Annually, the Disney Conservation Fund recognises individuals or teams from around the world as Disney Conservation Heroes for their incredible actions to save wildlife, protect habitats and inspire communities to engage in conservation. To date, Disney has honoured more than 200 Conservation Heroes globally, with each recipient and their nominating nonprofit organisation sharing a US $1,500 award.

This year, our two Conservation Heroes are Le Van Hien of Vietnam and Melvin Smith of Saint Lucia, who were recognised for their outstanding efforts in protecting critically endangered species in their local environments. Our two heroes have inspired their communities to engage in conservation, reduce ecologically harmful activities, and care for the native wildlife and plant species that create the rich natural tapestry of their local environments.

Melvin Smith, the Caribbean’s best botanist

Melvin is a quiet, young man from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. If you ask him about himself, he might talk about his community or his vegetable garden, but he would probably not define himself as a conservationist. However, he has made outstanding contributions to the study and conservation of endangered plants, including saving a critically endangered species of conifer.

Melvin grew up on a farm and started studying wild plants when he was just 19 years old. Though he did not receive a formal education beyond secondary school, Melvin developed a passion for learning about wild plants and their uses.

Since 1994, Melvin has added 400 new species to the list of wild plants confirmed to occur in Saint Lucia, from ferns to trees, increasing the country’s known flora to over 1,400 species.

Credit: Jenny Daltry/FFI

Melvin’s work has also been crucial in protecting the once near-extinct pencil cedar tree – locally known as juniper. Only around 100 trees remained on the island and just one unfortunate event – such as a wildfire or a hurricane – could have easily wiped out the entire population of this precariously poised species. Using his extraordinary climbing skills, Melvin has visited Petit Piton on a regular basis to collect seeds, seedlings and cuttings from the wild pencil cedars, taking them to his home nursery to discover the best techniques to grow the trees. To date, he has reared 300 new pencil cedar trees – three times the original population in the wild.

In his hometown, Melvin is more than just his green fingers. He has educated hundreds of people from the local community and visiting tourists from all over the world about the importance of the biodiversity in Saint Lucia. He gives customised tours to small groups of tourists, which have become quite well known among nature lovers.

Meeting Melvin

What inspires you and keeps you motivated to study and conserve plants each day?

When I studied the relationship between human beings and plants, I realised we are deeply connected – we depend on each other – from the carbon dioxide taken in by plants, to the oxygen we breathe. The importance of this connection made me realise that I have to take plant work very seriously because of the closeness and connection we have as human beings.

What have you found to be the best way to engage your local community in plant conservation?

Tours are a good way to do this – I would talk to people about lots of plant-related topics, and even just in everyday conversation outside of tours. I have friends from where I live who now love plants from having deep discussions about them. They realised that there was a lot they didn’t know about our plants – and with that knowledge they have discovered species they did not know – especially the juniper (pencil cedar). They now understand its importance and rarity.

Credit: Adams Toussaint/FFI

You’ve discovered, studied and grown hundreds of different native plants over the years. What’s your favourite species to work with?

The species I most like growing tend to be difficult to grow. People don’t worry about a lot of the common plants because they’re easy to grow. So the difficult species I take on are a challenge – for example, euphorbia species are very difficult, so taking up the challenge and succeeding is of great importance to me. My favourite is maybe Euphorbia dussiie. I tried to grow it and it was very difficult, but it’s possible.

What’s been the most challenging species you’ve worked with so far, and why?

Juniper (pencil cedar) is one of them. It’s a species that hasn’t been looked into widely, so no one really knew how to grow them. It’s the species that I’ve grown the most of, and it was the first time I had grown them, so there was a lot of challenges and new things to learn because it’s a conifer, which doesn’t have the same system as a normal tree. One of the main challenges has been the location and the season – learning around the wet season and the dry season, what the plants might need or not need. I have not germinated the seeds yet; my knowledge of the juniper is not fully complete or acquired. I need to learn from the natural environment about its germination.

“People who do not understand the need to protect threatened species like juniper need to learn about the dependency between humans and plants. Bringing that knowledge to people’s doorsteps is one of the key ways we can help to save any species.”

What do you think are the biggest challenges to threatened tree conservation in the Caribbean, and how do you think we can best conserve them?

Human beings are the biggest factor. Other factors are minimal – every so often there will be a natural disaster, or a particular pest will infest a particular species, but those things are minor and can be dealt with by departments and government bodies. Human development is one of the main challenges – we cut everything down to build. But if we did this in a harmonious way, we could still build and still have plants. One of the best ways to conserve them is to have meetings with local people and teach them the importance of trees and wildlife. We need to be able to engage with all stakeholders in all areas of life and show them the importance of trees and plants, so that human beings have a lesser impact.

Credit: Adams Toussaint/FFI

Is there hope for the threatened species in Saint Lucia?

Yes, there is hope for all threatened species. We need island-wide education, so that everyone understands that threatened species need help. People who do not understand the need to protect threatened species like juniper need to learn about the dependency between humans and plants. Bringing that knowledge to people’s doorsteps is one of the key ways we can help to save any species.

You have played a crucial role in the recovery and protection of pencil cedar trees. Why is it so important that we conserve this species?

I took an interest in pencil cedar for several reasons. One of the reasons is because it is an endemic species, found only here on Saint Lucia. It is very rare, and there is not much of it left. I was prompted to work independently and make a contribution as an individual; as a Saint Lucian. The pencil cedar was on its way towards extinction, and I felt that that needed to be reversed. It’s a beautiful plant; they’re used as Christmas trees, and the fruits are used to flavour alcohol. It’s important to conserve them as a part of the ecosystem. To lose them would be like taking out a link from a chain – I had to make sure that link stayed there, because you never know what contribution it is making for the ecosystem. Losing one plant could have a ripple effect onto other plant species – you don’t know what other species depend on that plant. That is why I had to make sure that this plant survives.

Do you have one specific message to the general public with regard to the pencil cedar?

I would like the public to do some more research on it. And try to see if they can get a plant in their yard, or grow one on their property, when or if they can acquire one. By having one on your property, if it can grow, it’s almost having the Saint Lucian flag. They are representing something nationally and internationally unique – it’s a message of national pride and conservation.