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2004 Goldman Environmental Prize Honors Grassroots Activists - 2004-04-21

The 15th annual Goldman Environmental Prize was awarded April 19 in San Francisco to grassroots activists who have worked to make the world a better place to live. VOA's Rosanne Skirble profiles three of this year's recipients: an advocate for affordable drinking water from Ghana, an Afro-Colombian civil rights leader, and organizers of a campaign dedicated to helping survivors of history's largest industrial accident in Bhopal, India.

Rudolf Amenga-Etego wants easy access to clean, safe water for his people. In his native Ghana, 70 percent of all diseases are water related. Last year, the 40-year-old public interest lawyer won a three-year-long battle to suspend a World Bank water privatization project.

"When water gets into private hands and is managed as a business enterprise there are two things that happen immediately," he explained. "One is that they raise prices to be able to make their profit. The government no longer has the opportunity to cross subsidize water for the poor because every citizen is now reduced to a consumer."

Mr. Amenga-Etego considers this a dangerous trend.

"The World Bank policy is aimed at creating markets for multinational corporations dealing in water. And those corporations are not charities. They are in the profit," he said.

Mr. Amenga-Etego's efforts have attracted support from women's groups, teachers, trade union members, public health workers and students.

"For the last three years there has been a ground swell of resistance to the privatization. And you see that expressed when you go into the communities and encounter what we call the local action committees," he says.

Mr. Amenga-Etego says the fact that this project was stopped shows the power of community action. A power struggle over coastal resources moved Goldman Prize winner Libia Gruesco to fight for land rights for Colombia's black rural communities. Over the past two decades, one million people have been displaced - and hundreds murdered - as rebels, government forces and drug lords battled for control of Colombia's oil, gold and illegal crops.

Libia Gruesco lobbied the nation's Congress and won passage of Law 70, which gave Afro-Colombians territorial rights to well over two million hectares of land that they have lived on for centuries.

"We as a black community share a history and a common vision grounded in the idea that nature is our principal ally," she said. "We want the liberty to construct a different kind of life, based on nature, so the world can see. That is our dream."

Twenty years ago, a gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India killed 20,000 people and left more than 150,000 seriously injured. Those events forever changed the lives of Goldman Prize winners Rasida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla.

"In my house I had my father and my son and we started to run. We reached half a mile when our breath gave out," said Rasida Bee. "When I opened my eyes I saw the dead bodies of small children, women and men of all ages."

"We left right away. We just ran," said Campa Devi Shukla. "As we reached the bus stand my husband tripped and fell down. In between this madness we lost two of our children."

Their activism began at the stationery factory where they worked. The two organized employees to demand safer working conditions and better wages. Empowered by their union success there, Rasida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla decided next to confront Dow Chemical, which had acquired Union Carbide.

The women want the company held accountable for the deaths and injuries resulting from the Union Carbide gas leak. They have organized hunger strikes and protest marches around the world to focus attention on what they call the company's deadly legacy.

"We will go to the next shareholders meeting and tell them that they should take care of their responsibilities towards Bhopal because now they are the new owner of Union Carbide," said Rasida Bee. "If they don't, then we will make sure that they can't do business anywhere in the world."

"The conditions of the gas victims has gone from bad to worse. Therefore we will force them to take suitable action," said Champa Devi Shukla.

The Goldman Environmental Prize winners each receive a $125,000 no-strings-attached award.