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2005 Goldman Environmental Prizes Handed Out to Grassroots Activists

Grassroots environmental activists from six regions of the world have been honored for their extraordinary efforts to protect the Earth. The 16th annual presentation of the Goldman Environmental Prizes took place April 18 in San Francisco, California.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It was once covered with lush tropical forests. Now most of its trees have been stripped from the landscape. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste is an agronomist and environmental activist.

"The rate of disappearance of forest cover in this country is so rapid that soon the place will turn into a desert," he said. "There is less than two percent tree cover right now. If we don't treat this situation as an emergency, we won't be able to turn it around and the country of Haiti will disappear."

In 1973 Mr. Jean-Baptist founded the Peasant Movement of Papay, known by its French-Creole acronym, MPP, a network of people dedicated to sustainable agriculture and organic farming.

"The most important aspect of the work of MPP is education," he said. "It is our goal to change [so that people] are masters of their own destiny."

In its award citation, the Goldman Prize Foundation said Mr. Baptiste's work has reduced poverty and malnutrition in Haiti, cut the nation's dependence on imported foods, and helped improve the safety of the country's water supplies.

The Peasant Movement of Papay is now 60,000 strong, which includes 20,000 women and 10,000 young people. Over the past three decades, its members have planted over 20 million trees, waging a persistent battle against deforestation.

The Goldman Awards also recognized Father Jose Andres Tamayo Cortez of Honduras, citing his struggle for environmental justice. The Catholic priest directs a coalition of subsistence farmers, community and religious leaders known as the Environmental Movement of Olancho.

"The logging industry has to be regulated. It cannot be uncontrolled," he said. "Then, the logging can provide economic opportunities for the people. But with this method of logging, the people are left with absolutely nothing … because the loggers don't plant any trees, they simply cut them down."

Father Tamayo has not been willing to stand by and let that happen. In 2003, he organized a national campaign to stop development of a major highway that would have increased access to forests for new sawmills. That same year he led a 3,000-person, 282-kilometer weeklong March for Life to the nation's capital.

"The people don't want to be martyrs [against] the logging trucks, the water shortages, the loss of resources," he said. "They want a solution to the problem."

Father Tamayo helped to broker an agreement with the Honduran president for logging concessions, and despite threats on his life, continues to lead a non-violent struggle that has inspired many to join his cause.

The Goldman Prize for Asia went to Kaisha Atakhanova for her successful campaign to prevent nuclear waste from being commercially imported into the Republic of Kazakhstan. Nuclear testing had already contaminated the region, and she has studied its genetic effects.

"I knew there was a high level of mutation and I knew that the local population was unaware of this," she said. "I began to realize that my scientific work was meaningless unless it helped people so I decided to work with them to help them defend their ecological rights."

When the Parliament backed a plan to allow nuclear waste to be imported and disposed of in Kazakhstan, Ms. Atakhanova challenged its proposal.

"I didn't want to see the lives of future generations sold out by corrupt officials," she said. "It was also a question of environmental justice. Why should Kazakhstan become a nuclear dumping ground for the other rich countries? And with our oil reserves, we certainly don't need the money."

As a result of her work - and the support of a network of 60 non-governmental organizations nationwide - the legislation was withdrawn.

Other Goldman Environmental Prizes were awarded for campaigns to protect old growth forests in Mexico, to stop construction of Europe's largest gold mine in Romania, and to preserve a nature reserve through nearly a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Goldman Prize has recognized 107 environmental activists from 65 countries since 1990. The Goldman Environmental Foundation awards each laureate $125,000.