Winner: Corporate Initiative Virgin Atlantic airways, London Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, leading the airline industry in reducing carbon emissions.
For years, the commercial airline industry avoided public scrutiny of its contribution to global warming. But thanks in large part to Virgin Atlantic Airways, its days of flying under the radar are over. Virgin founder and president Richard Branson has a reputation as a publicity-stunt man. But the maverick British mogul's recent efforts to reshape the aviation industry make it clear that he understands the magnitude of the carbon-emissions issue—and that he's willing to take the lead in solving it. In 2006, in a groundbreaking gesture, Branson committed all of his airline profits over the next decade—roughly $3 billion—to the development of nonfossil fuels. In April, Virgin bought 15 fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the largest single order by a European company. Next year, Virgin plans to launch the world's first clean-fuel commercial flight. The airline has tested "starting grids," off-runway holding areas that would reduce on-the-ground carbon emissions by up to 50 percent. The fuel-efficient flying patterns that Virgin has developed are impossible to implement at the moment—but if Europe's tangle of air-traffic control systems were consolidated, as Branson has proposed, that could change. It's just an idea. But it's one of many that Branson, by putting his money where his mouth is, has forced people to consider.
Our judge says: "By marrying his commitment to energy reform with practical solutions and phenomenal public relations skills, Richard Branson has extended a challenge to the rest of the travel industry."—Lisa Lindblad
Winner: Economic Development Brac, Bangladesh A Bangladeshi recipient of a BRAC business loan, with her chicken farm.
In the increasingly crowded field of microlending, there are few aid organizations with a track record as impressive as the Bangladeshi development group Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC). Founded in 1972 by former Shell Oil executive Fazle Hasan Abed to provide relief to refugees of the country's Liberation War, BRAC today serves as a critical lifeline for more than 100 million extremely poor Bangladeshis, a quarter of the population, who otherwise would have scant or no access to health care or education—let alone credit. Like their compatriots at the Nobel Prize–winning Grameen Bank, BRAC operatives provide support through microloans to more than 6 million small-scale entrepreneurs, farmers, and artisans. But BRAC is much more than a lending organization. Aiming to empower village women, it has built more than 50,000 schools in which two out of three students are female. And its 70,500 health-outreach workers aid millions: between 1986 and 1991, BRAC helped increase the country's childhood immunization rates from 2 percent to 62 percent, and its oral-rehydration campaign to prevent death from diarrhea has drastically reduced childhood mortality rates. Having recently expanded and adapted its programs to Africa, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, BRAC is an increasingly influential champion of the notion that the world's poor, if properly equipped and empowered, can radically improve their own lives.
Our judge says: "BRAC is truly impressive, worthy of sharing the Nobel Peace Prize that the Grameen Bank, another Bangladeshi microloans company, won in 2006."—Dr. Joseph Stiglitz
Winner: Ecological Conservation Four Great Rivers Nature Reserve, Tibet The Tsanpo River, in Tibet's Four Great Rivers Nature Reserve.
In southeastern Tibet lies the world's deepest gorge, its highest forest, and four river valleys that provide fresh water for 20 percent of the earth's population, or one billion people. These valleys, part of the Four Great Rivers Nature Reserve, are also corridors for hundreds of exotic birds and plants, plus four species of great cats, including the snow leopard. Despite tremendous pressure from the growing Chinese population to harvest timber and build roads and towns, Tibet's autonomous government, along with the West Virginia–based nonprofit Future Generations, was able to secure protection for the region in 2002. Yet managing such a large area—the size of Washington State—would be impossible without a core of dedicated conservationists. To that end, Future Generations has trained 400 locals to be wardens of their own land, armed with an education in both community and environmental health. The implications of this program, a hybrid of conservation and development, reach far beyond the project's borders. The reserve contains one-seventh of China's carbon-trapping forests, making it a vital resource for, well, those future generations.
Our judge says: "Future Generations is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of development and conservation. Their work in Tibet—amidst the most difficult terrain on earth—is especially remarkable."—Bill McKibben
Credit: Courtesy of Gessie Houghton & Core of Culture
Winner: Cultural Preservation The Sacred Arts of Bhutan A dance master in Bhutan performs a Buddhist ritual cham for Core of Culture conservationists.
A repository of a very rich, very pure Buddhist tradition, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been famously protective of its culture, remaining closed to outside influences, and most visitors, for centuries. But in recent decades, the country has begun to open its doors—a process of modernization that could put Bhutan's heritage at risk, particularly because the kingdom has had little experience with conservation techniques. Enter the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which in 2003 began a multifaceted eight-year project to help document and preserve this intact living history. Conservators from the academy and from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are training Bhutanese monks and cultural experts in preserving and storing ancient sacred artworks. Core of Culture, a Chicago-based dance-preservation group, is documenting cham (Buddhist ritual dances) and compiling a 350-hour video archive, among other materials. These efforts will culminate in a major traveling exhibition, "The Dragon's Gift," which will open in Honolulu in February 2008 and tour the world for two years, bringing Bhutan's unique culture into the global spotlight for the first time.
Our judge says: "It shows great foresight, using international collaboration to preempt the degradation of Bhutan's culture."—Bonnie Burnham
Our judge says: "The Sacred Arts of Bhutan project lays the foundation for a new tradition—conservation of the country's rich heritage."—Mounir Neamatalla
Winner: Community Outreach Aldea Global, Nicaragua A member of one of the 1,000 families based in Jinotega, Nicaragua, who participate in Aldea Global, a fair-trade coffee cooperative.
