Top 10 People Improving the World

Almost everyone has heard of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate change activist who has gone viral with her student protest outside government offices growing from just her to millions of people all over the world in a single year. But Greta is not the only person working to raise awareness of environmental issues: the late Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development amongst other things, inspired children all over the world to plant a billion trees; there is Tewolde Egziabher – also an award winner, in this case the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 – whose impassioned plea saw the WTO (World Trade Organisation) quash the USA’s desire for international environmental treaties to be overridden, and the, by now almost forgotten, camera operator, Rebecca Hosking, who, while working for the BBC on Midway Island in 2006, saw sea birds and animals killed – literally choked to death – with vast amounts of plastic waste and returned to the UK to hang up her camera in favour of working – successfully – to ban plastic bags. Here are ten more heroes deserving of accolades for their work to clean up or improve their worlds:

10. Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua

Known affectionately as the waterman, Mwalua is a pea farmer by trade. He became concerned about the plight of the wild creatures that make Africa a unique and beautiful land when climate change wreaked havoc on the rainfall pattern. Realising that animals would die unless someone did something – he did something. He hired a massive water tanker and drove out to a watering hole , filling it up for the grateful animals and returning day after day until the rains eventually came. The following year, he made sure that there were plenty of concrete lined water holes (so that less water would be lost through soaking into the thirsty ground) and upped his deliveries, delivering up to 10,000 litres of water per day in a slow, heavy tanker.

Pretty soon, word got out about what Mwalua was doing, and donations began to flood (hah!) in, enabling him to keep going and to upgrade the tanker and increase his range of deliveries. The animals know him so well now that they will come crowding around when he arrives, waiting for the life-preserving fluid to start flowing.

9. Afroz Shaz

Between 2015 and 2017, Afroz Shaz spearheaded a community movement to clean up the Versova Beach in Mumbai. In the 109 weeks of the project, 9 million kilograms of plastic and waste was gathered from the beach, leaving it almost cleared and clean enough for nesting turtles to return for the first time in many years. Sadly, governmental authorities began to miss collections of the gathered plastic, complaining that the hundreds of volunteers (some of whom come from 12 different countries and all of whom are working for free) were leaving sand in the waste… It was for this reason, plus abuses by those Shaz termed ‘goons’ who would sit on the cleared beach and, yup, you guessed it, drop litter, swearing and cursing at anyone who remonstrated with them, that he called a halt to the project for the time being. Hopefully the government will realise what a great thing was done and resume collections with a little bit more gratitude to the community? And perhaps anyone related to the goons could give them a nudge too?


8. Bachendri Pal

Not content with being the first Indian woman to the summit of Mount Everest, Pal soon set her sights on cleaning up the world famous Ganges River, leading a team of 40 rafters to clean the river as they went. The idea was to inspire those communities alongside the river to join in, and perhaps continue the process in the future, gradually reversing the huge pollution problem in that part of the world.

7. Sebastiao and Lélia Salgado

With a tree taking twenty-odd years to grow and about three minutes to cut down, it is no surprise that deforestation is clearing massive swathes of land every day. Returning to his homeland in 1990 after years covering the atrocities of war in Rwanda, the professional photographer was horrified to find scrubby near desert where he remembered lush green forests. Leila believed that it could be restored with some work, so they set to work planting a few trees – every month for decades. They set up a small business to make their work official and Instituto Terra planted a staggering 4 million saplings – all native plants to ensure that the biodiversity of the area is as natural as possible. The small valley that so horrified Sebastiao all those years ago is now lush and green once more – and better than that, it is alive with the sounds and sights of wildlife which has flocked to this restored oasis. Over 500 species of birds, animals and reptiles flourish in this small resurrected forest.

6. Aubrey Meyer

The British/ South African musician and activist was inspired to abandon his successful career in music to pursue environmental activism when he heard of the murder of Chico Mendes, an activist fighting to curtail the clearing of the Amazon rainforest. He joined the Green Party in the UK for a while, as well as co-founding the Global Commons Institute (GCI) in 1990 with the stated objective of combatting climate change.

5. Vicki Buck

Not only content with running for (and gaining) political office in her native New Zealand, twice, this no-nonsense woman has also cofounded a company that is working on using algae to create biofuels which will help reduce our reliance on messy, polluting fossil fuels.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio

The internationally renowned film star has been an environmental crusader for quite some time: even before he (and the rest of the cast) were criticised for the ‘trashing’ of a pristine beach in Vietnam while they were filming The Beach. The authorities had signed off on the actions taken by the film crew, which included moving sand dunes to make the area even more picturesque. In fact, it was after his success in Titanic, some three years before, that DiCaprio began to look into and make significant donations to various good causes. He kept his monetary contributions on the down-low, even after he began to lend his voice to the causes, being able to draw big crowds thanks to his stardom.

3. Ma Jun

This Chinese writer and activist challenges the traditional Chinese habit of secrecy and saving face, such as claiming the Yellow River is a model of water management when in fact it is so ill-used and over dammed that it frequently doesn’t reach the sea. He ‘whistle-blew’ the face, shaming the government into taking steps to fix the problem rather than glossing over it.

2. Sanjit ‘Roy’ Bunker

It is a fact that traditional knowledge is not respected by modern education. It is also a fact that people from poorer backgrounds do not access tertiary education and, in fact, are raised with no expectation of being able to afford college or university. Roy Bunker was well aware of both of these facts and was moved to make a change. He incorporated the Barefoot College, an institution designed to find bright and innovative people who are trapped in poverty and give them a world-class education without making them feel out of place or uncomfortable. The college is run on donations, so there are no fees to pay, and some classes are held at night so people can work alongside getting an education. People can learn everything from basic literacy to degree-level engineering, helping entire communities pull themselves out of poverty and improve the lives for everyone with their new skills.

1. Bija Devi

You do not have to be well educated or rich to make a difference. Bija Devi grew up farming and tending the land, without ever being sent to school and she is not even certain of her exact age. However, under the tutelage of Vandana Shiva, she learned to preserve different cereal crop seeds for posterity. She may not be au fait with their scientific names, but she does know a lot about each plant that she has the seeds for: an impressive amount, with over five hundred types of rice alone and over a thousand other grains. She runs Navdanya (Nine Seeds) which aims to educate people about using older forms of grains that perhaps grow slower, but do not require the large quantities of fertilizer and pesticides that modern, genetically tweaked grains do. Using the old-fashioned seeds preserves the fertility of the soils and restores natural balances, making small farms more sustainable, rather than less.

For every litterbug and angry naysayer shouting that Greta and her supporters should get back to school, there is someone somewhere in the world, quietly working to make a small change here and now. Kudos to them and may their good work continue!