INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND
ROLEX – PERPETUAL PLANET
For the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, the world was like a living laboratory. From the 1930s, he began to use it as a testing ground for his watches, sending them to the most extreme locations, supporting explorers who ventured into the unknown. But the world has changed. As the 21st century unfolds, the company has moved from championing exploration for the sake of discovery to protecting the planet and reinforced its commitment by launching the Perpetual Planet initiative in 2019. It supports individuals and organizations using science to understand the world’s environmental challenges and devise solutions that will restore balance to our ecosystems.
The Perpetual Planet initiative currently embraces more than 20 partners including Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue – which Rolex has partnered since 2014 – to preserve the oceans through a network of marine-protected ‘Hope Spots’; an enhanced partnership with the National Geographic Society to study the impacts of climate change; and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which for more than 45 years have been supporting exceptional individuals with innovative projects improving knowledge of our world.
ROLEX AWARDS FOR ENTREPRISE
For more than four decades, through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Rolex has supported exceptional individuals who have the courage and conviction to take on major challenges; men and women who have a spirit of enterprise, initiating extraordinary projects that make the world a better place.
Created in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the first waterproof watch and an important milestone in watchmaking, the Rolex Awards foster the values that underpin Rolex: quality, ingenuity, determination and, above all, the enterprising spirit that has driven the company since its beginning. From the start, the Awards were designed to fill a void in corporate philanthropy by supporting exceptional individuals around the world, pioneers who had no or little access to traditional funding and were responding to major challenges with original and innovative projects that advance human knowledge and well-being.
Through the programme, the company supports exceptional individuals with innovative projects that improve our knowledge of the world, protect the environment – helping to preserve habitats and species – and improve human well-being. The 155 women and men selected as Laureates since the programme was launched have had an extraordinary impact. An estimated 17 million people, in all corners of the globe, have benefited: around 23 million trees have been planted; 43 endangered species and 30 major ecosystems protected, including 57,600 km2 of Amazon rainforest; hundreds of new species have been discovered; 18 challenging expeditions have been completed; and 48 innovative technologies have been developed and applied for a range of applications.
A FEW KEY INDIAN LAUREATES
I] REVIVING INDIA’S BLIGHTED LAKES
In the face of rampant urbanization and the severe consequences of climate change, Indian environmentalist Arun Krishnamurthy has mobilized the public, including scores of young volunteers, to help clean, restore and rehabilitate his country’s lakes. Arun Krishnamurthy likes to describe himself as “164 lakes old”. In rapidly urbanizing India, where dirty and dying lakes and ponds are increasingly common, the conservationist has made rejuvenation of waterbodies and the overall environment his life’s purpose.
The Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), a Chennai-headquartered NGO that Krishnamurthy founded over a decade ago, now restores lakes and ponds in 15 of the country’s 28 states, primarily with the support of volunteers. What started as weekend voluntary work is now the fulcrum of his life.What prompted a young microbiologist to give up a promising career at Google and make restoration of lakes his mission? The answer lies in the amalgam of the inspiring sights, sounds and stories of his childhood. As a boy, he was deeply attached to the lakes and ponds of suburban Chennai where he grew up and still lives.
Krishnamurthy founded the EFI in 2007 after realizing there were many others who felt as passionately as he did about the degradation of waterbodies. All of these enthusiasts were eagerly waiting for that “one platform” through which they could come together to protect and revive these lakes and ponds. Five years later, in 2012, Krishnamurthy received a Rolex Award for Enterprise for his project to restore polluted Lake Kilkattalai in Chennai. He says he was fortunate to get the Award at a crucial juncture, in his mid-20s. The Rolex Awards, he explains, are not about recognizing what you have done, they are a “booster for what you want to do more”. The Award also meant he became part of the Laureates network, and with that came the confidence to dream big, from one lake to currently 164.
Big dreams have also meant tough challenges, including new ones. A decade ago, Krishnamurthy was confronted with issues such as man-made encroachment on nature and people tossing garbage into lakes. Fast-forward to the present day and the challenges are dramatically different. The main one is climate change, and its severe impact on his immediate neighbourhood and other parts of India. In 2015, Chennai experienced one of the worst floods in its history. Then, in 2018−2019, a severe drought ravaged the city. Erratic and extreme weather induced by climate change is now much more frequent, resulting in people losing working days and even property.
This has led to a change in the way that environmentalists like Krishnamurthy chalk up their priorities. Even an announcement of rain triggers worries about the direction from which the water may gush in and the potential impact on property. But the years have not deterred Krishnamurthy’s passion. The EFI has adapted to new realities and come up with fresh strategies to attract more young volunteers and increase public participation. He believes that to do good is not just about throwing money at problems but making participation more meaningful and more fun.
He has realized that just inviting people to come and clean lakes will not work for long. Eventually they get bored. What is needed is a menu of activities and the EFI is offering a plethora of options for public participation. One of the first attempts at giving people new ways of engaging was the ‘Lake Safari’, consisting of taking people to lakes, one after another, telling them stories about each body of water, its history and how the EFI has helped clean and restore it. Then came ’Cyclakes’ that involved people cycling to lakes and tracing water channels. This was followed by ‘Wall-E’ through which EFI volunteers take over public walls and decorate them with information about local ecology – the birds, snakes, frogs. In short, it is about making environmentalism exciting as well as worthy.