In the northern coffee-growing region of Jinotega, Nicaragua, a small group of indigenous farmers planted the first seeds of what would, 15 years later, become Aldea Global. Today, this homegrown cooperative claims 1,000 farmer families as members and produces nearly 800,000 pounds of Fair Trade coffee yearly—a yield that brings $1 million in sales from clients that include Coffee Bean International, Equator Estates, and the Holland Coffee Group. Membership in Aldea Global (a $50 annual fee) buys far more than access to global markets. The sustainable agribusiness provides members with a free education on environmentally sound farming techniques. It helps them to secure credit lines from financial institutions to bolster economic development. And it also grants female members microloans to start cottage industries that help them achieve self-sufficiency. Indeed, Aldea Global's customers are so impressed by the model, they've invested in mobile health clinics and water filters to ensure that the Jinotegan community stays healthy and continues to produce high-quality beans. For the constellation of small farming associations struggling to survive, Aldea Global serves as a model of how fair trade can change lives in the competitive world market.
Our judge says: "Aldea Global is the heart and soul of what sustainability really is—grassroots organizing, using local agriculture and working with big business through fair trade. This is the real deal."—Auden Schendler
Winner: Innovation Architecture for Humanity, Sausalito, California Architecture for Humanity–designed housing for Sri Lankan families displaced by the 2004 tsunami.
In an era of celebrity architects and their well-heeled clients, Architecture for Humanity goes against the tide, catering to the great portion of the world's population that does not have access to an architect's skills. Since launching the design collective in 1999 with a competition for inexpensive transitional housing in war-ravaged Kosovo, cofounders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr have led an international grassroots campaign that seeks inventive architectural solutions to humanitarian crises. The Sausalito-based nonprofit has spearheaded roughly 100 building projects in 15 countries and sponsored four additional open-source architecture contests (most recently for tech centers in developing areas). In March, Sinclair introduced the Open Architecture Network, an online hub for socially conscious design. The multilingual Web community permits anyone—amateurs, architects, governments, and NGO's—to post and comment on designs in an ongoing collaboration. They can also access and reproduce many of these plans free of charge, making the site an important resource for builders in developing countries. It's the first organization of its kind, and 7,000 members have already registered. Designs emphasize low cost and sustainable materials—a sure sign that the members of this community share Sinclair and Stohr's vision of architecture as a force for good.
Our judge says: "Architecture for Humanity's work recognizes that the benefits of true quality—whether in design or food—should not be just a privilege of the few."—Carlo Petrini
Winner: Green/Eco Hotel Initiative Il Ngwesi Group Ranch and Lodge, Laikipia Region, Northern Kenya The porch of Il Ngwesi, a Kenyan lodge built and managed by the local Laikipiak Masai tribe.
Ecotourism can mean more than being green. For some, it means the chance to climb out of desperate poverty. Only a decade ago, the lands of the Laikipiak Masai tribespeople in Northern Kenya were severely depleted by poachers and the cattle-herding tribe's lack of a land-management plan, which often led to overgrazing. Today a 12-bed luxury lodge, solar-powered and constructed entirely from natural wood and grass, overlooks a 16,500-acre conservation area where elephants, lions, impalas, giraffes, waterbucks, baboons, and kudu abound. In the decade since its creation, the lodge has become a model for other Kenyan properties: five similar hotels now operate in the surrounding Laikipia area alone, with a sixth under construction. Yet Il Ngwesi remains unique in being entirely owned by the tribal community, whose members also manage the lodge, care for guests, lead tours, and protect the wild animals that traverse the land. The 6,000-person tribe invests its dividends in medicine, training programs, water projects, and—especially—schools. The Il Ngwesi example proves that conservation tourism can help preserve not only a region's wildlife, but its own way of life as well.
Our judge says: "Il Ngwesi is an idea born from local communities that are finally realizing the full potential of the wildlife they live with and increasingly protect."—M. A. Sanjayan
Winner: Historic Preservation Shibam, Yemen The ancient desert city of Shibam, Yemen, with its towering mud-brick houses.
Clustered on a hillock in the middle of a floodplain in eastern Yemen, the 2,000-year-old city of Shibam—known as the Manhattan of the desert—contains hundreds of mud skyscrapers, some as high as eight stories and as old as 500 years. Until recently, these elegant buildings were crumbling due to flood damage and neglect. To counteract the city's rapid decline, the German development cooperative Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) joined with the Yemeni General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities to create an innovative grant program that engages the local community in preservation. Through this initiative, financial subsidies averaging 35 percent of the renovation costs are offered to Shibam residents willing to pay to restore their houses. So far, more than 50 percent of the city's residences have received subsidies; demand for traditional labor has quadrupled; and the gross local product of the greater Shibam area has increased by more than 7 percent annually. The project has proved so successful in inspiring residents to be active partners in restoration that it has become a model for other cities. In June, the Social Fund for Development of Yemen (which funded much of the Shibam project) began work in Zabid, a city on the UNESCO World Heritage list of endangered sites.
Our judge says: "They've gone beyond buildings to address pressing social issues. The result is a vibrant cityscape where locals are engaged in the process and have ownership of their work."—Luis Monreal