Environmental Award Spotlights Grassroots Environmentalists

Environmental Award Spotlights Grassroots Environmentalists

Every April, six activists from around the globe are awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's largest cash prize for grassroots environmentalists. "These six winners are among the most important people you have not heard of before," explains philanthropist and Prize founder Richard N. Goldman. "All of them have fought, often alone and at great personal risk, to protect the environment in their home countries."

Goldman's idea to launch an environmental prize emerged over breakfast one morning in 1988 as he was reading about the winners of several Nobel Prizes. He and his late wife Rhoda decided to offer a comparable award that recognized ordinary people for their grassroots contributions to the environment. They envisioned the Goldman Prize as a way to demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems, draw public attention to global issues of critical importance, and inspire others to emulate the examples set by Prize recipients.

Since 1990, 113 individuals from 67 countries have received the Goldman Prize, which includes a cash award of $125,000 and a 10-day media and publicity tour of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Winners from six regions are selected by an international jury based on confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals. In the past, several awardees, including 1991 recipient Wangari Maathai and 1996 winner Marina Silva, have gone on to assume important political positions in their countries.

Detailed information on all current and past winners is available at www.goldmanprize.org.

The 2006 Goldman Prize Recipients


Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor

Monrovia, Liberia

A Voice for the Forest and Its People

Silas Siakor, 36, spent many years collecting evidence of illegal logging practices, falsified logging records, and associated human rights abuses in his native country of Liberia. Drawing on this documentation, he was able to reveal that former President Charles Taylor was using the profits of unchecked, rampant logging to fund a brutal 14-year civil war that left 150,000 people dead. Siakor passed the evidence to the United Nations Security Council, which subsequently banned Liberian timber exports as part of wider trade sanctions that remain in place today.

Under Taylor's corrupt regime, the government had granted Liberia's largest logging concession to a favored timber company, essentially giving it license to plunder the country's biologically rich forests and commit egregious human rights abuses. To document this activity, Siakor hired observers at three key ports, collecting information on 80 percent of the country's timber exports. The observers found that not only did actual exports greatly exceed official estimates, but timber company workers were directly involved in unloading arms shipments.

Since Taylor's ousting in 2003, Siakor has worked with Liberia's new leadership to create sustainable timber policies and give local forest communities a voice through the first Forest People's Congress, which he organized. As director of the Sustainable Development Institute in Monrovia, his work has led the interim government to protect 1.5 million hectares of forest.

Siakor has urged the UN to maintain timber sanctions until the corrupt logging companies that operated under Taylor's regime are removed, Liberia's forestry sector is reformed, and a workable forest management plan is in place. Demonstrating the power of the sanctions and Siakor's evidence, current President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has canceled all forestry concessions and vowed that new agreements not be issued until reforms are carried out.

Yet Siakor is still fighting powerful forces that want to tap into Liberia's forests. The UN is under intense pressure from China, authorities within the Liberian government, and others to lift the timber sanctions. But Siakor is undeterred. "Our struggle for the environment is not about trees," he explains. "It is a campaign for social justice and respect for human rights. It is about our right to have a healthy and safe environment.


Yu Xiaogang

Kunming, China

The Power of the Individual in a

Land of Many Voices

For years, Yu Xiaogang, 55, has worked to create groundbreaking water shed management programs in China, a country that has spent decades building hydroelectric dams to tame its powerful river systems. Yu's extensive research and documentation on the socio-economic impact of dams are considered a primary reason the central government has paid additional restitution to villagers displaced by existing dams and now conducts social impact assessments for major dam projects.

The founder of the influential organization Green Watershed, Yu embarked on his life's mission after writing about the effects of a dam at Lashi Lake for his Ph.D. thesis. The dam had destroyed the local ecosystem and severely disrupted the lives of fishermen and farmers. Yu brought together residents, local authorities, and private entrepreneurs to rebuild the area, which is now acclaimed as one of the top 10 sustainable developments in China.

In 2002, Yu submitted a report to the Chinese government on the social impact of the Manwan Dam on the Mekong River, prompting it to grant the affected community 70 million yuan (US$8.7 million) in additional resettlement funds. Today, the government now includes a social impact assessment in its decision-making for all proposed major development projects.

Yu is currently fighting to stop construction of 13 new dams on the Nu River in Yunnan Province, which would displace 50,000 people, affect the livelihoods of millions downstream, and damage the region's rich flora and fauna. To educate villagers about the impacts, Yu took them to dam-affected communities on the Mekong River to talk with residents whose livelihoods had already been destroyed. He also worked on a nationwide television program about the effects of dams. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the Nu project, citing insufficient research and analysis, although the provincial government has proposed a scaled-back version with four dams.

Yu is particularly interested in empowering local villagers in the dam decision-making process through workshops and training programs. His goal is to help Chinese non-governmental groups advocate for social impact assessments that represent the interests of communities threatened by dam construction. "To realize true sustainable development throughout China, we need the full participation of all Chinese citizens," he explains.


Olya Melen

Lviv, Ukraine

Protecting Wetland Heritage in the Face of Corruption

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

In 2004, without public notice and in violation of international and national environmental laws, the Ukrainian government began dredging and shoring up sections of a 170-kilometer 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 the 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 spy. 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.

Melen was able to prove that the Environmental Impact Assessment, 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.'"

