by Henry Scott Stokes

In this low world, not all of us get to do exactly what we would like to in life. But there are those among us who are buoyed up by some project—meaningless per­haps to anyone else—that takes them forward to distinction or fame.

Take the case of Gordon Sato, an American by nationality. When he was a teenager, he was incarcerated with his family in a U.S. Government concentration camp during World War II, as they were of Japanese ancestry. This experience burned into him, giving him sympathy for the underdog. At a time in life when most people have long retired— he is now 74 years old—Mr. Sato is concentrating his efforts and some of his money (he spent $400,000 in the field) to help inhabitants of one of the poorest, driest countries in Africa, namely Eritrea, an independent state since 1993.

I know about Mr. Sato, a dis­tinguished biologist with some 150 scientific publications to his cred­it, because he is one of five people who were singled out by a Swiss watch company, Rolex, to receive monetary awards this autumn for their enterprise.

He earned the award— $100,000 in cash and a gold Rolex watch—for his work in Eritrea. He is using his scientific knowl­edge to boost the rural economy there by planting trees and grass­es. His chief proposal is to plant mangrove trees along the coast and to use them for fodder for animals—goats, for example— and to chop them up for firewood to burn at home.

It gets technical. “Sato and his co-workers,” according to a Rolex report, “have planted the grasses Distichlis spicata and Spartina— both can be irrigated with seawater and make excellent cattle fod­der.” A layman can appreciate what Mr. Sato is up to, however. He proposes to capitalize on Eritrea’s two assets—the seawater along a 1, 000-kilometer coast­line, facing the Red Sea—and sunlight.

I was a guest at a banquet held by Rolex in Tokyo last month to honor Mr. Sato and the four other prize winners. I missed the chance to speak to him, but I did catch up with three other laureates. One of them was Michel Andre, a French engineer and biologist, who earned his award for recent path-breaking work in the Canary Islands, designed to stop ships from plowing into sperm whales surfacing there.

Imagine spending one’s life— M. Andre is 38 and has many years to go in his project—track­ing whales and protecting them from day-trippers speeding from Santa Cruz on Tenerife to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. The idea, of course, is that, assuming his work comes to fruition in the Canary Islands, then it can be extended all over the world.

Apparently, the problem for the whales is that there is so much sound pollution in crowded waters that their delicate hearing systems don’t work and fail to warn them of approaching vessels. M. Andre’s solution is to furnish the captains with means of know­ing they are about to risk crashing on a whale.

Hitting a whale of that size at speed does neither the ship nor the whale any good. The trick is to place buoys in the water and use them to detect the whales and send that information to the ships speeding by via a station on shore.

How does Rolex find people like M. Andre or another laureate I met at the party—Dave Irvine-Halliday of Canada, an electrical engineer who has made it his mis­sion in life to introduce cheap LED lighting to small villages in Nepal and Sri Lanka?

Chris McDonald, who is the president of Rolex (Japan), told me how his company goes about the process. It is not done by chas­ing up hill and down dale in the Himalayas. Advertisements are placed in publications around the world, urging people to apply for the awards. News of these valuable awards is spread by the ads and by word of mouth. As a result, more and more people apply—this year the number of applicants rose to 1,400 in all.

“The number of applicants was up and the quality was up,” according to Mr. McDonald, “and for the first time the presentation ceremony was held in Japan.”

Undoubtedly, the outstanding laureate this year—in terms of the visibility of his project—was Jose Marcio Ayres of Brazil. His project is “to protect the world’s biggest rainforest corridor by making local residents key participants in con­servation,” according to the organ­izers. This means, of course, in the Amazon.

Mr. Ayres, 48, is a forest ecologist by profession, whose particu­lar interest in life was sparked by a visit to a zoo in Germany when he was 19. There in the zoo he spot­ted an uakari monkey, which is an endearing little chap with a hairdo not unlike the one David Beckham sported at the World Cup this year.

Mr. Ayres was startled. How so? He had never seen the monkey, which is indigenous to Brazil, in its native environment. He decided, then and there, to make defense of the Amazon rainforest the focus of his life. Some three decades later, he is a foremost exponent of means to protect the rainforest and its-inhabitants—there are those who would root out the indigenous communities in the name of protecting the environ­ment.

As with other projects singled out for awards this year, the key turns out to be to build ties with the locals—20,000 people live in and around the Mamiraua ecolog­ical station where Mr. Ayres works and would largely have been moved away without his protec­tion.

The Rolex laureates are remarkable people. The fifth of them was Lindy Rodwell, a South African zoologist who has made protection of a species of crane— the wattled crane—her mission in life, and has extended the battle for this endangered species to 11 countries in southern Africa. But the question remained for me: what made the Swiss company that funds this program take it on?

The official answer is that the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, as they are known, were begun in 1976 by the late Andre J. Heiniger, previous chairman and father of Patrick Heiniger, present CEO of Rolex, to mark the 50th anniver­sary of the invention of the company’s Oyster waterproof watch— a world first in 1926.

Yet what made Rolex carry it on, I inquired? I was curious. Rolex is a privately owned Swiss company, and deeply sensitive, given the competition in its trade, to how it appears.

From what I have been told, there was some soul-searching at Rolex in the early 1980s. Andre Heiniger, the boss, asked others in the company whether the firm should carry on giving the awards. The decision was taken to press on, insiders say, on the grounds that it would take time for the rewards to make an impact.

This they now do. No other company that I can think of—and really the behemoths of the corporate world, the insurance compa­nies and the oil companies, are unimaginative—is mak­ing anything like the effort put on by Rolex to support venturesome souls out there on the oceans, plains and steppes.

Imagine what it does for your morale, after you have been toil­ing for a few years in total obscu­rity in some lonely part of the world, without a sou in support.

“I ask myself if this is real, or all a dream,” uttered Dave Irvine-Halliday surveying the crowd at the gala presentation in Tokyo. He was not the only person who was taken aback. So was I.

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