SAN FRANCISCO — Craig Williams' son was a year old when he learned the U.S. government planned to incinerate 523 tons of chemical weapons 8 miles from his home in rural Berea, Ky.
Worried about the risk, Williams, a Vietnam veteran, pulled out his typewriter and started writing. He is still writing.
Today his son is 23. The weapons nerve and mustard gas have not moved, but the Army has agreed to a safer, water-based process to destroy the stockpiles there and at three other sites throughout the country.
For his efforts, Williams today is one of six winners of the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize, a $125,000 award that is the highest honor of its kind for grass-roots environmentalists and is often called the "Green Nobel."
Winners represent each of the six major continents. The award was founded in 1990 by San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda Goldman, heirs to the Levi Strauss fortune.
This year, all six Goldman winners have fought not just to protect the environment but to force their governments to protect the voiceless, rather than pander to special interests.
Williams, 58, has spent 23 years fighting the Army's plans to burn the roughly 24,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons agents stockpiled in eight sites around the United States.
The Army is slowly changing, thanks to efforts by Williams' group, the Chemical Weapons Working Group. One site's stockpile is gone, and three others' are being nullified via a safer process.
Anne Kajir of Papau New Guinea will never forget the woman who grabbed her, when she was a law student working as a paralegal in indigenous communities, and insisted Kajir come to the edge of a forest that had been illegally logged. It looked like a volcanic landscape.
Under Papau New Guinea's constitution, 97 percent of the country is owned collectively by indigenous populations and managed in trust by the government. But government, Kajir said, is violating that trust and fosters rampant illegal logging. Kajir has spent nine years fighting that in the courts.
Olya Melen had to do something. The Ukrainian attorney, now 26, had argued one of her first-ever cases against a government plan to cut a canal through the heart of the Danube delta, a riverway every bit as important as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The local judge had been sympathetic. From her bench, she agreed the canal was awful. But her ruling favored the government on every point.
The subsequent legal fight and the Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yuschenko to power have eased the corruption. But the pressure for the canal, needed to ease shipping routes, hasn't gone away.
"It was so easy for them to call the judge, to push the people, to start criminal prosecution against those who were against the canal," she said. "To me, it was disgusting."
Tarcisio Feitosa da Silva, 35, lives in a region in Brazil's northern Amazon basin, called Para, that for 30 years has been "totally abandoned" by government.
But Feitosa is pushing back, working with social groups, indigenous farmers and rubber tappers to block the illegal logging and preserve the land. They've had small victories 6,000 mahogany logs seized by the government and auctioned for $1.5 million. Or 93,000 acres of forest all of Oregon, essentially protected from large-scale logging.
Yu Xiaogang, 55, knows the cost of China's thirst for hydropower. He's watched displaced villagers pick through garbage dumps for scraps to sell. He figures the 13 dams once proposed for the Nu River would have displaced 50,000 more people.
Yu won the Goldman prize for forcing China's regional and national governments to address that societal cost. The plan got cut to four dams.
China's thirst for energy is only growing. "At least now, villagers have some say in how it gets quenched," Yu said. "The decision must be transparent. The information must be disclosed. And the process must be participatory."
Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor of Liberia has spent his life trying to save his country's forests. But Siakor, 36, has no patience for Western conservationists who want to create off-limits preserves.
"The reality is how do we survive, how do we put bread on our table, how do we ensure our source of livelihood is protected," he said. "It is not about the trees."
But the trees are disappearing. And Siakor has put his life on the line trying to help local communities stop the government-sponsored logging.
More than any winner this year, Siakor is drinking the sweet draught of success. Liberia's notorious leader, Charles Taylor, was arrested last month in exile. The big logging interests are on the run.
"When you see the level of abuse people (underwent), ... I simply cannot believe we were so successful," Siakor said. But he cannot stop just yet.
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