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Environment

'Alternative Nobel Prize' gains moral traction

The Right Livelihood Foundation awards an alternative to the Nobel Prize. The prize gives moral weight and financial support to those combating environmental damage, underdevelopment or human rights violations worldwide.

Jakob von Uexkull and Right Livelihood Award winners

The Right Livelihood Awards are less focused on Europe and the US than the Nobel Prize is

Years ago, German-Swedish publicist Jacob von Uexkull decided to back a grand idea with concrete funding.

Inspired by Alfred Nobel's last wish that answers be found to humanity's most pressing problems, von Uexkull created a $1 million endowment with his own money in the 1970's. The money is used to support individuals or organizations working against environmental damage, human rights violations and underdevelopment.

Since 1980, three prizes worth 50,000 euros ($65,000) each have been awarded every December. A conference celebrating the prize's 30th anniversary is currently going on this week in Bonn.

What von Uexkull initially set out to do was to convince the Norwegian Nobel Committee to add another "official" Nobel Prize for environmental protection. But when they declined, von Uexkull started the "Right Livelihood Award Foundation."

Jakob von Uexkull

Jakob von Uexkull founded the Right Livelihood Award 30 years ago

"Because I grew up in Sweden, I knew that if a person wins a Nobel Prize they are taken seriously throughout the world, even in other fields," von Uexkull said. "That was what stimulated me."

The jury presiding over von Uexkull's Right Livelihood Award is comprised of noted international personalities and activists.

This alternative to the Nobel Prize was never primarily about advancements in science. Instead, its main criteria have always been about active engagement and exemplary life-conduct.

Peace, environmental protection and social justice

It's not uncommon for winners of the Right Livelihood Award to come from developing countries.

Take, for example, Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff, who received the award in 2001 for his decades of work on behalf of poor people in Latin America. Boff also creates a connection between spirituality, social justice and environmental responsibility in his writings.

"Our prize winners, our prize candidates, the members of our jury… they're often people who live right in the middle of things, amongst the poor, in the slums, out in the countryside," von Uexkull said.

In contrast to the official Nobel Prize, which is primarily awarded to people from Europe or the United States, von Uexkull's alternative prize is awarded to people from Asia or Africa about 40 percent of the time.

Many of them are completely unknown on the international stage until they receive the Right Livelihood Award. One such example is Roy Sesena, who won the award in 2005 for his work on behalf of the Kalahari Bushmen in Botswana.

Women and youth from around the world

Gynecologist Monika Hauser

Gynecologist Monika Hauser won the prize for helping sexual abuse victims

The Right Livelihood Award's 137 winners so far have been spread over 58 countries. But not only do the winners of this alternative to the Nobel Prize more frequently hail from developing countries, they're also younger on average, and more likely to be female.

Cologne-based gynecologist Monika Hauser joined the ranks of female award winners in 2008.

She founded "medica mondiale," an organization which focuses primarily on the Balkans in working to aid women who have been raped during civil war along with other victims of sexual violence.

The year after Hauser was granted the Right Livelihood Award, medica mondiale suddenly received twice as many donations as before.

"In the case of this prize, it's about exhibiting societal alternatives and honoring movements which have brought change into this world," Hauser said in explaining why she feels particularly honored by the award.

International prestige, moral and material support

Michael Succow

German environmentalist Michael Succow said the prize helped his morale

In other instances, the Right Livelihood Award has helped shield its winners from government oppression or even jail.

Prize winners like biologist and conservationist Michael Succow from the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), say the award helped boost their conviction and morale.

"This is perhaps the most meaningful prize one citizen of the earth can receive from another," he said after receiving the award.

"It is specifically not the Nobel Prize, which furthers scientific progress and contributes to nature being overtaken and overwhelmed. Instead, it is a prize for thinking about what we can do differently."

Although the idea of an alternative to the Nobel Prize was initially perceived as the dream of a naive idealist, the Right Livelihood Award now carries moral weight on an international level. Its international renown can be seen in the fact that it has been presented in the Swedish parliament since 1985.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya

Environmentalist Wangari Maathai won both the Right Livelihood Award and the Nobel Prize

One award winner, Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathei, won the Right Livelihood Award in 1984 and then went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2004.

Although Maathei's case is unique to the 30-year history of the Right Livelihood Award, it remains as a testament to the weight carried by the prize.

This year's winners will be announced at an event in Stockholm on September 30.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (gps)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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