Enduring Partnerships: the Chino Cienega Foundation, PISA, and Environmental Activist Myint Zaw

6 May

By Mary Howard, PISA Staff Assistant

On April 22, 2015, six outstanding individuals were honored for their work in grassroots environmental activism through The Goldman Environmental Prize. The prestigious award is given to one individual from each continental region. This year’s Asia recipient, Mr. Myint Zaw, was recognized for launching Myanmar’s national movement against construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. Myint Zaw, an environmental journalist and activist, was raised in the Irawaddy River delta which inspired his passion for nature and preservation. The Goldman Prize provides international recognition and credibility, global visibility and financial support of $175,000 for the awardee’s environmental pursuits. Mr. Steve Nichols, President and Founder of the Chino Cinega Foundation, a key supporter of Myint Zaw’s nomination, agreed to stop by PISA’s office to discuss the Foundation’s support for Myint Zaw’s important advocacy work.

The Chino Cienega Foundation, established in 2003, was inspired by Mr. Nichol’s early experience in Vietnam and family legacy. In our interview, he explained how the deep experience at the grassroots level never left him and influenced his later life. Mr. Nichols joined the board of the International Voluntary Services (IVS), a grant-seeking organization, through which he had taught English in Vietnam and which became the model for the PeaceCorps. During his work with IVS, Mr. Nichols learned “what it was like to be on the side of the table asking for financial support for something good, and the frustrations that went along with that,” which inspired his decision in 2001 to use the proceeds from his late father’s estate to establish the Foundation. Mr. Nichols’ experience in Vietnam informed the foundation’s focus on Southeast Asia, but the organization’s name comes from a place that was important to his parents and grandparents: the Cienega wetlands near his hometown of Palm Springs, California. Now, that he is on the grant-making side of the table, Mr. Nichols tries to sponsor projects in a way that doesn’t overly burden the grantee in carrying out important work.

Steve Nichols and Myint Zaw at the Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, April 22, 2015.

Steve Nichols and Myint Zaw at the Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, April 22, 2015.

Thanks to the Chino Cienega Foundation’s support in 2013, PISA offered its first Leadership Institute on Climate Change in Myanmar. Mr. Nichols explained how through the program, he “saw first-hand as a representative of the Foundation how the money was being spent and what was being done.” Not only did Mr. Nichols witness PISA’s activities in Myanmar, but the program also led to his meeting Mr. Myint Zaw.

Mr. Nichols recalled how a mutual connection to PISA, Ms. Jacquelyn Chagnon, introduced Myint Zaw’s work. Fortuitously, the 2013 meeting left a strong impression on Mr. Nichols’ mind as he remembered Myint Zaw’s impressive work as well as his modest and non-confrontational attitude towards activism.

“Myint Zaw is charismatic in the sense that he’s open and friendly, and he knows what he’s doing, but he’s very modest as well, so he has a lot of traits that you don’t often find in just one person. And that’s one of the appealing aspects of knowing him. But he’s very effective as well, together with his colleagues, they’re very good at identifying what the problem is and working in a non-confrontational   way to solve that problem.”

The Chino Cienega Foundation decided to sponsor Myint Zaw’s nomination for the Goldman Prize and helped to put his name on the list.

PISA is honored to hear that it is “thanks to [PISA Director Linda Yarr] that [Mr. Nichols] was in Myanmar in 2013 for the Climate Change seminar, and was able to take an additional day to get to know Myint Zaw.” This interaction reveals how important effective partnerships are for developing solutions to global problems. While Myint Zaw’s work stands on its own for deserving the Goldman Prize, it is thanks to many other supporters and connections that he gained such recognition. The Chino Cienega Foundation’s sponsorship of PISA’s work, which subsequently sparked the meeting and support for Myint Zaw’s nomination, are all factors which work together to make an impact.

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