José Sarukhán Kermez has spent a lifetime not just leading students, fellow researchers and politicians to a greater understanding of biological diversity and its value – he has pioneered ways to translate that insight into action.
Sarukhán, 76, persuaded the Mexican government to establish a permanent top-level commission on biodiversity. The commission has bridged the traditional barriers between academic disciplines, government departments and social interest groups.
That was back in 1992, when the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio was crystallizing concern that our global development track was unsustainable. Today, the approach developed by Sarukhán is essential for the world to correct its course.
As a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), one of Mexico’s best, Sarukhán rose to become Director of the Institute of Biology in 1979 and later served as its Coordinator of Scientific Research. He was rector of the university from 1989 until 1997, and remains one of Mexico’s most renowned scientists.
His academic work in areas including ecology, biodiversity and Darwinism has won numerous awards, and he has published more than 190 scientific works as well as several books on subjects including natural capital and climate change.
But his most enduring innovation was his call in 1991 for the establishment of the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, better known as CONABIO. Sarukhán was named as its first national coordinator, a position he still holds.
The commission pools knowledge from across Mexico’s institutions and society to build a fuller understanding of the diversity of life and its immense value to humankind. Crucially, it ensures that the protection of biodiversity is considered at all levels of government policy and practice.
With strong political support – the Mexican president is also president of CONABIO – and an array of national and international donors, CONABIO produces and collates biodiversity data and assessments across Mexico's varied ecosystems and makes them available to policy-makers and the public.
It also administers or guides a range of biological conservation and sustainability projects in Mexico and the region, and cooperates on biodiversity protection at the international level, including through the Convention on Biological Diversity established at the Earth Summit.
Sarukhán has received considerable recognition within Mexico and internationally, including honorary doctorates from 10 national and foreign universities.