A Celebration of Global Environmentalism

goldman awardMonday's Goldman Prize press conference in San Francisco started on a telling note; one of the prize recipients, Maria Elena Foronda Farro of Peru, was denied a travel visa from the U.S. State Department. In her stead, Foronda's father attended and read a prepared statement, and Foronda herself gave thanks -- and her hope for a visa -- via telephone.

Foronda has been an outspoken organizer in the fight against the polluting fish meal industries in her hometown of Chimbote. This activism, which has persuaded eight companies doing business in Chimbote to switch to more environmentally friendly technology, resulted in her wrongful arrest and imprisonment in 1994. Foronda and her husband, Oscar Solomon Diaz Barboza, were falsely accused by the Peruvian government of being involved with the Shining Path terrorist group and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thanks to dedicated community and international support, the couple was released after a hellish year and a half of incarceration, and quickly returned to their work in Chimbote.

Since 1996, the Goldman Prizes have been awarded to 94 people in 54 countries. What started out as a $60,000 prize has grown to $125,000 for the winners from each region: North America, Central and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Island Nations. Activists struggling against, in the words of North American prize winner Julia Bonds, "greedy and destructive industry and their political lapdogs," is a theme running throughout this year's Goldman Prizes. The activists' hard-won victories are immediately subject to attempts from the same industries and lapdogs to repeal and reverse their successes.

Von Hernandez, recipient of the Goldman Prize for Asia this year, has worked tirelessly to create a ban on waste incinerators. He earned a major victory in 1999 when his country's Clean Air Act invoked the first-ever ban on incinerator projects. From day one, industry fought the ban tooth and nail; and last year a federal court ruled in favor of a giant incinerator project for metropolitan Manila.

Hernandez talks about a huge dumping site outside Manila called, appropriately enough, "Smoky Mountain," that has been closed but is still an "icon of poverty in the Philippines." A local priest organized the community around Smoky Mountain, Hernandez recently told Grist Magazine, and is now making crafts and trying to improve the tragedy of the dumping site. "Amid this poverty and squalor, in this really dirty environment, there is a garden. I'd like to support programs like that."

Even more important than the cash prize, the Goldmans bring international attention to the work of these chronically under-recognized activists, giving them renewed energy and hope. Nigeria's Odigha Odigha says winning the prize "is wonderful. I feel ready to launch back and do more vigorous work. It means a lot to me that the global community has recognized me. It means I have a lot to do."

Preserving Our Global Heritage

Indeed, Odigha does have a sizeable task ahead of him. The Nigerian has made his life's work the preservation of his country's remaining rainforests and the remnants of a trans-continental ecosystem that is now all but exterminated. Odigha was forced to go underground after death threats from the brutal Gen. Sani Abacha, who ordered the execution of fellow activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Far from being deterred, Odigha has fought ever more determinedly; Nigeria recently instituted a moratorium on logging in Odigha's Cross River State, although international logging company Western Metal Products Company (WEMPCO) regularly violates the moratorium and receives only minimal fines as a result.

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the prize recipient from Europe, has spearheaded a campaign to prevent the damming of Spain's last free-flowing rivers. Calling it a pork barrel for "financial speculators, luxury tourist installations and industrial agriculture," Arrojo-Agudo has organized marches as large as 400,000 people in Barcelona (a city of only 650,000) in opposition to the plan. He believes there is a simple alternative to these destructive damming projects, which will submerge entire towns as well as a national park that is crucial to a wetlands ecosystem. Instead, it is entirely possible to reduce water loss by 50 percent on farms and 30 percent in the cities by promoting a "New Water Culture" that emphasizes sustainable water use and re-thinking agricultural production in the arid southern regions of Spain.

The two prize recipients from Australia this year are also engaged in a struggle to preserve precious water. Eileen Kampakuta Brown and Eileen Wani Wingfield, Aboriginal elders from the deserts of southern Australia, have organized a campaign to stop a proposed nuclear waste dump in the heart of the arid country that has sustained their culture for thousands of years. The two elders are all too familiar with the effects of nuclear radiation: their land was used by the British for 12 nuclear bomb tests from 1953 to 1963, killing, blinding and sickening people and wildlife ever since. If the dump is approved, they fear radiation will seep into the groundwater, rendering their ancestral home uninhabitable forever.

Their organization, Kungka Tjuta -- or "Women's Council" -- has launched a campaign to prevent the construction of the dump. Their website, IratiWanti.org, is a linchpin in their astoundingly successful efforts to organize against the plan, especially in nearby Sydney. Eighty-seven percent of Sydney residents are now opposed to the waste dump, which will serve as a jumping-off point for the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Sydney and would allow U.S. toxic waste producers to ship their poisons to the fragile desert ecosystem.

America's Dirty Secret

Mountain-top removal coal mining is akin to a nuclear bomb in the devastation and pollution it unleashes. Mining companies have resorted to literally scalping mountains to access the last remnants of coal veins in the Appalachian range. Julia Bonds, North America's Goldman Prize recipient, lived until recently in Marfork Hollow, West Virginia, a town closed down by nearby coal mining that rendered the water undrinkable and the air toxic. Her town is now the site of a dam 924 feet tall and built to retain 7 billion gallons of waste from the mining companies.

Bonds has endured death threats from mining companies and misinformed citizens to try and protect the unique and oft-misrepresented Appalachian way of life. She hopes that the publicity of the Goldman Prize will help awaken people across the country to the danger facing their own communities: In May 2002, the Bush administration made changes to the Clean Water Act to allow toxic dumping anywhere industry sees fit.

Global Citizens Must Lead the Way

What is so inspiring about the Goldman Prize winners is that they reflect the diversity of environmental activism while at the same time highlighting the remarkable connections that we all share. The award recipients are all working on different aspects of the same goal; reinventing human civilization as a sustainable, life-affirming enterprise instead of the constant pursuit of more profit. The most important lesson to take from the example of these inspiring individuals is that they're no different from anyone else -- save for their commitment to making a difference in the world.

Julia Bonds sees this fact as the recipe for success: "[The environmental crisis we face is] our fault, too. We have to get off our duffs, get our noses out of the TV, and get our children to speak up. We really need to push. When people empower themselves, that's the greatest victory."

[Note: Grist Magazine has devoted a special issue to this year's Goldman Prize winners. To read interviews with each activist, visit the Grist special issue.]

Matt Wheeland is the Assistant Editor at AlterNet in charge of environmental news.

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