Heroes for the Planet: The 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners

Three of this year’s winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (awarded April 24) are focused on combating global warming by saving the world’s fast-diminishing rainforests.

Presented annually since 1990, the Goldman Prize is valuable because it focuses not on the usual suspects—well-known greens already weighted down with honorary degrees and stipends—but on unknowns who fight on the frontlines around the world. Over the years, the work being honored has taken many forms, but often it involves a single person standing up (at not inconsiderable personal risk) against the seemingly unstoppable forces of corporate greed and industrial might.

And winning. The work of Goldman winners has protected rainforests, rivers, lakes, mountains, watersheds and the air we breathe. If Americans could sit through films with non-Western heroes, there would be feature movies about almost any one of the Goldman Prize winners.

Before you meet these three winners, let’s look at some rainforest facts. Once covering 14 percent of the Earth’s surface, they now cover only six percent and even that could be lost in 40 years. Every second, 1.5 acres of rainforest is destroyed, threatening nearly half the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms. Every day, an estimated 137 plant, animal and insect species is lost to rainforest destruction.

Farmers with machetes are not nearly as effective at destroying rainforests as the world’s industrial corporations, which often in collusion with host governments use their frightening clout to put activists like the Goldman winners in their place.

These three stood up to that power:

Silas SiakorPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

" Liberian environmentalist Silas Siakor risked his life to expose evidence that former president Charles Taylor used profits from rampant, unchecked logging to fund the brutal 14-year civil war that left at least 250,000 people dead. His work provided newly elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf with the evidence she needed to carry out her first order of business as Africa’s first woman head of state: canceling the logging concessions that were ravaging Liberia’s forests.

Anne KajirPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

" Anne Kajir, an indigenous lawyer from Papua New Guinea, is fighting a multinational timber conglomerate that has been forcing indigenous landowners at gunpoint to sign away their land rights. Despite physical assaults and robbery of her home, she perseveres to secure benchmark decisions that will overhaul the timber industry. Kajir uncovered evidence of widespread corruption and complicity in the government that allowed rampant, illegal logging that is destroying the largest remaining intact block of tropical forest in the Asia Pacific region. In 1997, her first year practicing law (and collaborating with the group E-LAW), Anne, CEO of the Environmental Law Centre in Port Moresby, successfully went to the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea to force the logging interests to pay damages to indigenous land owners.

Tarcisio FeitosaPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

" Young Brazilian missionary Tarcisio Feitosa led efforts to create the world’s largest area of protected tropical forest in a remote region of the Amazon plagued by violence. While some of his fellow activists have been murdered—including American nun Dorothy Stang in February 2005—he risks his life to document illegal logging and land-grabbing to secure intervention from the Brazilian government.

Not all Goldman winners are forest activists, obviously, but great personal determination is a common theme. Here are profiles in courage of the other three winners, compiled by Goldman:

Olya Melen, 26, is a firebrand attorney who used legal channels to temporarily halt construction of a massive canal that would have cut through the heart of the Danube Delta, one of the world’s most valuable wetlands. For her efforts, she was denounced by the notoriously corrupt and lawless pre-Orange Revolution government.

Olya MelenPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

According to the group E-LAW, with which she has worked since 2003, “For her efforts, she came under critical scrutiny from government officials at a time when few spoke out against the government for fear of death or being ‘disappeared.’”

On the coast of the Black Sea, the Danube Delta is a maze of lakes and rivers covering more than one million acres in Romania and Ukraine. It contains the largest reed beds in the world and abundant wildlife. It was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.

In 2004, without public notice and in violation of international and national environmental laws, the Ukrainian government began dredging and shoring up narrow and shallow sections of a 106-mile delta waterway to create a canal that would allow large vessels to travel directly between the Danube River and the Black Sea. The organization where Melen was working, Environment-People-Law (EPL), learned about the project and immediately filed lawsuits to prevent construction. Melen took the lead on the case despite having no previous courtroom experience. “I became an environmentalist accidentally,” she says in retrospect.

