Published on Monday, April 17, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Goldman Prize:
The Year's 7 Environmental Heroes Honored
Winners receive $125,000 in cash
by Glen Martin
SAN FRANCISCO - April 17 - The winners of the world's richest and most prestigious environmental prize were announced in San Francisco today, with the recipients promising to use their cash awards to further grassroots conservation efforts.

Among the seven winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize are a Mexican peasant who was imprisoned following his protests against logging in old-growth forests, an ethnobotanist who is encouraging the preservation of native forests in Madagascar by treating villagers with wild medicinal plants, a Russian lawyer who stopped oil drilling in the Arctic and two Paraguayans who foiled government plans to channelize the country's largest rivers.

Each winner receives $125,000, with no strings attached.

In the 11 years since it was initiated, the Goldman award has become a goad for international environmental reform as much as a means of recognizing unsung heroes of grassroots activism.

Many past winners were targeted for retribution by home governments mightily displeased by their efforts to stop logging, mining or dams.

One such recipient, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian who fought oil exploitation in the Niger River Delta, was executed in 1995 by Nigeria's military government on trumped-up murder charges.

Today's announcements were in keeping with the prize's tradition of honoring civil disobedience in the face of government and corporate hostility.

``It is our hope that this prize enables these heroic individuals to continue their campaigns, even when their struggles put them at personal risk,'' said Richard Goldman, who co-founded the prize and a related foundation with his late wife, Rhoda.

``These selfless actions contribute to the survival of our planet and our ability to maintain life as we know it,'' Goldman said.

One of this year's award winners, Rudolfo Montiel, 44, could not attend today's announcement because he is incarcerated in a Mexican prison. Montiel was arrested in 1999 by Mexican Army soldiers following his organizing of logging protests in the Pacific coastal mountains of Guerrero.

Montiel was beaten after his arrest and remains in prison because he was convicted on marijuana and weapons charges that his supporters say are bogus.

But not all of the Goldman winners have chosen a confrontational path.

One of the recipients announced today is Nat Quansah, 46, an ethnobotanist who teaches traditional medicine at a Madagascar university.

Quansah has reawakened an interest in herbal medicines among his countrymen and women due to ``efficacy and economics. The plants work effectively to heal, and because the majority of people are poor and can't afford western medical care, they are looking for alternatives.''

Quansah said medicinal flora give local villagers a reason to save the forests that harbor the plants. ``It provides a tangible incentive to preserve nature,'' he said. ``The forests help us, and we help the forests. It's a balance.''

Quansah will use his prize to re- establish a village clinic and medicinal herb garden that he had to close because of a lack of funds.

Other winners include:

-- Oscar Rivas, 45, and Elias Diaz Pena, 54, two Paraguayans who have defeated government plans to reconfigure the Paraguay and Parana rivers for shipping at vast environmental expense.

``It would've destroyed 2,100 miles of some of the most productive wetlands in the world,'' said Rivas. The two men plan to use their money to build a center for the study of sustainable forestry in central Paraguay.

-- Vera Mischenko, 47, a Russian attorney who won the first environmental case in Russia filed against multinational corporations. Mischenko's suit stopped oil exploration without accompanying environmental assessments on Sakhalin Island, a large island near the arctic that shelters millions of waterfowl and seabirds and 8,000 indigenous people. The waters off Sakhalin abound in fish and gray whales.

``We have good environmental laws in Russia, but enforcement is nil,'' said Mischenko. ``Corruption is the rule. Officials can be bribed to issue illegal permits for resource exploitation -- it's incredibly difficult to stop.''

-- Oral Ataniyazova, 43, an obstetrician from Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of Uzbekistan. Ataniyazova founded a clinic and local political movement dedicated to fighting pesticide contamination and dewatering of the Aral Sea, both attributed to a vast regional cotton industry.

``We're finding an increasing rate of diseases in our country, including birth abnormalities, cancer, kidney disease and allergies,'' said Ataniyazova. ``The influence of environmental factors is clear.''

Ataniyazova will use a large portion of her money for her clinic and donate some of it to international environmental causes.

