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Environmental crusaders honored

A summary of the work of six activists who have won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their contributions. 

A tribal leader from the Colombian rain forest — whose people have vowed to commit mass suicide over a plan to extract oil from their homeland — is among six environmental crusaders who won this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize. The other Prizewinners received their awards for fighting hazardous waste in Arizona; opposing the hunting of wild birds in Sicily; saving Isahaya Bay from reclamation in Japan; fighting pollution in South Africa; and opposing copper mining in the tropical forests of Dominica.

(1) Oil is the blood of the earth

Berita KuwarU’wa, on behalf of his tribe, the U’wa, has waged an international campaign imploring multinational oil companies not to drill in the tribe’s remote homeland high in the cloud forests of Colombia. A highly traditional people who have had very little contact with the outside world, the U’wa believe that oil is the blood of the earth and that to extract it is equivalent to committing matricide. They believe that oil development on their territory will gravely disrupt their way of life; choosing suicide over what they see as genocide, Kuwar and 5,000 others have pledged to jump off a cliff if oil development takes place. "The U’wa territory is sacred," says Kuwar. "The U’wa culture has no price."

In February 1995 the Occidental Petroleum company (OXY) of Los Angeles was granted a license to explore for oil in the U’wa’s territory. This was in violation of a 1991 ruling stating that community consent must be given to carry out exploration in indigenous territories.

Designated by the U’wa as their spokesperson to the outside world, Kuwar has garnered the support of environmental and human rights groups and in 1995 successfully appealed to the Colombian courts to change the decision allowing OXY to explore for oil. The government, however, exerted pressure on the courts to revoke the ruling and the license was reauthorized.

In 1996 Kuwar travelled to the United States to meet with OXY executives in California. There he explained U’wa cosmology in song insisting that their traditional territories are not negotiable. In June 1997 Harvard University conducted a mediation study with the Organization of American States (OAS) where they recommended the "immediate and indefinite suspension of the project".

(2) A child shall lead us

In 1989 Kory Johnson’s older sister died at the age of 16 from heart problems that were likely to have been caused by contaminated well water her mother drank while pregnant. After attending a bereavement support group for children in her community, nine-year-old Kory Johnson discovered that many families in her neighbourhood in Phoenix, Arizona, had lost a loved one and that the area was a cancer cluster. Deciding that she and other youth needed to speak up against the environmental health hazards they face, Johnson formed Children for a Safe Environment (CSE). Against the advice of some of her teachers, who cautioned that her activism would harm her chances of getting into college, Johnson became a tireless advocate and organizer for environmental justice. With many victories behind them, CSE is now 359 members strong. Most of these young people live in underprivileged neighbourhoods that are often targets for incinerators or industrial waste dumps.

CSE’s first battle was against the enormous ENSCO hazardous waste incinerator and dump that was being planned for a poor Arizona community. In a contract with the state of Arizona, ENSCO intended to dispose of all hazardous waste produced by the state, as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic materials from out of state. Through letter writing, public education, protests, demonstrations and children’s art projects, Johnson and CSE teamed with Greenpeace Action and effectively fought the project. The youths’ tenaciousness and savvy drew the attention of the media, and in 1991 the governor of Arizona cancelled plans for the ENSCO hazardous waste incinerator as a result of the protests.

Since that time Johnson has travelled around the US speaking on behalf of children in minority communities whose well-being has been compromised by polluting industries and waste-sites. Says Johnson: "Young people everywhere are entitled to environmental justice, no matter what their colour or socioeconomic status."

(3) "Life is a treasure ..."

Separating Sicily from the Italian mainland, the straits of Messina are home to Europe’s most dedicated poachers. On both the Sicilian and Calabrian sides of the Mediterranean the steep hillsides are dotted with reinforced concrete bunkers owned by the poachers. The birds, primarily a delicate species of raptor called the Honey Buzzard, are shot for sport. In the assault, which has its basis in local superstition, the hunters also kill swallows, storks, oriels, kestrels and other migrating birds.

Anna Giordano, now 33, was only 15 when she became aware of this yearly slaughter, and resolved to stop it. Giordano, who had joined the Italian League for the Protection of Birds (LIPU) at the age of six, organized an international surveillance camp for protection of migrating raptors and storks. Every spring volunteers from many countries come to Messina to gather statistical data on the migrating birds, to learn more about them and to catch would-be poachers. Challenging men in this male-dominated society created open hostility toward Giordano. In 1986 she narrowly escaped the firebombing of her car. After this and another incident where she and a group of young people monitoring the migration were shot at, local law enforcement officers began to aid Giordano in her efforts to stop rampant poaching.

Today, the vigilance of Giordano (a trained ornithologist with a doctorate in Natural Sciences), the young volunteer surveillance team, and the local forest guards make it very difficult for the poachers to shoot the birds. The number of birds killed each spring in Sicily used to surpass 5,000; the number is now down to a couple of hundred.

The gains she has made over the years may be threatened, however. Sicily’s regional government passed a law in August 1997 that is very lenient toward hunters, who represent a strong lobby on the island. The new regional law contradicts both national and European legislation and Giordano is trying to fight it in the courts.

Says Giordano: "If you are a witness to something that is wrong, you can’t close your eyes and turn your head. You start to fight to change it, and nothing can stop you until the end. Your energy comes from the conviction that life is a treasure which nobody should destroy. Your will becomes the only thing that can turn hope into reality."