In her first-ever court case, Melen opposed a team of government lawyers seeking to end the protected status of rivers and ponds in the Danube Biosphere Reserve. Over the next few years, government lawyers and ministers used scare tactics against her and her clients and she was publicly accused of being a traitor and a Romanian spy. Undeterred, Melen broadened her strategy. Aware that Ukraine was bound by numerous international conventions, EPL filed complaints with the Aarhus and Espoo conventions to force the Ukrainian government to justify its canal plans at a time when it was seeking acceptance to the European Union. In her first significant victory, Melen proved that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the canal, which had been approved by the Minister of Environment, was inadequate. The judge ruled that the canal development flouted environmental laws and could adversely affect the Danube Delta’s biodiversity.

“I was always optimistic about our chances and never thought about defeat,” Melen says. “I kept repeating the phrase ‘Nothing is impossible.’”

In spite of international pressure, the Ukrainian government, under the former President Leonid Kuchma, refused to stop the first phase of canal construction, arguing that it was needed to boost the local economy. The first phase has now been completed.

But Melen’s high-profile challenge played a pivotal role in prompting the new government that swept into office after the Orange Revolution to temporarily halt additional construction. In August 2005, the new Minister for the Environment rejected plans for the second phase of the proposed canal.

However, the Danube Delta is still under threat. President Viktor Yushchenko has publicly voiced his support for the completion of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. Melen and her colleagues are poised to use all legal means to continue to protect the most sensitive areas of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

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A cabinetmaker by

trade, 58-year-old Craig E. Williams is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who successfully convinced the Pentagon to stop plans to incinerate stockpiles of chemical weapons stored in multiple locations around the United States. Today, 24,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons agents are stored in the United States.

Craig E. WilliamsPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

Williams started his campaign in 1985 after learning that one of nine weapons stockpiles to be burned was at an Army depot in his community. Worried that incineration would put local citizens and their environment at risk, he built a nationwide grassroots coalition—the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG)—to demand safe disposal solutions and openness within the Pentagon’s program.

It was 1985, a year deep into President Reagan’s “Morning in America,” when Williams attended a public meeting and discovered that the Department of Defense, with no public input, had decided to build an incinerator at the Kentucky Blue Grass Army Depot located about eight miles from his home.

Williams decided to speak out against the plan, joining forces with citizens who lived near the other eight proposed weapons incinerators. After almost 10 years of petitioning, Congress agreed in 1993 to delay funding some of the incinerators while calling for a report on safer methods of weapons destruction.

However, the subsequent Army report recommended proceeding with incineration at six of the nine stockpile sites. The report did not address the clear and voluminous evidence presented two years earlier by Williams and the CWWG that not only were there significant technical and environmental problems and huge cost overruns at the incinerators, but that safer alternative disposal methods were available.

Williams laid out the evidence to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who championed Williams’ cause in Congress. It was a major victory for Williams and his allies when the Army announced in 1996 that it would use a safer water-based process to destroy the weapons at the Maryland and Indiana stockpile sites, while suspending funds for incinerators in Colorado and Kentucky. At about the same time, Williams also played a key role in getting citizens unprecedented access to previously closed-door meetings where military, state and federal government officials decided how to destroy chemical weapons.

Even after the Army had officially agreed to alternative weapons disposal at four sites, another agenda was playing out at the Pentagon. Internal documents were leaked to Williams that confirmed the Pentagon was defying Congressional directives and holding up more than $300 million in federal funds for safe weapons disposal. The plan was to redirect those funds to existing incineration sites that had cost overruns, now up to 1,400 percent. In addition, Williams and CWWG brought forward numerous whistleblowers at the incinerators who reported that fires, chemical agent releases and other dangerous conditions accompanied the burning of weapons at those plants.

Williams gave the internal Defense Department memos to Senator McConnell, who made personal phone calls to senior defense officials and sponsored legislation mandating that the funds be released. Subsequently, the Pentagon released the $300-plus million, money that allowed the Colorado and Kentucky sites to safely destroy more than 880,000 chemical weapons.

