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2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners Risk Their Lives

The Goldman Environmental Foundation announced the winners of their prize given to people who protect the environment and their communities, often at risk of their lives.

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The decision stopped all but one of the proposed leases; Cannon and her partners now are challenging that lease in federal court.

Cannon continues to visit Capitol Hill, standing up to industry and government during this election year, amid growing pressure to support domestic energy development and create new jobs.

She and her environmental partners are galvanizing public opposition to provisions in the 2012-2017 federal plan that would allow Shell Oil to drill several exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea.

Sofia Gatica of Argentina, the 2012 Goldman Prize winner for South and Central America,organizes opposition to the widespread spraying of agrochemicals that threaten human health and the environment.

Gatica lives in Ituzaingó, a working-class neighborhood of 6,000 in central Argentina surrounded by soy fields. After the death of her three-day-old daughter of kidney failure, Gatica learned of cancer rates in the community that were 41 times the national average, as well as high rates of neurological and respiratory diseases, birth defects, and infant mortality.

With only a high school education and no organizing experience, Gatica co-founded the Mothers of Ituzaingó, a group of 16 mothers working together to put a stop to the indiscriminate agrochemical use that was poisoning their community.

Argentina is the world's third largest exporter of soybeans. Every year, the soy industry sprays over 50 million gallons of agrochemicals such as endosulfan and glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's widely-used herbicide Roundup.

While Monsanto claims there is no risk to humans, a 2008 scientific study found that even at low concentrations, glyphosate causes the death of human embryonic, placental and umbilical cells.

Endosulfan is a pesticide that has been banned in 80 countries. In May 2011, endosulfan was added to the list of persistent organic pollutants to be eliminated under the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty.

With these findings in mind, the Mothers of Ituzaingó brought together environmental groups for a "Stop Spraying" campaign. They led press conferences, demonstrations and published materials to warn the public about the dangers of pesticides.

Gatica and the Mothers of Ituzaingó have endured insults and threats from individuals, police officers and business owners in Ituzaingó. In 2007, someone entered Gatica's home and at gunpoint demanded that she give up the campaign. She stood her ground.

In 2008, the president of Argentina ordered the minister of health to investigate the impact of pesticide use in Ituzaingó. The resulting study conducted by the Department of Medicine at Buenos Aires University corroborated the mothers' door-to-door research linking pesticide exposure to public health.

Gatica then succeeded in getting a municipal ordinance passed that prohibited aerial spraying in Ituzaingó at distances of less than 2,500 meters from residences.

A 2010 ruling from the Supreme Court not only banned agrochemical spraying near populated areas, but it also reversed the burden of proof. Instead of residents having to prove that spraying causes harm, the government and soy producers must now prove the chemicals are safe.

Other municipalities in Argentina have asked Gatica for help addressing similar problems. She is working with the Stop Spraying campaign to ban all aerial spraying in Argentina and create buffer zones so that agrochemicals are not used in close proximity to residential areas and waterways.

With Argentina's ban on endosulfan taking effect in July 2013, Gatica and her colleagues now are pushing for a nationwide ban on glyphosate.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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