“Newsmaker: BYU Professor Receives Award,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, 70
Paul Cox was willing to sell his house and car to protect a Western Samoan rain forest. Ultimately that was not necessary, but his successful efforts to save the forest have helped earn him the world’s most prestigious award for grassroots environmentalism.
The Goldman Environmental Prize, which has been referred to as the Nobel Prize of environmental activism, is given annually to seven environmental heroes from around the globe. Brother Cox, a professor of botany and dean of Honors and General Education at Brigham Young University, shares his award with Chief Fuiono Senio of Falealupo, the village that controls the rain forest Brother Cox helped protect.
Loggers were at work when Brother Cox learned of plans to sell logging rights in the forest for money to build a school. “When I stood in the forest and watched the bulldozers knock it down, it was a difficult moment for me,” he says. “I just decided that I had to do something; I had to make a difference there somehow.” With the aid of Chief Senio, he was able to convince other village chiefs that he would raise the required money if they would protect the forest. The Samoan government had mandated that the village build the school for their children. They saw no alternative way to pay for it.
Friends, family members, and interested BYU students helped Brother Cox raise the needed funds. “When we returned to the village with the money and paid the loggers, I heard the villagers cheer,” Brother Cox recalls. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”
Brother Cox has decided to use his portion of the prize money to establish an endowment for the Falealupo forest. “From now until forever, every year there will be funds provided from the endowment to maintain and protect the forest,” he says.
Brother Cox first visited the Samoan rain forest in 1973 while serving as a missionary for the Church. In the ’80s, after his mother died of cancer at age 63, his professional interests turned from general plant ecology and pollination to traditional botanical medicine.
Brother Cox says it is vital that people understand and appreciate the sacred nature of the earth. “I believe that if we love the artist—the Lord—we should not slash his painting,” he says. “Indigenous people throughout the world believe that this planet is sacred ground, so they see the responsibility to care for it as a religious obligation. I think that’s quite a compelling worldview.”