x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dubai activist in the running for global green prize

The woman who runs Emirates Environmental Group is shortlisted for a $100,000 award.

Habiba Al Marashi, the chairman of Emirates Environmental Group, displays some of the educational materials that caught the attention of judges for the Rolex Award for Enterprise.
Habiba Al Marashi, the chairman of Emirates Environmental Group, displays some of the educational materials that caught the attention of judges for the Rolex Award for Enterprise.

GENEVA // The head of Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) has been shortlisted for a US$100,000 (Dh367,000) award from Rolex for her 17 years of work on green issues. Habiba al Marashi, EEG's chairman and co-founder, is one of six candidates from the Middle East with a chance of winning a Rolex Award for Enterprise. The awards, founded in 1976 by the Geneva-based watch company, are presented to five people every two years in areas such as technology, exploration, the environment and cultural heritage.

The winners, selected from a worldwide shortlist of 44, will be announced at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel in Dubai in November, the first time the awards ceremony has been held in the Middle East. EEG was started in 1991 and is one of the largest non-governmental organisations in the country with almost 2,000 members. Mrs Marashi has juggled her EEG responsibilities with bringing up four children and, for much of the group's history, with her work in administration and human resources.

Speaking of her environmental work, she said: "It's a local project that deals with a local scenario, so it's sensitive to the local culture and it fills a gap on the ground. [Being shortlisted] is good, positive feedback and it gives us confidence. I look forward to hearing the final result." She said her group aimed to promote environmental education, a challenge in a region of cheap energy where high-consumption lifestyles are in reach of many.

The EEG has engaged the public, students, the government, educational institutions - more than 500 schools are in touch with the group - and the private sector. "We have managed to put the environment on the agenda in this country, to get everybody to think about the environment," Mrs Marashi said. She acknowledged, however, that EEG had encountered many barriers in its campaigns. "I think it's been pretty tough, particularly taking into account that this is not always a popular topic and does not sit well with everybody," she said.

The region's other nominees are based in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, and include the editor of an environmental magazine and an agricultural engineer working to preserve white storks. Winners of the Rolex awards in 2006 included Rory Wilson, a British zoologist who invented a device to track wild animals, Chanda Shroff, an Indian woman who helped to revive traditional embroidery skills, and Alexandra Lavrillier, a French ethnologist who has worked to preserve indigenous culture in south-eastern Siberia.

Rebecca Irvin, head of the awards, said the initiative centred on people with "interesting contributions to the world". "In the 32 years of the awards, the Middle East and North Africa [Mena] has been very under-represented and that was a great pity," she said. "The Arab world has been responsible for many innovations in areas such as science and we felt there were people who weren't getting the recognition they deserved. Having the ceremony in Dubai has encouraged people in the region to apply and be recognised."

Winners must have projects that display a "spirit of enterprise" and that are feasible, original and have a positive impact on the community. "There has to be some sort of originality. We're not interested in people who are just looking for funding for highly academic research," Mrs Irvin said. "A lot of our winners don't have formal academic credentials. We've had an amateur entomologist, a Paris taxi driver, who discovered more than 300 species of ground beetles."

This year's awards received 138 applications from 16 Mena countries out of a total 1,477 applications from 127 countries. In 2006, there were only 35 applications from 10 Mena countries. Officials encouraged interest from the region by contacting organisations to suggest they apply. They also contacted universities, sent out flyers and ensured that media in the region covered the awards. The winners will be chosen by a panel of specialists in various fields such as geology, microfinance, education, technology, medicine and economics.

As well as naming five "Laureates", the jury will also announce five "Associate Laureates", who will each receive US$50,000. Prize money must be spent on the initiatives the recipient was selected for. Laureates and Associate Laureates also receive a Rolex watch. Previous awards ceremonies have been held in cities such as New York, Tokyo, Paris and Singapore. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae