Six Grassroots Environmentalists Win $125,000 Goldman Prizes

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 24, 2006 (ENS) - A Vietnam veteran battling to ensure safe disposal of U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles, the Liberian who exposed the illegal logging that funded war in his country, and the Brazilian behind the creation of the world’s largest area of protected tropical rainforest are among the winners of this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

“These six winners are among the most important people you have not heard of before,” said Goldman Prize founder Richard Goldman. “All of them have fought, often alone and at great personal risk, to protect the environment in their home countries. Their incredible achievements are an inspiration to all of us.”

The $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, now in its 17th year, is awarded annually to six grassroots environmental heroes and is the largest award of its kind in the world. The winners will be awarded the prize at an invitation-only ceremony tonight at the San Francisco Opera House.

The 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize winners are:

Williams North America: Craig E. Williams, 58, Kentucky: Williams convinced the Pentagon to stop plans to incinerate old chemical weapons stockpiled around the United States and has built a nationwide grassroots coalition to lobby for safer disposal solutions.

Today, 24,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons agents are stored in the United States. Under the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, 178 governments including the United States, must dispose of their chemical weapons no later than April 2012.

Williams started his campaign in 1985 after learning that one of nine weapons stockpiles to be burned was located at the Kentucky Blue Grass Army Depot located about eight miles from his home.

Williams formed the grassroots Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), and 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.

The Army agreed to a safer water-based disposal method at four sites, but internal documents were leaked to Williams that showed 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.

In addition, Williams and the CWWG brought forward whistleblowers at the incinerators who reported that fires, chemical agent releases and other dangerous conditions accompanied the burning of weapons at those plants.

Williams worked with Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who championed the cause in Congress. The Pentagon then released the $300 million, which allowed the Colorado and Kentucky sites to safely destroy more than 880,000 chemical weapons.

Williams also co-founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its international campaign to ban landmines.

Siakor Africa: Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, 36, Liberia: Siakor exposed evidence that former Liberia President Charles Taylor used profits of unchecked, rampant logging to pay the costs of a brutal 14 year war.

At great personal risk, Siakor collected hard-to-get evidence of falsified logging records, illegal logging practices and associated human rights abuses.

Liberia’s forests cover 11.8 million acres and include the last remaining closed-canopy tropical rainforest in the Upper Guinea Forests of West Africa. They are home to nearly half of Africa’s mammal species, including West Africa’s largest forest elephant population.

When he was president, Taylor entered into secret agreements with a favored lumber company, awarding it the largest logging concessions in the country. The company’s private militia committed human rights abuses including rape, beatings and destruction of entire villages.

Among other efforts, Siakor hired observers at three ports, collecting information on 80 percent of logging exports. The observers found that the actual exports greatly exceeded official reports – and that arms shipments were being unloaded at the ports by timber company workers.

He passed the evidence to the UN Security Council, which then banned the export of Liberian timber, part of wider trade sanctions that remain in place today.

“The evidence Silas Siakor collected at great personal risk was vital to putting sanctions in place and cutting the links between the logging industry and conflict,” said Arthur Blundell, chairman of the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia.

Since Taylor was ousted in 2003, Siakor has been working with Liberia’s new leadership to create sustainable timber policies and give the local forest communities a voice through the first Forest People’s Congress, which he organized.

He also is working with the $4 million Liberian Forest Initiative led by the U.S. State Department and the National Forest Service to support Liberia’s forest reform efforts.

Yu Asia: Yu Xiaogang, 55, China: Yu spent years creating groundbreaking watershed management programs while researching and documenting the socioeconomic impact of dams on Chinese communities. His reports are considered a primary reason that the central government paid additional restitution to villagers displaced by existing dams and now considers social impact assessments for major dam developments.

In 2003, the Yunnan provincial government announced plans to construct 13 new dams on the Nu River, one of the Three Parallel Rivers – the Nu, the Yangtze and the Mekong. The Three Parallel Rivers and surrounding watersheds are a World Heritage Site, containing virgin forests, 6,000 species of plants, and 79 rare or endangered animal species.

The dams would displace 50,000 people and affect the livelihoods of millions living downstream in China, Burma and Thailand, and impact plants and animals in the surrounding areas.

Yu took villagers in the Three Parallel Rivers area 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.

“Having villager participation forever changed the history of the dam decision-making process,” Yu said.

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.

Now, as director of Green Watershed in Kunming, China, Yu continues his work to avert the harmful impact of dams.

Feitosa South and Central America: Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva, 35, Brazil: Feitosa led efforts to create the world’s largest area of protected tropical forest regions in a remote, lawless region in northern Brazil threatened by illegal logging. Despite death threats, Feitosa worked with local organizations to create protected lands for local residents and exposed illegal logging activities to the Brazilian government.

Feitosa has spent more than 10 years fighting for human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development in the Xingu and Middle Lands of Pará, some of the most remote areas of the Amazon.

He works with the Pastoral Lands Commission, the social justice arm of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, and is one of the elected leaders of the Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and the Xingu, several of whose leaders were assassinated in recent years. In February 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked in Pará alongside Feitosa, was murdered.

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 logs. They were able to seize about 2,000 logs.

Melen Europe: Olya Melen, 26, Ukraine: Melen, a lawyer, 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.

On the coast of the Black Sea, the Danube Delta is a maze of lakes and rivers covering over one million acres in Romania and Ukraine. With the world's largest reed beds and abundant wildlife, it is 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, learned about the project and filed lawsuits to prevent construction. Melen took the lead on the case despite having no previous courtroom experience.

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.

Melen’s high-profile challenge played a pivotal role in prompting the Yushchenko government that came to power 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.

But 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.

Kajir Islands and Island Nations: Anne Kajir, 32, Papua New Guinea: Kajir uncovered evidence of widespread corruption and complicity in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government, which 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, Kajir successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that forced the logging interests to pay damages to indigenous land owners.

Today, Kajir is the chief executive officer of the Environmental Law Centre in Port Moresby and is the lead attorney in a Supreme Court case aimed at stopping foreign timber companies’ large-scale, illegal deforestation practices, often accompanied by threats of harm to local landholders who dare to challenge them.

Kajir has been physically attacked more than once, and robbers forced their way into her home to steal her computer, which had files on all her legal cases.

She continues to represent communities and landholder groups against the timber companies. A current case alleges that the PNG Forest Authority, the state, and the lead logging company, Rimbunan Hijau of Malaysia, repeatedly violated federal law by issuing and using illegal logging permits. The case includes villagers’ personal accounts of extreme intimidation, including having to sign documents at gunpoint and physical abuse and humiliation.

Still, the current executive and legislative branches of the government support the logging industry.

The Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1990 by San Francisco civic leader and philanthropist Richard Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda Goldman. It has been awarded to 113 people from 67 countries.

Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals.

Previous winners have been at the center of some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, including seeking justice for victims of environmental disasters at Love Canal in New York state, and Bhopal in India; leading the fight for dolphin-safe tuna; fighting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and exposing Monsanto’s role in introducing the rBGH milk-stimulating hormone in the dairy industry.

Since receiving a Goldman Prize, eight winners have been appointed or elected to national office in their countries, including several who became ministers of the environment. The 1991 Goldman Prize winner for Africa, Wangari Maathai, won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

{Photo credits: Craig Williams: Sean Perry; Silas Siakor: Andy Black; Yu Xiaogang: Tom Dusenbery; Tarcísio Feitosa: John Antonelli; Olya Melen: Goldman Foundation; Anne Kajir: Will Parrinello.

For more information and photos of the Goldman Prize winners, visit: http://www.goldmanprize.org/