Although the Ukrainian government, under the former President Leonid Kuchma, refused to halt the first phase of canal construction, Melen's high-profile challenge played a pivotal role in prompting the country's new government in August 2005 to reject plans for the second phase. However, the Danube Delta is still under threat: President Viktor Yushchenko has publicly voiced his support for completion of the canal. Melen and her colleagues are poised to use all legal means to continue to protect the most sensitive areas of the UNESCO reserve.


Anne Kajir

Port Moresby, Papaua New Guinea

Indigenous Lawyer vs. International Logging Interests

Attorney Anne Kajir, 32, has de­voted her career to uncovering and fighting widespread corruption in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government, which has allowed widespread illegal logging in the largest remaining intact tropical forest in Asia and the Pacific. In 1997, her first year practicing law, Kajir successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the PNG Supreme Court requiring logging interests to pay damages to indigenous land owners.

Timber has historically been a corrupting force in the politics of PNG, whose government has long-standing, lucrative relationships with timber interests. Although the constitution guarantees the land rights of traditional forest dwellers, Kajir has found evidence of extensive government corruption that has allowed timber companies to act as a law unto themselves, ignoring the terms of government-issued logging permits and terrorizing local communities into signing over their land rights.

Today, Kajir is chief executive officer of the Environmental Law Centre in Port Moresby. She is currently working on a case alleging that the PNG Forest Authority, the state, and the lead logging company repeatedly violated federal law by issuing and using illegal logging permits in PNG's western province. The case includes evidence of logging company repre-sentatives re­fusing to get informed con­sent and timber rights from landowners, and villagers' accounts of extreme intim­idation, including having to sign documents at gunpoint and physical abuse and humiliation.

Kajir herself has faced considerable personal risks in her nine years of posing legal challenges, including being physically attacked and having her computer, containing all her case files, stolen from her home. But this has not deterred her. "Landowners depend entirely on their forests as a means of survival so they must be properly informed on the impacts of logging on their land before signing away their customary birth-given rights to these natural resources," Kajir says. "It will be genocide if the robber barons continue to roam at will or plunge deeper into our last remaining rainforests."


Craig Williams

Berea, Kentucky, U.S.A.

Vietnam Vet Fights a New Battle at Home

A cabinetmaker by trade, Craig E. Williams, 58, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has built a national coalition to lobby for safe disposal of chemical weapons stockpiles around the United States. An estimated 24,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons agents are in storage nationwide, most of which had been targeted for incineration by the Pentagon.

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 joined forces with citizens living near the eight other proposed incineration sites and formed a grassroots coalition, the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), to demand safe disposal solutions and openness within the Pentagon's program.

After nearly 10 years of petitioning, Congress agreed in 1993 to delay funding some of the incinerators while calling for a report on safer methods of destruction. However, the report recommended proceeding with incineration at six of the nine sites and failed to address the evidence 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. In a major victory for Williams and his allies, the Army announced in 1996 that it would use a safer water-based process to destroy the weapons at two stockpile sites, while suspending funds for incinerators in two other states. At about the same time, Williams also played a key role in getting citizens access to previously closed-door government meetings on chemical weapons disposal.

Williams was also instrumental in efforts to get the Pentagon to release more than $300 million in federal funds for safe weapons disposal, money that allowed sites in Colorado and Kentucky to safely destroy more than 880,000 chemical weapons. In addition, Williams and CWWG brought forward numerous whistleblowers who reported fires, chemical agent releases, and other dangerous conditions at the incinerator sites.

Today, Williams is working with CWWG groups and citizens in Oregon, Utah, Alabama, and Arkansas, where incinerators are still being used to destroy chemical weapons. The activists use legal challenges, media campaigns, citizen organizing, and other means to ensure proper monitoring, air quality compliance, protection of workers rights, and local communication. CWWG also plays a critical role in overseeing weapons disposal at other sites where alternative technologies are being deployed, thereby assuring accountability and transparency.

This is not Williams's first foray into public activism. In 1980, he co-founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, one of six organizations that subsequently launched the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The effort won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.


Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva

Altamira, Brazil

Creating a Mosaic of Protected Lands in the Amazon

In a lawless northern region of Brazil's Amazon, where land grabbing and illegal logging are destroying communities and the environment, Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva, 35, leads a grassroots coalition to protect the tropical forest and the people who live there. Despite death threats, Feitosa works with local organizations to create protected lands for residents and has exposed vast illegal logging activities and human rights abuses to the Brazilian government.

For more than 10 years, Feitosa has fought for human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development in the remote Xingu and Middle Lands of the state of Pará. He works with the Pastoral Lands Commission, the social justice arm of Brazil's National Conference of Bishops, and is one of the elected leaders of the Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and the Xingu. MTDX has lost several leaders to assassination, including Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked in Pará alongside Feitosa, in February 2005.

Feitosa has documented illegal logging activity, and in one high-profile action tipped off government officials who raided the logging sites, seized 6,000 illegally felled mahogany trees, and sold them at auction to raise $1.5 million to create a fund supporting sustainable development and conservation efforts. Feitosa also helped organize a protest in which community members linked their boats to barricade the mouth of a major river, blocking barges carrying illegal timber and seizing about 2,000 logs.

Feitosa's efforts prompted the government to protect a 240,000-square-kilometer mosaic of tropical rainforest areas that, together with existing indigenous lands, make up the world's largest area of protected tropical forest, bigger than the U.S. state of Minnesota. "Here in the Amazon we have the greatest corridor of protected areas in the world," notes Feitosa. "This is important to guarantee the lives of the human populations that depend on the forest to survive and to give continuity to the forest and its resources. The municipal, state, and federal governments of Brazil should now assume their clear role in protecting these forests."