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Mongabay founder wins prestigious 2022 Heinz Award for the Environment

Rhett Butler

Rhett Butler

  • The Heinz Awards are presented annually to honor excellence and achievement in the arts, environment, and economics. Previous winners in the environment category include Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, Jane Lubchenco, and James Hansen, among many others.
  • This year’s winner of the prestigious prize’s environment award is Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler, for his work creating a popular and impactful media outlet that publishes news from nature’s frontline in multiple languages for a large global audience.
  • “The pace of environmental degradation, deforestation and habitat loss due to human activity is devastating, but Rhett has responded with courage and dedication, creating a platform that equips the world with critical news information gathered with the highest journalistic and scientific integrity,” says Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation and founder of the Heinz Awards.
  • “The rise of Mongabay as one of the most widely read environmental news sources is a powerful testament to what’s possible when even one person has the interest in and passion for the natural world that Butler has,” says Mongabay board member Jeannie Sedgwick.

Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler has won the 2022 Heinz Award for the Environment for his efforts to advance environmental journalism worldwide.

Butler started Mongabay in 1999 and has since led the effort to expand its coverage and impact by building a global team with staff and contributors in more than 80 countries. In 2012, he guided the organization into nonprofit status to increase its reach and deliver news and inspiration from Nature’s frontline in several languages.

“The Heinz Award is an unexpected and humbling honor,” Butler said. “The recognition by Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation is a testament to the incredible work being done on a daily basis by the Mongabay team and its dedicated network of contributing journalists.

“Now is a particularly critical time for environmental journalism, given the planetary challenges we face and the shrinking of press freedom around the world,” he continued. “Journalism can generate real-world impact by increasing public awareness, identifying problems and solutions, and holding those in power to account.”

The Heinz Awards honor late U.S. Senator H. John Heinz III, and have been given annually since 1993 to honor excellence and achievement in areas of great importance to the senator. It’s one of the top awards for science, scholarship and advocacy in the U.S., recognizing people who have demonstrated a “passion for excellence that goes beyond intellectual curiosity; a concern for humanity rooted in a deep sensitivity for the well-being of others; and a broad vision which extends far beyond the particular and embraces something universal.”

Previous winners of the award’s environment category include Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, Jane Lubchenco, and James Hansen, among many others. Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation and founder of the Heinz Awards, said Butler’s efforts exemplify the kind of enduring and impactful work the award aims to recognize.

“The pace of environmental degradation, deforestation and habitat loss due to human activity is devastating, but Rhett has responded with courage and dedication, creating a platform that equips the world with critical news information gathered with the highest journalistic and scientific integrity,” Heinz said. “Working at the intersection of human rights and the environment, Mongabay journalists are holding those responsible for natural resource management accountable, prompting investors to more closely examine financial investments, and contributing to the prevention of deforestation.

“Now more than ever, the world needs individuals who are willing to take on what may seem like insurmountable challenges to protect our precious natural resources,” Heinz continued. “We honor Rhett for his fearlessness and for inspiring in others a joyful appreciation for our natural world and a commitment to protecting the planet that we share.”

Rhett Butler in a peat swamp in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Mongabay.

Speaking for Mongabay’s global community, the organization’s board of directors also praised Butler’s accomplishments.

“On behalf of the Mongabay board, employees, correspondents, supporters and readers globally, we are thrilled to see Rhett receive this recognition for his outstanding leadership and vision,” said board chair Holt Thrasher. “Achieving the breadth and quality of Mongabay’s investigative reporting in the face of mounting challenges to journalists globally stands as a triumph of Rhett’s persistence and dedication to this work.”

Early interest in rainforests

Mongabay was born out of Butler’s interest in nature, which from an early age was nurtured by time spent outdoors. The event that catalyzed his decision to get engaged in environmental issues was the destruction of a rainforest in Borneo shortly after he visited the area.

