon generated in the production and shipping processes, it can then garner a Climate Neutral Certified label, which is meant to give consumers confidence that the businesses they support have taken concrete action to fight climate change. Among the founding companies: BioLite, which is finding new ways of shipping its thermoelectric stoves, solar-powered lighting, and camping equipment, and Peak Design, a manufacturer of camera gear and travel bags that has committed to making more of its goods with recycled metal and fabric.

Costa Rica

A waterfall in Costa Rica, surrounded by the rainforest
William Hereford

In 1994, this small Central American nation amended its constitution to include a revolutionary guarantee for its citizens: the right to a healthy environment. In the years since, Costa Rica has become an environmental trailblazer. Though it will likely fall short of its most ambitious goal — to be the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by next year — it has nonetheless made great strides. Roughly 98 percent of the country’s electricity now comes from renewable sources, and more than a quarter of its land is protected from development.

The tourism board’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism, introduced in 1995, has become a model for other nations — encouraging businesses to adopt practices that minimize the negative environmental effects of the travel industry. Today, fully half of the 3.1 million annual visitors to Costa Rica now engage in some sort of ecotourism, boosting the economy and helping protect places like the La Fortuna waterfall (pictured) for generations to come.

MesoAmerican Reef Tourism Initiative

Gorgonian coral Great Mayan Reef in Riviera Maya of Caribbean Mexico
iStockphoto/Getty Images

The Mesoamerican Reef, which traces the coastlines of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, is the world’s second-largest after the Great Barrier Reef, and it supports thousands of aquatic species, including corals, turtles, manatees, and sharks. It’s also the backbone of an enormous economic ecosystem, fueling tourism that brings billions of dollars annually to onshore communities.

Over the past 15 years, the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) has pursued a multi-pronged approach meant to develop travel while reducing harmful effects on land and sea. Supported by local hotels as well as non-profits including the Coral Reef Alliance and the Rainforest Alliance, MARTI has worked with Yucatán fisherman to build a lucrative culinary market for invasive lionfish and trained diving guides in Cozumel to better care for the marine environment that provides their livelihood. It has also helped develop Mayaka’an, a collection of Quintana Roo towns, villages, and archaeological sites that have banded together to form a low-density eco-tourism project; visitors can learn Mayan customs in Chunhuhub, swim in the clear waters of a lagoon in the El Huasteco nature reserve, or explore the ruins of Muyil’s pyramids.

And across the region, MARTI has elevated waste-management and energy-efficiency standards, advising hoteliers on reducing their environmental footprints. More than 130 hotels now participate; on average, they have reduced water consumption by nearly 20% and energy consumption by more than 10%. Taken together, MARTI’s model represents the very thing that makes for a healthy reef: beautiful interdependence.

Para la Naturaleza

Volunteers plant trees with the Para la Naturaleza organization
Courtesy of Para la Naturaleza

For nearly 50 years, Para la Naturaleza (which translates to “For Nature”) has worked to preserve and rehabilitate land in Puerto Rico. The core of its work has always been to protect land from development; as a land trust, it has both bought property and received it in bequests. Among its projects: the restoration of the Pterocarpus Forest, a 56-acre preserve that is one of the largest remaining habitats for the increasingly rare pterocarpus tree, sometimes called the bloodwood because of its crimson sap. Para la Naturaleza now has 36,000 acres under its stewardship, and it’s working to secure some level of conservation status for 33 percent of Puerto Rico’s delicate ecosystems by 2033 — double what is protected today.

Historic properties also fall under the Para la Naturaleza purview. One such place: the 496-acre Hacienda Buena Vista, a working coffee plantation in the city of Ponce. Visitors can explore the property’s 19th-century buildings, restored by Para la Naturaleza, and see how the surrounding forest is being nursed back to health. The key? Forest-friendly, shade-grown methods of coffee cultivation.

“Nature doesn’t recognize deed restrictions or property lines,” says Anayra Santory, an executive at the nonprofit. “We can preserve the land we own, but we also have to be interested in human activities on land that is not part of the trust.” Bearing this in mind, Para la Naturaleza has helped train farmers to use more earth-friendly techniques and technologies. It invites the general public — Puerto Ricans as well as visitors — to help with bird censuses across the island. It has also collaborated with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on a breeding program to reintroduce the critically endangered Puerto Rican crested toad. It has participated in efforts to repair the ecological damage Puerto Rico suffered from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as the earthquakes in January 2020.

As Santory notes, “You can have beautiful ecosystems and perfectly restored historic properties. But if the nearby communities are depressed and in states of emergency, it doesn’t work.”

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