Today, Williams continues working with CWWG member groups and citizens in Oregon, Utah, Alabama and Arkansas, where incinerators currently are destroying chemical weapons. They use legal challenges, media campaigns, citizen organizing and other means to ensure proper agent monitoring, air quality compliance, protection of workers rights and improved communication with the local communities. The CWWG also plays a critical role in the oversight of weapons disposal at the other stockpile sites where alternative technologies are being deployed, thereby assuring the military’s accountability and a transparent process.

Williams, a translator in Vietnam, has remained active in veterans groups. He was one of the original veterans who formed the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in 1980. The Foundation, in turn, was one of six organizations that co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Environmentalist Yu Xiaogang is creating groundbreaking watershed management programs in China, a country that has spent decades trying to tame its powerful river system by building hydroelectric power plants.

Yu XiaogangPhoto courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize

Yu, 55, created the Lashi watershed project after writing a social impact assessment on the effects of a dam built at Lashi Lake for his Ph.D. thesis. The dam had destroyed the local ecosystem, severely disrupting the lives of fishermen and farmers in the area. As farmland was destroyed by the dam, villagers turned to fishing. Then, as fish stocks dwindled, birds ate the seeds and grain from the remaining fields, further jeopardizing the people’s well being.

Yu brought together residents, local government authorities and private entrepreneurs to rebuild the area, which today is acclaimed as one of the top 10 sustainable developments in the country. Among the project highlights were establishing a township watershed management committee, a lake-based community fishery association to protect wetland ecosystems and fish resources, minority women’s schools and micro-credit loan programs, poverty reducing projects and road-building projects. All involved the participation and empowerment of the local villagers. It was the first watershed project in the county to involve NGOs, residents and the local authorities.

In 2002, Yu submitted a report to the central government on the social impact of the Manwan Dam on the Lancang (Mekong) River, which prompted the government to give the local community 70 million yuan ($8.7 million) in additional resettlement funds to mitigate the negative social impact of the dam.

In the past, dam-building plans were simply dictated by government officials, but today, thanks to the advocacy efforts of Yu and others, the Chinese government now includes a social impact assessment in the decision-making process for all proposed major development projects.

While Yu’s work has illustrated dams’ potential negative impact on communities, huge dam projects are still being proposed. As China’s economic health improves, pressure increases to supply more power by building hydroelectric power plants on the country’s river system.

In 2003, the Yunnan provincial government announced plans to construct 13 new dams on the Nu River, one of the Three Parallel Rivers, which also include the Jinsha (Yangtze) and the Lancang (Mekong). The Three Parallel Rivers and surrounding watersheds make up a World Heritage Site, the epicenter of Chinese biodiversity containing virgin forests, 6,000 species of plants and 79 rare or endangered animal species.

The dams would forcibly displace 50,000 people, indirectly affect the livelihoods of millions living downstream in China, Burma and Thailand, and negatively affect the flora and fauna in the surrounding areas. Yet, development continues, despite the lack of river management plans, public input and participation by affected villagers.

Yu used the story of Lashi

Lake and Manwan Dam to educate villagers in the Three Parallel Rivers area, taking them by bus to dam-affected communities on the Mekong River. There, villagers saw men and women, their way of living wiped out by the dam, picking through garbage dumps for scrap to sell. Yu also worked with CCTV on a television program about the effect of dams that aired nationwide.

In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended plans for the dams on the Nu River, saying more research and scientific analysis was needed. The project still is on hold, but the provincial government, intent on building the dams, has proposed a scaled-back version with four dams.

Yu is particularly interested in empowering the local villagers in the dam decision-making process through workshops and training programs. In 2004, he took five village representatives to a United Nations symposium on dam issues in Beijing, where they met with high-level government officials, dam company CEOs and experts on dam construction. Yu’s goal is for Chinese NGOs to advocate for the institutionalization, implementation and practice of social impact assessments for the interests of communities that are threatened by dam construction.

“Having villager participation forever changed the history of the dam decision-making process,” Yu said about the experience. “In the past, affected peoples were silenced. They had no voice in what happened to them and had to accept decisions made by the government and dam companies.”

Yu Xiaogang will speak at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 28 from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

CONTACT:

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