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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Picturing Culture


iLCP Executive Director Cristina Mittermeier is at the forefront of the modern conservation movement

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Image was taken in Madagascar.
“I’m thrilled at the impact we’re having,” she says. “Everyone recognized the need for this kind of work, but no one was doing it in a systematic, professional way. I thought that if I bring a lot of photographers into the mix and get them to speak about their work, we could influence other amateur photographers and the general public.”

One of the most successful initiatives was launched in 2008—RAVE, or Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. The basic concept is to parachute a team of photographers with different specialties, writers and video shooters into an area facing any number of threats. Their job is to bring back a full portrait of the situation in a very short period of time. While Mittermeier says she knew they would be effective, the overwhelmingly positive response from the conservation community caught her by surprise.

In November, the group completed its seventh and largest RAVE to date in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Starting in July, there were 32 photographers on the ground documenting the biodiversity and conservation threats to the area, which is known as the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization. Some of the resulting 100,000 images were presented at the ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico, which was opened by President Felipe Calderón and attended by 1,800 delegates from 50 countries.


Image was taken in Madagascar.
During the expedition, Mittermeier concentrated on documenting local fishing and cattle ranching communities, showing how their livelihood depends on healthy ecosystems. While she began her career pursuing wildlife photography, she wound up discovering that her real passion was in photographing people. To that end, Mittermeier has spent a lot of time working with indigenous communities around the world and operates with a deep understanding of how intimately connected human welfare is to nature.

“When we talk about carbon emissions and deforestation, the difficulty is in trying to bring a human face to it,” explains Mittermeier. “So part of what I try to do is use my relationship with indigenous communities to say, ‘These are people who are doing an enormous favor for humanity.’”

Mittermeier says that her most honest and relevant work has come about when working in a remote village and trying to show the close relationship between “healthy ecosystems and some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people on the planet.”

From the highlands of New Guinea to South America’s Guiana Shield, she has gained access to very remote places that few people ever see. Much of Mittermeier’s work has been in the Amazon rain forest with a group of Indians called the Kayapo, who live in a pristine region given over to them by the Brazilian government. They legally and physically control 28.4 million acres of the forest, by far the largest block of tropical forest protected by a single indigenous group. The Kayapo nation lives much as its ancestors did, practicing sophisticated agroforestry and sustainable use of wildlife, with an egalitarian social structure and decision-making by consensus.

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