(4) Saving a Japanese bay

Hirofumi Yamashita studied ichthyology and became a regional labour organizer addressing pollution issues. In 1972 he learned of the government’s plan to reclaim Isahaya Bay — one of the largest and biologically richest tidal flatlands in Japan — to create additional agricultural land. Yamashita brought together local fishermen, townspeople and concerned citizens in 1973 to establish the Association to Protect the Natural Environment of Isahaya. He organized not only the Isahaya fishermen, but those in the entire Ariake Sea to oppose the project and to follow sustainable fishing practices. In 1982, as a result of Yamashita’s efforts and a heroic struggle by the fishermen of Ariake Sea, the 10,000-hectare development plan was temporarily halted. During this time Yamashita received anonymous phone threats, was ridiculed in the media and faced ostracism from colleagues as well as society in general.

In 1992, he catalyzed other grassroots organizations to form the Japan Wetlands Action Network, composed of 70 grassroots and national conservation organizations, and became its spokesperson. The Isahaya Bay Development Plan was changed into a flood prevention plan and the scale was reduced to 3,550 hectares. However, Yamashita uncovered a long-suppressed governmental report which disclosed that the plan would not be an effective flood prevention measure. He also showed that little demand exists in the area for new farm land. None the less, in April 1997 the Isahaya Bay and its 3,000 hectares of tidal flats was closed off from the ocean by a wall of 293 steel plates. From that moment on, the Isahaya Bay reclamation project became a major national issue that has captured the attention of Japan’s citizens.

Yamashita has recently formed the Isahaya Bay Emergency Rescue Task Force and is fighting for a complete review of the project and to open gates in the wall to revive the ecosystem. Yamashita says: "The tidal flatlands are a natural environment teeming with as much biological diversity as the tropical rainforests. As we look towards the 21st century, I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of all persons to protect these tidal wetlands."

(5) Fighting South African pollution

A native of the highly industrial South Durban area of South Africa, Sven "Bobby" Peek, has worked tirelessly with local community groups to ameliorate the severe pollution problems in this region where industry and residences are side by side. Inhabited by working-class people, the valley is also home to two oil refineries (one of which is Africa’s largest), waste water treatment works, numerous toxic waste landfill sites, an airport, a paper-manufacturing plant and a multitude of chemical process industries.

The Engen oil refinery, situated behind Peek’s house, produces 60 tons of sulphur dioxide each day. In the South Durban area alone, more than 100 smoke stacks belch out in excess of 54 million kilograms of sulphur dioxide each year. Meanwhile, toxic leachate runs into storm-water drains and children in local schools have three times the rate of respiratory diseases as children living outside the area.

Every family on Peek’s block, including Peek’s, has lost at least one member to cancer. Peek has mobilized people living in a difficult multi-ethnic environment to speak with a common voice for their rights. He has effectively used the media to highlight the constant dangers to public health in the area and his efforts and initiatives have gained national attention.

After meeting with President Mandela in 1995, the local community was granted a long-awaited hearing with the National Minister of Water Affairs regarding the closure of the Umlazi dump site — a toxic landfill operating without a permit. The minister promised to investigate the illegal toxic dump site, but it took further protests, this time by school students suffering adversely because of the site, for the illegal dump finally to be closed in 1997.

Says Peek: "Communities must not relent in their struggle against environmental injustices, and racism should not let the obstacles of industrial and state power foil their quest for the ideal environment. It is in uniting and striving towards a common goal that the ideal can be achieved."

(6) A bond that cannot be broken

The country of Dominica, located in the eastern Caribbean, is 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. Two-thirds of Dominica is covered by dense tropical forests containing nearly 1,600 species of flowering plants and as many as 60 species of trees per hectare. The deep ocean surrounding the island is equally rich in biodiversity. With so many of its natural resources left intact, a rarity among Caribbean nations, Dominica has become known as "the Nature Island." Atherton Martin successfully protected this lush tropical island from being devastated by a major copper mine.

In 1995, Dominica’s rich ecosystem became threatened when Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), Australia’s largest mining company, planned a major copper mining operation. The Dominican Parliament approved the Mines and Minerals Act of 1996 in less than 24 hours, making environmental assessments discretionary rather than mandatory. BHP was immediately granted two prospecting licenses, at virtually no cost, for an area totalling 7,200 hectares (comprising 10 per cent of Dominica’s land surface). Directly downstream from the proposed mining site was land owned by the Carib people, the last surviving indigenous culture in the Caribbean. Given the steep terrain, high rainfall and seismic activity in the area, mining operations posed great environmental threats to the country.

As president of the Dominica Conservation Association, the only environmental NGO in the country, Martin talked with community leadership and forged a consensus in opposition to the mine. He launched a successful petition drive and enlisted the support of thousands of Dominicans. With the Cooperation of the US-based organization Project Underground, the concerns about the enormous mine were presented to the BHP shareholders meeting in Australia in September 1996. In April 1997, as a result of the pressure, BHP announced that it would pull out of Dominica altogether. At the same time it closed operations in a dozen other countries.

Says Martin: "I believe there is a bond that exists between the people of Dominica and our rivers, waterfalls, lakes, forests and soils that cannot, and will not, be broken."

From the June 1998 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005