“The destruction of that forest inspired me to write a book about rainforests to raise awareness of what was happening to these places of wonder,” Butler said. “I wrote the book for impact, not money, so instead of publishing the book, I put it online so people could read it for free. That was the birth of Mongabay.”

Rhett Butler during a trip to Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Butler is an avid photographer and has created many of the images used in Mongabay’s articles. Image by Mongabay.

From that modest start, Mongabay grew into a well-respected news service whose information  has reached more than a billion people and provides ongoing opportunities for journalists to report on environmental issues worldwide. Mongabay also has an education initiative for children, publishes video content and podcasts in multiple languages, and offers fellowships for young and aspiring journalists.

“The rise of Mongabay as one of the most widely read environmental news sources is a powerful testament to what’s possible when even one person has the interest in and passion for the natural world that Butler has,” said Jeannie Sedgwick, a Mongabay board member and former director of the conservation program at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. “Butler has created a vast network of superb journalists covering critical issues in scores of countries and reaching millions of people each month. And he’s done all that while creating a strong organizational culture of diversity and equity. This recognition is well-deserved and much appreciated.”

For his part, Butler said he likes to keep the focus on the Mongabay community’s achievements over his own.

“None of this would have been possible without the support of our donors, interest of our readers, and hard work of our team,” Butler said. “Mongabay’s impact has grown far beyond what I ever could have imagined when I started the site out of my love and appreciation of nature.”

Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image by Christopher Paino/Mongabay Indonesia.

Mongabay’s reporting is produced by five international bureaus publishing in 10 languages, including Indonesian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Hindi. It also has a vital bureau in India and a quickly growing program in Africa, and the work of all these teams is translated by a dedicated team of translators into French, Italian, German, Japanese, and simplified Chinese.

In line with Butler’s philosophy of making reliable and objective information about the environment available as widely as possible — so that a wide array of readers ranging from government officials to business leaders, scientists, citizens, educators, and policymakers can make informed choices and educate themselves about their environment — the site’s content is published on a Creative Commons basis, so that other media outlets can use our team’s reporting to boost the conservation literacy of their own readers, in whatever language they publish in.

The large amount of information shared, and the easy access to it (the site’s simple design and use of small images also makes it easy for anyone to load, regardless of their internet connection speed) has led to many tangible impacts over the years. Many of them are described here — from changes in how a major Chilean national park is managed to stopping a uranium mining project in a tiger reserve in India, to the delisting of a company from the London Stock Exchange — underscoring Butler’s assertion of journalism’s importance to creating real-world impact by increasing public awareness, identifying problems and solutions, and holding powerful people and companies to account.

Named for an island off the coast of Madagascar that Butler visited as a volunteer during college, Mongabay also has many new initiatives in motion, including a data platform that will make environmental data more widely available, and a free online tool that helps people identify high-quality reforestation projects to support that align with their interests and motivations, Reforestation.app.

Keep up with all the news, developments and opportunities at Mongabay by signing up for the free weekly newsletter and following @mongabay on social media channels: those using LinkedIn can connect directly with Butler there via his profile.

Beyond reporting for Mongabay and running the organization, Butler has co-authored a number of publications published in scientific journals and regularly speaks at universities about trends in conservation, forests, conservation technology, and journalism. He serves as adjunct faculty at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University and is an advisory council member for the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Rhett Butler in a redwood forest near his home in California. Image by Mongabay.

Learn more about Mongabay’s educational programs, opportunities for reporters, fellowships, internships, and donation options here, and learn more about its reach and impact in the impacts section.

Butler is also a sought-after expert on tropical forest issues, and is often quoted in publications ranging from The New York Times to Bloomberg. Hear him discuss the latest tropical forest trends and news — from the possibly monumental effect of the upcoming presidential election in Brazil on Amazon forest policy, to the renewed forest conservation agreement in Indonesia — on Mongabay’s most recent podcast episode here:

Please leave your thoughts and wishes for Mongabay’s next 23 years and beyond in the comments section below.