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Eco Heroes Win Goldman Environmental Prize

Winners showcase grassroots struggles across the globe to achieve environmental justice

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Six of the Earth's heroes are being recognized Monday as this year's recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The 2013 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize) From Colombia, Iraq, Italy, the U.S., Indonesia and South Africa, these grassroots environmentalists have led successful campaigns and achieved local victories, providing inspiration to environmentalists across the world who face often seemingly insurmountable odds. 

Winner and engineer Azzam Alwash left California to return to his homeland of Iraq and set out to restore the country's Garden of Eden—the marshes Saddam Hussein drained in one of the world's worst ecological and cultural catastrophes.

Alwash had fond memories of the marshes from his childhood, and in 2003 returned to Iraq. The Guardian's John Vidal writes:

On his return, [Alwash] set up Nature Iraq as an NGO to focus on the restoration of the marshes and he offered his technical skills to tear down the giant embankments to flood the land. "People had actually started to breach the dykes before I went. I became their advocate. I paid for a few breaches of the embankments but 90% of the work was done by the marsh Arabs themselves. I brought in an excavator."

The ecological change was almost instantaneous. "Within six months, weeds were growing and birds were coming back. I recognised that nature is very strong. We had to flush out the poisons, then the reeds began to come back. They self-propagated with seeds and roots. The water buffalo came back and then marsh Arabs themselves with their animals. Soon the birds were coming." By last month, around 3,500 sq km had been restored as marshland.

But a far bigger problem faces now Alwash and the marsh Arabs. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers may have started to flow through the marshes again but their flow is nowhere near what it used to be because a series of dams built by Turkey and Syria have diverted the water. "Originally there would have been 70-120 million cubic metres of water flowing through the marshes a year. Today it is just 60m. But we think [as more dams are built and water is siphoned off upstream in cities] that eventually it will be around 40m cu metres. The water flow is progressively getting worse and there has been no flood since Syria and Turkey built their dams. If we do nothing, then agriculture will die in the land where it was born within 25 years." [...]

"They talk today about sustainable development. The Sumerians have practiced sustainable development for the last 7,000 years."

His mission now is to bring together the governments of Syria, Turkey and Iraq to better manage better the rivers. "It seems impossible, but we have shown we can make a start."

U.S. winner Kimberly Wasserman helped lead the campaign to shut down two of the nation's dirtiest coal-fired power plants in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood.

After her 3-month-old began gasping for air as a result of asthma, one of a plethora of health problems caused by the toxic pollution in the surrounding areas, Wasserman went into her community to fight for clean air for everyone, cultivating a coalition of groups that received nationwide attention for calling attention to the dirty plants, eventually putting pressure on lawmakers to get the plants closed. 

The Goldman Environmental Prize describes this year's other winners:

Jonathan Deal from South Africa: With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, Jonathan Deal led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.

Rossano Ercolini from Italy: An elementary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement.

Aleta Baun from Indonesia: By organizing hundreds of local villagers to peacefully occupy marble mining sites in "weaving protests," Aleta Baun stopped the destruction of sacred forestland in Mutins Mountain on the island of Timor.

Nohra Padilla from Colombia: Unfazed by powerful political opponents and a pervasive culture of violence, Nohra Padilla organized Colombia's marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management.

2013 marks the 24th year of the prize, which honors grassroots environmentalists in the six inhabited continental regions.  In addition to increased awareness for their issues, the winners each receive $150,000. 

Watch the Goldman video on Aleta Baun's work below:

To see videos on the other activists work, click here.

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