-- Alexander Peal, 55, a Liberian who founded his country's only national park and has worked to re-establish Liberia's conservation movement following its catastrophic civil war in 1989.

Peal said conservation isn't a widely embraced concept in Liberia. ``There have been some encouraging words from the government, but they haven't supported these expressions with much action,'' he said.

Peal will use his prize money to fund education and forest conservation programs in Liberia.

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle




Peal, Liberia

With 60 percent of its original forests remaining, Liberia today is the only country left in West Africa with any significant forest cover. In 1983, Alexander Peal, in collaboration with international conservation organizations, organized the creation of Sapo National Park, Liberia’s first and only national park. However, all conservation efforts were halted at the onset of civil war in 1989. Working to keep conservation efforts in Liberia alive while in exile, Peal led a group back to Sapo Park to assess its condition within weeks of the cease-fire in 1997. Today, Peal is working on rehabilitating the park and surrounding villages. 


Oral Ataniyazova, Uzbekistan

Over the past several decades, the Aral Sea – one of the world’s largest freshwater inland seas – has shrunk to almost half its size primarily due to water diversion for cotton production. The result has been a devastating ecological nightmare that has negatively affected the health and livelihood of some three million inhabitants in the region.  An obstetrician, Oral Ataniyazova has addressed the high rate of birth related problems in the ethnically distinct Republic of Karakalpakastan.  She has been raising awareness of the environmental and health impacts of the Aral Sea crisis and improving the lives of local people, especially the women and children. 


Vera Mischenko, Russia

In response to the recent rush to claim land and resources for new industrial and commercial uses in Russia, Vera Mischenko founded Ecojuris, the first Russian public interest law organization.  As a legal pioneer, Mischenko has brought the first successful lawsuits against the Russian government in defense of citizens’ environmental and health rights. She has strengthened the nation’s environmental laws and has won major Supreme Court decisions.  These have included protecting forests, stopping a railroad line through a national park and more recently, preventing a major oil development project on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. 

I S L A N D   N A T I O N S

Nat Quansah, Madagascar

Home to five percent of the world’s total plant and animal species, Madagascar remains one of the most naturally diverse islands on earth. A drug made from the rosy periwinkle plant, indigenous to Madagascar, has increased the chances of recovery from childhood leukemia from 20 to 80 percent. In 1994 Nat Quansah opened a clinic in the village of Ambodisakoana. There he implemented the Integrated Health Care and Conservation Program in which the cultural practice of using natural substances for medicinal purposes is being reintroduced to Malagasy villagers. In the clinic’s four years of operation, 5,685 patients were treated, and the use of local medicinal plants has raised the community’s awareness of the importance of the island’s forest conservation.

N O R T H   A M E R I C A

Rodolfo Montiel Flores, Mexico

The founder of Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán, Rodolfo Montiel Flores and his fellow farmer ecologists staged a successful campaign against one of the world’s largest transnational timber corporations when the corporation refused to respect the livelihoods of the local inhabitants.  To challenge the extraction of wealth from the fragile mountain region, Montiel Flores organized roadblocks and protests that eventually forced the corporation to withdraw from the local forest. Brutal repression followed and today Flores and fellow campesino Teodoro Cabrera Garcia sit in solitary confinement in a jail cell in Guerrero on trumped up charges. 

S O U T H   A M E R I C A

Oscar Rivas and Elias Diaz Pena, Paraguay

The Yacryeta Dam on the Parana River in Paraguay has been called a “monument to corruption” by the president of Argentina. Oscar Rivas and Elias Diaz Pena are co-founders of Sobrevivencia, an organization committed to restoring quality of life among indigenous and marginalized communities through environmental conservation.  They have monitored the development of Yacryeta for more than a decade.  Calling for effective environmental and resettlement plans, Rivas and Diaz submitted a claim to the World Bank Inspection Panel- a move that resulted in recommendations to benefit local communities and an apology from the World Bank.  They have also led the effort to stop the internationally financed Hidrovia Paraguay-Paraná navigation project from draining, dredging and altering the region’s premier waterway.