The (Recycled) Envelope Please...

The environmental movement often runs on the adrenaline of outrage, and the past year has provided more outrages than most. The White House has taken aim -- and fired -- at some of our most powerful environmental laws. Multinational corporations continue to exert undue influence on, and in some cases write, regulations meant to govern them. There are new signs that humans are changing the global climate, and that species are vanishing -- perhaps even faster than we had thought. Environmental groups large and small are in full battle mode.

But for the long haul, environmentalists need more than outrage. They need hope -- a kind of unflappable, adamantine hope. That's what sustains the winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. These seven grassroots environmentalists come from across the planet -- Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South and Central America, and island nations -- and this year of terrible news hasn't shaken their faith. After all, most have persisted through far worse: In their long battles for environmental protection and justice, these men and women have been publicly humiliated, jailed, and forced into hiding. They've faced corrupt governments, foreign occupation, and decades of civil war. Colombian activist Libia Grueso has lost colleagues to paramilitary assassins. "If some of us have to die, that means that some of us have to continue," she says. "We make every effort in every instance to be happy, despite the things that occur."

The Goldman Environmental Prize recognizes the perseverance -- and the very concrete accomplishments -- of grassroots activists throughout the world. The prize is considered by many to be environmentalism's highest honor, established in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman (Richard Goldman founded Goldman Insurance Services in San Franciso, and Rhoda Goldman was a descendant of jeans-maker Levi Strauss). Winners are nominated annually by environmental organizations, and chosen by a panel of former prizewinners and other activists. Each winner or team of winners receives a no-strings-attached award of $125,000. This year's crop was honored in a ceremony in San Francisco on April 19.

Below is a list of the winners followed by the first in a series of interviews with the 2004 Goldman winners discussing their victories and defeats, their plans for the future, and their mystifying, inspiring optimism.

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla of Bhopal, India, survived the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed 20,000 people. They're now leading an international campaign to hold Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide responsible for the horrifying human cost of the disaster.

Margie Eugene-Richard of Norco, La., took on an oil refinery and a Shell Chemicals plant that polluted her neighborhood and poisoned her family and friends. Guess what? She won. [Interview to be published on April 20.]

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, a public-interest attorney from Ghana, has mobilized his fellow Ghanaians to demand clean and affordable drinking water. Most recently, he helped derail a major World Bank water-privatization project. [Interview to be published on April 20.]

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho of East Timor helped win independence for his Southeast Asian country; now, he's leading its very first environmental organization. [Interview to be published on April 21.]

Libia Grueso Castelblanco of Colombia has defended the rights of Afro-Colombians -- and the integrity of her country's biologically rich coastal rainforest -- in the face of industrial development and the fallout of civil war. [Interview to be published on April 22.]

Manana Kochladze, a scientist and activist from the Republic of Georgia, is working to protect the Georgian people and environment from a $3 billion BP pipeline project. [Interview to be published on April 23.]

She's the Bee's Knees

Rashida Bee of Bhopal, India, fights against the company that devastated her community

On the night of December 3, 1984, in the central Indian city of Bhopal, a massive poisonous gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide factory killed 8,000 people. Over the course of 20 years, the infamous disaster has caused an estimated 20,000 deaths, countless birth defects, and a litany of other serious health problems.

"The young women who were exposed while they were infants have different kinds of menstrual disorders, and some are going through early menopause -- at age 25 or 30," says Bhopal survivor Rashida Bee. Bee, 48, and fellow disaster victim Champa Devi Shukla, 52, want justice for those who survived that December night -- and for the younger generation that continues to suffer its consequences.

The two women are helping to lead an international campaign against Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide. In 1999, they and other disaster victims filed a class-action lawsuit against Union Carbide, a case that is still making its way through the U.S. court system. In 2002, Bee and Shukla organized a 19-day hunger strike in New Delhi, demanding that former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson face a criminal trial in Bhopal. They also called for Dow to provide long-term health care for survivors and their children, clean up the former Union Carbide site, and supply economic support to survivors who can no longer work due to illness. That action has been followed by hunger strikes, protests, and rallies by activists around the world, an outcry that Forbes magazine has blamed for a drop in Dow's stock price. In May, Bee and Shukla plan to take their demands to Dow's shareholders meeting in Michigan.

