Founder of environmental news site Mongabay wins major US green award

Mr Rhett Butler's environmental news site Mongabay has more than 800 correspondents covering issues in over 70 countries. PHOTO: JOSHUA FRANZOS/TREEHOUSE.MEDIA

SINGAPORE - United States environmentalist and journalist Rhett Butler has spent years travelling the world to expose bad practices in the palm oil industry, illegal logging in Madagascar and shady gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon.

The aim is to raise global awareness of the increasingly fragile and threatened state of the world's environment and to try to halt deforestation from agriculture, poaching of rare species and pollution from illegal mining, among other sins.

His goal is also to educate people so that they can make better decisions.

Through his reporting and photography, Mr Butler, 44, has steadily built up his environmental news site Mongabay, which today has a global reach, with more than 800 correspondents covering issues in more than 70 countries.

In recognition of his work, Mr Butler recently won the US$250,000 (S$357,000) Heinz Award for the Environment.

Established in memory of US Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards recognise individuals making contributions to the arts, the economy and the environment. There are six recipients annually.

"This is a great honour that I feel extends well beyond me to the entire Mongabay team and everyone involved with Mongabay's work," he told The Straits Times after his win in September.

He said Mongabay, a non-profit outfit, has expanded far beyond what he had ever imagined when he started the site back in 1999.

"Most importantly, Mongabay's journalism has had real impact on the world, which is something we all can be proud of," he said.

The journey has not been without risks.

From being threatened in a lift by a man and two bodyguards at a palm oil meeting in Malaysia, to being shot at by a guard at an oil palm plantation in Indonesia, writing about and photographing environmental bad actors have their dangers.

Mr Butler says Mongabay plans to keep expanding.

It currently publishes in English, Bahasa Indonesia, Spanish, French, Hindi and Brazilian Portuguese.

"Some areas in which we've been stepping up investment include data journalism and investigative reporting. We added an indigenous news reporting team last year," he said.

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Mongabay recently established a paid fellowship programme for young and aspiring journalists in biodiversity hot spots to increase local capacity to cover environmental issues, he added.

Mr Butler, who grew up in California, spent part of his childhood travelling with his parents across the globe, from Africa to South America to Australia. He nurtured a deep love of nature.

In his 2018 memoir, A Lucky Child: Mongabay's Origin Story, he spoke of the sadness wrought by increasing environmental damage in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Global trends, notably rampant deforestation across the globe, would eventually interrupt my obsession with nature and replace my happy memories with ones of profound heartbreak," he wrote.

A key moment was a visit to a pristine rainforest in Sabah as a teenager. The forest was filled with orangutans, hornbills and colourful insects. He learnt that eight weeks later, the forest was logged for wood chips to supply a pulp mill plant.

"I was at a loss for words when I tried to explain my sadness to my grade-school friends," he said.

So he began writing, focusing on a book about tropical rainforests that eventually morphed into the website

The name was inspired by an island off the coast of eastern Madagascar called Nosy Mangabe.

The island, brimming with wildlife, was pretty close to paradise, he wrote in the memoir.

What started as a site about his rainforest book grew to include stories about rainforests from around the world. The news site developed from there, steadily gaining popularity and eventually attracting philanthropic support from various foundations.

"Journalism can generate real-world impact by increasing public awareness, identifying problems and solutions, and holding those in power to account," he said.

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