Mongabay founder wins the Heinz Award


MENLO PARK, CA — Rhett Ayers Butler, founder and CEO of the environmental news platform Mongabay, has won the 2022 Heinz Award for the Environment.

Butler, 44, was honored with the 27th Heinz Award for the Environment for his efforts to advance environmental journalism via Mongabay, a nonprofit media organization that delivers news and inspiration from Nature’s frontline in several languages.

Butler started Mongabay in 1999 and has since led the effort to expand its coverage and impact by building a global team with staff and contributors in more than 80 countries.

“The Heinz Award is an unexpected and humbling honor,” says Butler. “The recognition by Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation is a testament to the incredible work being done on a daily basis by the Mongabay team and its dedicated network of contributing journalists.”

“Now is a particularly critical time for environmental journalism, given the planetary challenges we face and the shrinking of press freedom around the world,” he continued. “Journalism can generate real-world impact by increasing public awareness, identifying problems and solutions, and holding those in power to account.”

Rhett Ayers Butler with two Malagasy boatmen in the Manambolo Canyon in Madagascar in 2004.

Rhett Ayers Butler with two Malagasy boatmen in the Manambolo Canyon in Madagascar in 2004.

Award honoring the late senator, John Heinz

The Heinz Awards, which have been given annually since 1993, was created in the memory of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz to honor excellence and achievement in areas of great importance to the senator.

The awards recognize people who have demonstrated a “passion for excellence that goes beyond intellectual curiosity; a concern for humanity rooted in a deep sensitivity for the well-being of others; and a broad vision which extends far beyond the particular and embraces something universal.”

Previous winners of the environment prize include Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, Jane Lubchenco, and James Hansen, among many others. From 2009 through 2011, the Awards had a Special Focus on the Environment, and honored 10 people a year.

Teresa Heinz, Chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation, says Butler’s efforts exemplify the kind of enduring and impactful work the award aims to recognize.

“The pace of environmental degradation, deforestation and habitat loss due to human activity is devastating, but Rhett has responded with courage and dedication, creating a platform that equips the world with critical news information gathered with the highest journalistic and scientific integrity,” says Teresa Heinz, Chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. “Working at the intersection of human rights and the environment, Mongabay journalists are holding those responsible for natural resource management accountable, prompting investors to more closely examine financial investments, and contributing to the prevention of deforestation.

“Now more than ever, the world needs individuals who are willing to take on what may seem like insurmountable challenges to protect our precious natural resources,” Heinz continued. “We honor Rhett for his fearlessness and for inspiring in others a joyful appreciation for our natural world and a commitment to protecting the planet that we share.”

Rhett Ayers Butler in California

Rhett Ayers Butler in California

“On behalf of the Mongabay board, employees, correspondents, supporters and readers globally, we are thrilled to see Rhett receive this recognition for his outstanding leadership and vision,” said Holt Thrasher, the Chairperson of Mongabay’s Board of Directors. “Achieving the breadth and quality of Mongabay’s investigative reporting in the face of mounting challenges to journalists globally stands as a triumph of Rhett’s persistence and dedication to this work.”

Other winners of 27th annual Heinz Awards include Anne C. Evens, Ph.D., CEO of the nonprofit Elevate, which works to ensure equal access to climate solutions that provide clean and affordable heat, power and water in homes and communities; vanessa l. german, Visual Artist and Founder of ARThouse, Pittsburgh; Cauleen Smith, an interdisciplinary artist and educator from Los Angeles; Hilary A. Abell and Alison Lingane, Co-Founders of Project Equity, which leads the movement to advance employee ownership as an exit strategy for business owners; and Chrystel A. Cornelius, the President and CEO of Oweesta Corporation, which works to return wealth to Native lands and people.

Born out of an interest in rainforests

Mongabay was born out of Butler’s interest in nature, which from an early age was nurtured by time spent outdoors. The event that catalyzed his decision to get engaged in environmental issues was the destruction of a rainforest in Borneo shortly after he visited the area.

“The destruction of that forest inspired me to write a book about rainforests to raise awareness of what was happening to these places of wonder,” said Butler. “I wrote the book for impact, not money, so instead of publishing the book, I put it online so people could read it for free. That was the birth of Mongabay.”

From that modest start, Mongabay grew into a well-respected news service whose information has reached over a billion people and provides on-going opportunities for journalists to report on environmental issues worldwide. Mongabay also has an education initiative for children, publishes video content and podcasts in multiple languages, and offers fellowships for young and aspiring journalists.

Rhett Ayers Butler flying a drone in West Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.

Rhett Ayers Butler flying a drone in West Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.

“The rise of Mongabay as one of the most widely read environmental news sources is a powerful testament to what’s possible when even one person has the interest in and passion for the natural world that Butler has,” says Jeannie Sedgwick, Mongabay board member and former director of the Conservation Program at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. “Butler has created a vast network of superb journalists covering critical issues in scores of countries and reaching millions of people each month. And he’s done all that while creating a strong organizational culture of diversity and equity. This recognition is well-deserved and much appreciated.”

“None of this would have been possible without the support of our donors, interest of our readers, and hard work of our team,” says Butler. “Mongabay’s impact has grown far beyond what I ever could have imagined when I started the site out of my love and appreciation of nature.”

Beyond Mongabay, Butler has co-authored a number of publications published in scientific journals and regularly speaks at universities about trends in conservation, forests, conservation technology, and journalism. He serves as adjunct faculty at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University and is an advisory council member for the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Other images of Butler