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2022 Whitley Award
Estrela Matilde Sao Tome and Principe Coastal and Marine
Stemming the Tide of Plastic Pollution: An Island-Wide Effort to Save Sea Turtles

Even this ancient and pristine archipelago is seeing the rippling effects of humankind, where waves of single-use plastic are having negative impacts on wildlife and fishing communities. Estrela will use her Whitley Award to combat plastic pollution by developing waste-based enterprises and gathering plastics data to inform policy.


São Tomé and Príncipe is situated in the Gulf of Guinea, 200 km west of Central Africa. A 31-million-year-old rainforest surrounded by crystal, turquoise waters, the island of Príncipe holds 140 km2 of greenery and diversity, with over 50% designated as a natural park. Known for its terrestrial beauty, it also hosts a wealth of marine biodiversity, including coral reefs, cetaceans, fish, sharks, and rays. Príncipe’s beaches are important nesting grounds for four of the seven species of sea turtles; hawksbill, green, leatherback and Olive Ridley. The surrounding waters are also feeding grounds for loggerhead turtles.


For seven years, Estrela has led Fundaçao Príncipe to address threats to the marine ecosystem, using sea turtles as a flagship to encourage sustainable practices. With the regional government and community’s involvement, they are approaching a near-zero turtle poaching rate and are in the final stages of establishing the first marine protected area network in the country. Despite these successes, plastic pollution represents a growing problem. Plastic debris are entering the marine environment at an alarming rate and are estimated to interact with over 700 species, presenting a major threat to wildlife through ingestion, entanglement, and degradation of coastal habitat. Plastic waste also impacts small-scale fisheries, which provide one of the main sources of protein for households in Príncipe.


Local efforts alone are not enough to rid Príncipe of its plastic; in addition to consumption by residents, it is also washed ashore from further afield. Addressing the plastic problem therefore requires a global solution. Estrela’s team will use GPS tracking technology to determine the movements and aggregation of surface plastics in and around Príncipe and São Tomé. This data will inform policymaking and encourage the development of waste-based sustainable solutions, with a focus on creating opportunities for female entrepreneurs to improve livelihoods, income, and gender equality, while keeping waters plastic free.

 Estrela and her team will:

  • Map and quantify plastic pollution and accumulation within areas used by sea turtles in Príncipe and use the findings to raise community awareness and prompt a political response
  • Inform development of a legal framework by publishing a report on plastic use, pollution, and consumption by turtles
  • Submit a strategy to regional government, targeting a 50% reduction in the entry of plastic bottles to the island
  • Double the number of waste-based sustainable enterprises to 4, focusing on female-led initiatives which use at least 20% of the washed-ashore plastics, turning them into jewellery that can be sold to tourists

Top Facts:

  • Príncipe is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in recognition of its endemic fauna and flora, and unique culture.
  • Nearly 60% of the island’s population live below the poverty line; women are disproportionally affected, with illiteracy among women 186% higher than men.
  • Turtles belong to the most ancient line of living reptiles, first appearing more than 200 million years ago in the late Triassic – but without conservation action, they now face extinction.

“I want to change the world, one island at a time.” Estrela Matilde


Image credits: Yves Rocher (headshot), Vasco Pissarra (aerial coastline, sea turtles, fieldwork, waste-based enterprises)