Long-time VCE partner and Advisory Council member Yolanda (Yoli) León is a true conservation champion—and warrior (in the best sense of that term). Her efforts to achieve science-based habitat conservation in her native Dominican Republic have more often than not gone against the grain of political realities, economic pressures, and social norms. They have also raised tremendous public awareness, enriched local communities, and brought about hard-won change.
Yoli’s tireless work was recently recognized via a prestigious 2019 Partners in Flight Individual Leadership Award. Since 1990, Partners in Flight (PIF)—a hemispheric coalition of 150 bird conservation organizations—has promoted and shepherded partnerships to advance landbird conservation. Guided by a simple, proactive mission “Keeping common birds common and helping species at risk through voluntary partnerships”, PIF applies science, planning, and policy development to land management, monitoring, education, and outreach.
PIF’s annual Leadership Award “honors an individual or group who demonstrates outstanding guidance and direction that contributes, or has contributed to, advancing PIF conservation efforts.” Yoli fulfills those criteria in spades. Over the past decade-plus, her collaborative, groundbreaking work has targeted Sierra de Bahoruco’s extraordinarily biodiverse, ecologically critical and extremely vulnerable forests. As many VCE followers know, this region is severely threatened by chronic, accelerating habitat loss and degradation, much of it occurring illegally within national park boundaries. Yolanda was among the first to draw attention to this dire situation through a grant-funded project with VCE in 2013, when she and Grupo Jaragua colleagues systematically documented ongoing loss of cloud forest habitat on Bahoruco’s southern slopes. Her subsequent call to action galvanized both national and international awareness. Not only has Yoli’s work helped to curtail additional unchecked forest loss, but she was the key driver of a strategic planning process that involved scores of stakeholders (including VCE) at all levels of society.
Bicknell’s Thrush and associated overwintering migrant birds may be the explicit targets of Yolanda’s ongoing conservation efforts in Bahoruco, but the ecological and societal impacts of her work reach much deeper. They encompass watershed protection, conservation of rare endemics across multiple taxa, maintenance of landscape ecological integrity, and improvement of human livelihoods and quality of life in the region. Yoli is profoundly committed to all of those. The odds are against her, and she knows it, but her resolve, persistence, openness to collaboration, unselfish mentoring, and positive spirit are capable of moving mountains.
VCE salutes our close friend, colleague, advisor, and conservation advocate on her well-deserved award. We look forward to strengthening our long and productive collaboration. Congratulations, Yoli!