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Mozambican Community Leaders Awarded National Geographic Society / Howard Buffett Award

Washington - Ms. Aida Safire and Mr. Augusto Assane Omar, who helped create one of Africa's newest national parks, have been awarded the prestigious 2003 National Geographic Society/Howard Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation.

The Award was established through a generous gift from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to acknowledge lifetime contributions that further conservation in Southern and Eastern Africa. Buffett, an Illinois agri-businessman and widely published agricultural and wildlife photographer, has traveled extensively throughout the world.

Safire and Omar were recognized for their tireless efforts to create Quirimbas National Park in Northern Mozambique. They were nominated by Peter Bechtel, WWF's Quirimbas Project Executant. WWF helped fund the park's creation and implementation. The 2,900 square mile park is a globally recognized ecoregion that is home to endangered dugongs, turtles, whales, elephants, leopards coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds. In addition, 55,000 people live within the park boundaries and rely on its resources for their livelihoods.

Omar is the hereditary Muslim leader of Cabo Delgado Province. After serving in the army for 15 years during Mozambique's civil war he retired to civilian life in 1992 with a tiny pension that allowed him to feed himself and his family. At this point he decided to devote himself to his religion and the improvement of his people -- the Muani, who live in the coastal zone of Cabo Delgado Province.

Safire was born and raised on Ibo Island, an ancient trading and slaving city, but left at the age of 20, fleeing a forced marriage. She settled in Nampula Province where she worked in clerical jobs for 15 years, but lost her job and returned to Cabo Delgado after the peace accord. Safire is a highly observant Muslim, fasting every Monday and Thursday, so like Omar, she also decided to work for the benefit of her people.

Together, Omar and Safire organized the communities of Cabo Delgado Province into a powerful voice for conservation. Combining the power of two local associations, one of which they co-founded, they convinced local communities of the need for better resource management and more conservation. They worked with few resources and no salaries, riding buses and local sailboats, reaching every one of the 40 villages to be affected by the Park. Sometimes they were chased away, sometimes threatened, sometimes welcomed and sometimes stranded by storms on sandbanks in the middle of the ocean.

It helped that they went to the Mosque every evening to pray with the villagers. Omar usually led the service. Afterwards Safire would find moments to speak to the women alone, knowing that only then, in the absence of the men, would the women speak their minds. They listened to the communities and found out that the most pressing needs were declining fish stocks from overfishing and conflicts with crop-raiding elephants.

They promised to solve the problems if the park was established and funded, and eventually returned with signed, unanimous agreements from every community.

Since the creation of the Park, Safire has helped establish several marine protected areas, resulting in a growing fish population. Omar has set up the park's pilot Elephant/Human Conflict Mitigation program and is having steady success in reducing animal human conflicts using nothing more that coconut rope, elephant dung, old engine oil, and hot chilies. They are currently working to develop and implement the Park management plan, the next stage in a life-long plan to protect this outstanding ecosystem for future generations.

"Aida and Augusto are inspiring examples of the tremendous impact that two individuals can have in protecting a globally outstanding treasure," says William Eichbaum, WWF Vice President for Endangered Spaces. "The National Geographic/Howard Buffett Award is a testament to their Herculean efforts to create a park with the complete support and cooperation of the local communities most affected."