The EFI’s objective though is about so much more than protecting lakes. It is about cleaning, restoring and rehabilitating them. That is why, Krishnamurthy stresses, it is critical to continue to track a waterbody after it has been cleaned up. A good example of this is the work on a lake called Karasangal in Chennai that the EFI helped restore in 2015. He feels very happy when he goes back even seven years later. It is a completely different place with many more birds, reptiles and trees. The restoration has also improved life for people who live around Karasangal. It demonstrates how citizen participation can revive suburban waterbodies and rejuvenate critical habitats. So what lies ahead now for this committed environmentalist? There are plans to expand the EFI’s footprint beyond India, starting with Sri Lanka. One thing is sure – whatever happens, he will be committed to preserving our natural world, in keeping with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative.
II] REDUCE WILDLIFE-HUMAN CONFLICT IN INDIA
In 2019, Krithi Karanth was named the five 2019 Rolex Awards Laureates. A conservation scientist, Krithi Karanth is determined to reduce the friction between wildlife and people living near Indian national parks by reducing threats to people, property and livestock, raising conservation awareness in communities and schools and, importantly, assisting with compensation claims through a toll-free helpline service.
As world population surges towards 8 billion, conflicts between people and the planet’s dwindling wildlife over food, resources and space for living are multiplying – but conservationist Krithi Karanth is proving that this is a problem that can be mitigated. In her home country, India, every year there are hundreds of thousands of cases where communities and wildlife, such as leopards, tigers and elephants, clash. The result is damage, injury and death on both sides. Wild animals are not attuned to human boundaries, with the result that people and their livestock are often injured or killed, crops are destroyed and property damaged. Communities may then exact revenge by killing the wild animals, Karanth says. The Indian government hands out over US$5 million in compensation to farmers and villagers for wildlife damage every year, but Karanth estimates the 80,000 cases compensated may only represent the tip of the iceberg of actual conflicts between people and wild animals as the government lacks the resources to process claims quickly.
The daughter of a tiger biologist and conservationist, Karanth grew up with an abiding love for India’s imperiled natural wonders. Karanth’s approach to wildlife-human conflict is simple, based on lessons learned and proven techniques. In 2015, she established a toll-free number for villagers to call for assistance in filing for compensation when they suffer losses. Known as Wild Seve, it currently serves half a million people living in 600 villages near Bandipur and Nagarahole parks in the state of Karnataka. It has filed 15,000 claims for 7,000 families, worth US$555,000. This pragmatic approach has increased trust and reduced hostility towards wildlife in these communities.
She is expanding the Wild Seve project to three more parks and 1,000 more villages. She uses mobile technology to identify conflict hot spots that need particular focus and field-tests measures in 1,000 households in high-conflict zones, such as predator-proof sheds, alternative crops and fences, to reduce crop damage and make people and their livestock safer. Karanth believes improving local attitudes and awareness is critical. In parallel, she is running Wild Shaale, a conservation education programme in 500 schools in high-conflict areas, reaching 30,000 children. In time, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale could together become a worldwide model for conservation.
III] INDIA’S UNCONVENTIONAL CONSERVATIONIST
Famous in India for his unconventional approach to conservation, American-born Romulus Whitaker, who jokingly calls himself a “rabid hippie conservationist”, has made his mark in his adopted country, first for his notable career in herpetology, and now for saving rainforests to help overcome India’s water shortage.
Whitaker’s Rolex Award-winning project set forth a plan to help establish seven research stations that will connect key remaining rainforest strongholds throughout India and demonstrate the importance of their water supplies to hundreds of millions of people. In addition to hosting dozens of scientists and naturalists, each station’s mission is to be a springboard for local conservation and the education of schoolchildren about the forest. As these rainforest research stations, based on Whitaker’s Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, established in 2005, come into operation, he is continuing his studies of the flagship species, the King Cobra, revealing the habits of the largest venomous snake in the world.
In other achievements, Whitaker set up, in 1976, the Madras Crocodile Bank to protect three crocodile species, a research station in the Andaman Islands and has published eight books and over 300 articles.
IV] TECHNOLOGY FOR ALL
ROLEX AWARDS FOR ENTERPRISE, YOUNG LAUREATE IN 2012
Millions of blind people in India have been left out of the smartphone revolution but designer Sumit Dagar is aiming to open the door to technology for them.
Sumit Dagar has applied his technological skills, inventiveness and passion for design to help his fellow citizens, particularly blind people – of whom India has millions – to improve their lives and to benefit from today’s technological revolution. His long-term goal is to develop an affordable Braille smartphone. He and his colleagues have developed a prototype but are seeking further funding to complete the project.
In the interim, he has launched a downloadable application for blind people. SimplEye enables smartphone users to make swiping and tapping gestures that imitate reading Braille. The app also gives audio feedback, reading out words created by the gestures. By 2015, 500 users had directly benefited from the release of the app in India and he is now looking to scale up the project internationally. Dagar is continuing to develop a keyboard for visually impaired people on touch phones and is also raising funds for other products, such as an eBook reader for the blind.
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