Goldman's Grassroots Heroes
Fatima Jibrell spent her childhood in the tall grass of Somalia, sharing the rich habitat with lions and other wildlife. Today, after years of environmental degradation and desertification, most of the tall grass is gone, and along with it, the inhabitants. In this stripped environment, Fatima is teaching the youth of rural Somalia about the management of the few fragile resources that remain.
After receiving her undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States and getting U.S. citizenship, Fatima returned to Somalia. With aims to foster sustainable development in a society that was quickly crumbling, she founded the relief and development organization, Horn Africa.
It was the early 1990s, the beginning of a decade of civil war and chaos. There was no government to regulate the amount and manner in which Somalia's natural resources were used and people were desperate for ways to make a living. Charcoal became the region's largest export. Vast tracts of old-growth acacia trees were logged and prepared in kilns powered with plant life that had been stripped from Somalia's grazing and wildlands. Exacerbating an already severe situation, drought set in, killing people and livestock and making it impossible for the vegetation to make a comeback.
Responding to the crisis caused by widespread harvest of "Somalia's black gold," Jibrell and Horn Relief assembled a team of young people who set to organizing campaigns and spreading awareness about the irreversible destruction of unrestricted charcoal production. In 2000, they convinced the Puntland regional government to ban the export of charcoal. The astonishing 80 percent drop in exports can be attributed to Fatima's Jibrell's efforts. Working under conditions of harassment and war, Jibrell continues to organize and educate people from diverse -- and sometimes conflicting -- communities, promoting the use of non-charcoal solar cookers, teaching women and youth to build small rock dams to foster plant growth and sending young people on Camel Caravans to enlighten remote groups about healthcare, peace, and the environment.
On Monday, April 22, the Goldman Environmental Foundation honored Fatima Jibrell's achievements with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Along with eight other environmental champions, Fatima received a gift of $125,000 and the international recognition and respect reserved for winners of the world's largest grassroots environmental prize.
The prize is given annually on Earth Day to individuals from six different geographic regions who have made extraordinary contributions to preserve the natural environment. In selecting recipients, the Goldman Foundation looks for people who have achieved tangible ecological victories and are poised to build and expand their work. The Goldman Foundation hopes that the cash prize and the credibility associated with it will provide a crucial boost to their efforts.
Among last year's winners were two television reporters who had exposed the dangers of rGBT hormone treatment in milk. Due to pressure from the Monsanto Corporation, which was featured in their expose as the makers of the potentially dangerous hormone treatment, the two lost their jobs at a Fox Network TV station, leaving them with no resources with which to pursue their investigative reporting. "They were at the point of having to bail out and the prize gave them the visibility and money to continue," said Robert Gamble, program officer at the Goldman Foundation.
The Goldman Environmental Prize also selects recipients who have been and will continue to be powerful models to others working on environmental issues in other locales across the globe, not only in their work but in the inspiring nature of their efforts in the face of adversity. "They are an inspiration to the thousands of everyday environmental heroes across the globe who are working with -- not fighting -- nature." Said Richard Goldman, founder of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
The idea is that, in simply doing what is right for a local ecosystem, individuals play an integral part in delivering the global environment from destruction. Jonathon Solomon, Sarah James and Norma Kassi, Gwich'in from Canada and Alaska, are being recognized this year for their successful organization of a campaign to protect the Arctic's Porcupine Caribou and prevent oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
"Some might say it's a fools' errand to fight the oil industry in Alaska, but we have no choice but to fight," said Solomon.
The impressive projects recipients have carried out also provide models for the grassroots environmental community. The foundation often chooses leaders who are successfully experimenting with emerging issues in the field.
Among the accomplishments of this year's pool of winners, there are many firsts: The first time an award was given in the field of organic farming and ecotourism (Poland); the first time the majority of the prize winners were women; and the first time a land-rights lawsuit was ever filed in Guyana.
Also, in response to a planned mining operation in Puerto Rico that would have resulted in severe environmental decimation, Alexis Massol-Gonzalez campaigned for and created the first-ever community managed forest preserve. Not only is this the first locally managed national reserve in Puerto Rico, but it offers a new model of community and government collaboration for other Caribbean communities interested in starting co-managed nature reserves. If things go as planned, the Bosque del Pueblo will also become a U.N. Biosphere Reserve, positioning it as an exemplary global model.
In Thailand, thanks to Pisit Charnsnoh's educational campaigns, 30 communities worked together to restore and create that country's first-ever co-managed mangrove forest. Based on Charnsnoh's model, the government of Thailand went on to sanction similar projects in other communities.
A theme that runs through the work of all the 2002 prize recipients is the central importance of community in preserving, restoring and sustaining the environment. In the cases of Pisit Charnsnoh and Massol-Gonzalez, governmental controls of resources were clearly inadequate and ecological successes were gained only by grassroots efforts that engaged the communities. In a statement, the foundation asserts, "Pisit's approach acknowledges that top-down management of fragile resources has failed."
In Poland, where the majority of farmers resisted collectivization during the communist era, they are now struggling to compete against large-scale mono-crop farming. As Poland gears up to join the European Union as an agricultural state, the threat to the Polish countryside looms larger. The solution lies in the awareness that the Polish ecosystem is best managed by locals rather than by distant governments or corporations that have no stake in the ecological well being of a particular area of the earth.
In Thailand, says Robert Gamble, "The environmental effects are really almost a byproduct of the arrangements [Charnsnoh] has made with the small-scale fisher people living in that area." Gamble believes that the strong community orientation of this year's Goldman Prize recipients has a lot to do with the fact that environmental activists have learned over the years that sustainable environmental movements must be grassroots based. What strikes him is "the extent to which they're all involved in the communities around them, not just the environments." Their projects are "built around the human contact with the environments they're in."
More often than not, the very people who most feel the brunt of environmental degradation have little say about what happens to the land. All of the projects acknowledged this year have incorporated under-represented people's voices in the dialogues about the fate of their homelands -- and in some cases, put those decisions directly in the hands of locals. In Thailand, as the Goldman Foundation describes in a press release, "The dominant change that Yadfon brought to Trang was to empower a population that had been shut-out from decisions that affected their daily lives." In Guyana, Jean La Rose educates and empowers indigenous communities to resist large-scale destruction of their habitats by powerful outside mining companies.
By incorporating education, youth, economic self-sufficiency and cultural programs into their projects these eight visionary environmentalists are helping communities ensure a lasting interest in the health and security of their habitats.
For more information about the Goldman Environmental Prize, please see goldmanprize.org. Alexa Dye writes about environmental issues for AlterNet.