The Yurok Tribe recently became the first indigenous community in the United States to be awarded the Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Programme for its forest management. The award honors “innovative nature-based solutions for tackling climate change, environment and poverty challenges.”
The California-based Tribe is rebuilding biodiversity while reducing climate change and leveraging its forest lands to generate income by selling carbon credits in the California emissions trading market. In addition to carbon sequestration, the Tribe also uses Yurok forests to produce traditional foods, medicines and basket materials.
“We are honored to receive recognition for our traditional ecological knowledge and western science-based approach to managing the temperate rainforests in our region,” Tribal Chair Joseph L. James said in a statement. “Our Tribe is rebuilding biodiversity in our forests and restoring resilience within our community. This time-tested strategy for rehabilitating critical habitats can be duplicated all over the world to reduce the impact of climate change.”
Created by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the United Nation Development Programme “works to eradicate poverty while protecting the planet.” In total, 22 winners of the 10th Equator Prize represent local and indigenous communities from across the world. Award recipients were selected from a pool of 847 nominations across 127 countries by an independent Technical Advisory Committee of internationally renowned experts. This marks the first time the Equator Prize has been awarded to indigenous communities in the United States and Australia. In addition to receiving $10,000, each winning organization will be honored at a celebratory gala on 24 September in New York.
Since 2012, the Yurok Tribe has reacquired more than 60,000 acres of forest taken from Yurok people in the late 19th century. Much of the woodlands were clear-cut by an industrial timber company and further scarred by hundreds of miles of hastily built logging roads. A Tribal press release states: “The combination of insults to the natural landscape had catastrophic impacts on culturally invaluable fish and wildlife populations. Today, the Tribe is employing Yurok citizens to re-create the diverse ecological conditions that existed on these lands for millennia.”
The centerpiece of the Yurok’s holistic forest management is the development of the Yurok Old-growth Forest and Salmon Sanctuary in the Blue Creek watershed, which is one of the most important tributaries on the Klamath River for salmon and sacred ceremonial practices.
“We are blending the knowledge of ancestors with contemporary science to fix our forests and improve ecosystem health within our homeland,” said Chairman James. “We are very grateful for the recognition of this essential endeavor. We have made tremendous sacrifices to reclaim our right to determine our own destiny and be a strong steward of our land.”
The Yurok Tribe is the largest Tribe in California with more than 6,000 members. The Tribe’s ancestral territory comprises 7.5 percent of the California coastline and is home to the Klamath River, the lifeline of the Yurok people. The Tribe’s major economic and natural resource initiatives include condor reintroduction, fisheries protection, restoration and management, dam removal, natural resources protection, sustainable economic development enterprises and land acquisition.