The pair shared one of the six 2004 Goldman Environmental Prizes, awarded in a ceremony in San Francisco, Calif., on April 19. Grist spoke to Bee through a translator.

I realize this may be difficult for you, but would you describe some of your memories of the Union Carbide disaster?

It is difficult to describe all that we went through that night in words, but I will speak briefly. We were all sleeping that night, and suddenly in the middle of the night the children woke up coughing. They said they felt like they were being choked, and we felt that way too. One of the children opened the door and a cloud came inside -- we all started coughing violently, as if our lungs were on fire, and our eyes were watering. One of the kids, who had gone outside, said everyone was running away and that we all must run away. We did not know at that time that it was poisonous gas from Union Carbide. People were saying that a warehouse full of red chiles had caught fire, because that was how it felt, terribly irritating. Outside, there was a commotion, with people running everywhere. Our family was separated, and I with my husband and father started running. We could only run for half a kilometer because we were inhaling the gas. Our eyes were so swollen that we could not open them -- when we pried our eyes open, all we saw were dead children and people all around us. After running half a kilometer we had to rest. We were too breathless to run, and my father had started vomiting blood, so we sat down.

How have you and your families been affected by the gas exposure?

At the time [of the gas leak] all of us had to be hospitalized, we were all having such severe problems. Some of my family members were missing for a few days, and I had to look at thousands of dead bodies to find out if they were among the dead. The problems were very intense and acute at that time, but we did not know that the problems would last for so long. My father and other people in my family have had five different kinds of cancers. The young women who were exposed while they were infants have different kinds of menstrual disorders, and some are going through early menopause -- at age 25 or 30. So often they cannot produce children, and the children they do produce often have birth defects. This is not just in my family but all around in the community. Many people have tuberculosis because the gas exposure caused damage to the immune system. So these problems continue.

I understand your activism began when you founded an independent union in your workplace. What convinced you to do this?

When I came out of our household after being isolated -- that isolation was according to traditional Islamic custom -- I started working. [Editor's note: Bee abandoned this custom because the male wage-earners in her family were too sick to work.] I met with women who were in similar or worse situations. I realized that it was not just the problem of my family, but that hundreds and hundreds of other families have these problems. I realized that we could and must come together, that this was a problem common to all of us.

I imagine that it's unusual for women in your community to become political activists. How have your friends and neighbors reacted to your work?

I've been fortunate to have a husband who provides full support to me and is interested in what I do. I have support in my family and in my neighborhood. People are always surprised at the things I do -- they wonder how a woman with no education and a background of poverty does what she does -- but they have come to appreciate that what I am doing is not just for Bhopal but has meaning for the whole world. Now I am hopeful that more people from Muslim families, at least in my neighborhood, will realize that they should not keep women in the confines of the house.

What can be done to prevent similar disasters?

To insure that Bhopal doesn't occur anywhere else, we must ensure that justice is done in Bhopal. If there is exemplary punishment of the corporation and its officials, then other corporations will think twice before imposing risks on the life and health of ordinary people. We must spread the word of Bhopal, and make sure that legal responsibility for the disaster is fixed on the corporation that is responsible.

What keeps you going?

It is the suffering of people around me that drives me to do what I am doing. When I realize that families are starving, when I realize that babies are nursing on poisoned breast milk, I know I cannot stop and must continue with this.

What will you do with the prize money?

We will put all of this money into a trust, and the trust will provide medical help to babies who are born with defects. The trust will also provide employment for people who cannot work because of sickness. We will also set up a smaller award in our own country for ordinary people who fight corporate crime.

What does the prize itself mean to you?

This award, it affirms our struggle and makes the issues we are raising credible. It brings out the truth in our campaign. Dow has been trying to portray us as a fringe group with unreasonable demands. This award nails that lie, and shows that our campaign and demands are based in truth.

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer living outside of Paonia, Colo.

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