Don Quixotes of the environment

The stories of six Goldman Environmental Prize winners who act on their determination to save the environment.

by Monte Leach


he Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman in San Francisco. A $75,000 prize is awarded each year to environmental activists from each of the earth's six inhabited continents. The winners are nominated by a network of 19 environmental organizations and selected by an international panel of environmental experts.

"I feel like Don Quixote, but quite the contrary," says Marina Silva. "Don Quixote fought windmills, thinking he was fighting giants. I fight giants thinking I am fighting windmills."

Silva, and her five colleagues from around the world who recently won the Goldman Environmental prize, are all Don Quixotes fighting against those who would harm the environment.

Silva grew up in the Amazon forest of Brazil and has spent her life fighting against the "giants" who exploit and destroy the Amazon. State and federal subsidies for cattle ranching have resulted in the burning of vast areas of rainforest in order to establish cattle pasture. In the early 1980s, Silva founded an independent trade union movement with rubber-tapper leader Chico Mendes. She became, with Mendes, one of the architects of the empates peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber-tappers against deforestation and expulsion of native peoples from their traditional lands. These peaceful demonstrations led to the protection of thousands of hectares of tropical forest and the livelihoods of hundreds of rubber-tapping families. Undaunted by Mendes' assassination in 1989, Silva pushed for the creation of sustainable extractive reserves in the rainforest, where products such as rubber and nuts would be harvested from the rainforest without destroying it.

Today, sustainable extractive reserves in the state of Acre encompass 3 million hectares of forest managed by the traditional communities that inhabit them. In 1994, Silva became the first rubber-tapper ever elected to Brazil's national senate, where she has skillfully built support for environmental protection of the reserves. "Our best alternative today is to prolong our days on this planet. All of our technical and scientific capacity will have to be used to reverse the process of destruction we have created ... We cannot continue to sacrifice the treasure of millennia for the profit of a decade."

Silva's co-winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize were:


Indian attorney Mahesh Chander Mehta


Mahesh Chander Mehta has been dubbed "The Green Avenger." When Mehta visited the Taj Mahal for the first time in 1984, he saw that the monument's marble had turned yellow and was pitted as a result of pollutants from nearby industries. This spurred him to file an environmental case in the Supreme Court of India. Since then, Mehta has devoted himself to environmental work, charging in case after case that India's growing industrialization is poisoning the country's environment. He has won nearly 40 landmark judgments.

For years, every Friday, a courtroom has been set aside in India's Supreme Court just for Mehta's cases. In 1993, after a decade of court battles, the Supreme Court ordered more than 200 small factories surrounding the Taj Mahal to close, because they had not installed pollution control devices. Another 300 factories were put on notice to do the same. Mehta was also responsible for landmark rulings regarding the pollution of the Ganges River.

Mehta has co-founded the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action, a nonprofit organization of lawyers, scientists and doctors that promotes environmental awareness and strives to get other lawyers involved in public interest environmental cases. He also organizes annual "green marches" to spread environmental awareness at the village level.

Mehta says: "I am not against anyone at any time, as I am often perceived to be. I am just for the environment at all times. Those whom I oppose in Court will realize themselves, one day, that they and their children, too, have been the beneficiaries of environmental protection."


Teacher Albena Simeonova


Despite illness and opposition, Albena Simeonova, a former science teacher, has bravely addressed the lack of public involvement in environmental issues in Bulgaria.

One of her most successful and novel initiatives has been the creation of "Ecological Inspectorates" at the local level. Citizens call to report local environmental problems and get a fast, independent response from professionals who come to solve the problems. The Ecological Inspectorates originally started as non-governmental organizations. Now municipalities have organized their own "Eco-Inspectorates" or have provided funding for those started as NGOs. The original four inspectorates have grown to 30 and more are being planned.

Simeonova established the Foundation for Ecological Education and Training (FEET) in 1991 in order to increase public awareness of environmental problems and their possible solutions. Campaigning against the construction of nuclear power plants has been one focal point of Simeonova's work. Two years ago, she organized the first public debate between the proponents and opponents of nuclear power.

In 1993, Simeonova persuaded Bulgarian environmental groups to come together in a common association, which was named the Green Parliament. Though not a lawyer, she has written municipal environmental regulations and is working to link environmental lawyers with citizens.

"We have to stand together, hand-in-hand, fighting against the destruction of the environment, fighting for the survival of the planet, and for all its people."


Marine biologist Bill Ballantine


This New Zealand marine biologist has successfully promoted the establishment of "no-take" marine reserves in New Zealand and internationally. Like aquatic national parks, these reserves protect marine habitat and life from destruction by people.

Since 1977, New Zealand has established 13 marine reserves, and it is hoped that 10 per cent of its marine habitat will become reserves by the year 2000. Ballantine's work has served as a model for similar programs in British Columbia and the Florida Keys.

Says Ballantine: "I have spent most of my adult life trying to persuade people that the sea is not just very large and full of life, but also very important and worthy of more of our care and attention.... Marine conservation is decades behind conservation on land due mainly to public ignorance and indifference about the sea. However, New Zealand, and several other countries, have shown that 'no-take' marine reserves are practical and necessary."


Agricultural engineer Edwin Bustillos


Edwin Bustillos has led an effort to protect Mexico's Sierra Madre mountain range from the growing incursions of drug cartels, who are attracted by the area's isolation and tropical climate. The Sierra Madre in Northern Mexico extends for over 1,000 miles, and is North America's most biologically diverse ecosystem. Undaunted by the violent climate generated by the drug trade, Bustillos is determined to create a 5-million-acre biosphere reserve in the Sierra Madre to protect both its highly endangered ecosystems and its four native cultures that have lived in the mountains for 2,000 years.

Bustillos, a native of the Sierra Madre, founded a human rights and environmental organization called CASMAC (Advisory Council of the Sierra Madre) in 1992. The first indigenous community reserve, which will form the core of the biosphere project, has been officially declared in a remote community surrounded by old-growth forest. CASMAC has proposals from 15 other communities that want to set up forest reserves to be integrated into the Biosphere reserve. Bustillos has paid a high price for his commitment to the Sierra. In the past two years, he has survived three attempts on his life and suffers from severe back and head injuries incurred in the attacks.

Bustillos believes that: "Among dense forests and deep canyons, among the sound of birds and falling waters, and among the abundance of plant animal species, nothing more is necessary for life. For that reason those who live in harmony with their surroundings live with intelligence."


Ugandan journalist Amooti Ndyakira


Amooti Ndyakiri has exposed threats to the country's once-abundant wildlife and helped to create an environmental awareness among the Ugandan people.

A journalist with New Vision newspaper in Kampala, Ndyakira is the sole reporter addressing environmental issues in his country. He has used New Vision, widely considered to be one of the most independent newspapers in Africa, as a platform to tackle public ignorance about the finite supply of the country's rich natural resources.

Ndyakira's report on the upland forests of Bwindi uncovered instances of illegal mining, poaching of rare mountain gorillas, and tree cutting. His articles led the Ugandan Parliament to change Bwindi from a forest reserve to a national park. Through Ndyakira's stories, Uganda joined the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species in 1992. In September 1994, he helped expose the smuggling of endangered chimpanzees and African Great Grey parrots by government officials and businessmen.

Only when people are informed will they be aware," he says. "Only when they are aware, will they take action, and only when they take action will species and the environment be saved."

Monte Leach is a freelance radio journalist, based in San Francisco, USA, and is the US editor of Share International. This article was provided by Share International, PO Box 971, North Hollywood, CA 91603 (818) 785-6300.