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2006 Goldman Environmental Prize Honors Global Eco-Activists


Grassroots environmental activists from six regions of the world have been honored for their extraordinary efforts to protect the planet. The 17th annual Goldman Environmental Prizes were presented Monday (April 24th) in San Francisco.

What the Goldman laureates have in common is that each has fought - often alone and at great personal risk -- to protect the environment of their homelands. Silas Siakor gathered evidence against then Liberian President Charles Taylor of illegal logging and associated human rights abuses under his regime. Documents revealed that profits from unchecked logging contracts helped pay for the 14-year Liberian civil war that left 150,000 dead. Siakor took the evidence to the United Nations. "Coming from such a small country such as Liberia, arriving in New York for the first time - a massive city - I felt overwhelmed," he says. "I've come to the UN to present these issues to members of the Security Council and urging them to impose a ban on the Liberian timber trade. When I began to interact with people at the UN, I found it quite amazing that people were willing to listen, to help if you needed their support."

Influenced by Siakor's report, the U.N. imposed sanctions on Liberia. President Taylor eventually lost control of the Liberian government and in 2003 fled the country. Democratic elections followed. Siakor says his efforts within his country and at the United Nations now focus on making sure what happened before doesn't happen again. The newly-elected Liberian government seems more sympathetic to Siakor's mission. In February, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf canceled all logging contracts in the country.

The 2006 Goldman Prize for Europe has gone to a Ukrainian lawyer who successfully campaigned to block construction of a canal through the heart of the Danube River Delta. The unique wetlands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.

In 2002, the Ukrainian government began dredging for a navigational canal that would have allowed large cargo ships to travel between the Danube River and the Black Sea. The work began without public notice, and in violation of international agreements protecting the Delta. Olya Melen, a young attorney with a public interest group, volunteered to take the case.

"I was aware that very high officials were involved in this canal construction, meaning the Ministry of Transport and the former President of Ukraine. And they were pressing the government to take a positive decision. And judges were told to take the favorable decision and to allow the canal construction."

Government ministers and lawyers allegedly tried to frighten Melen off the case, and publicly denounced her as a traitor and spy. Melen took the challenge to court more than 30 times. She also took advantage of the fact that Ukraine was seeking membership at the time in the European Union and publicized the nation's failure to comply with international environmental agreements. "The first significant victory took place when the court declared illegal the environmental impact statement approved by the Minister of Environment," she says and adds, "The judge was [a] very brave one. He really went deep into the details of the case. He really went through all of the environmental legislation of Ukraine, even citing the international conventions."

The decision led to a temporary halt to the construction project. Many Ukrainians believed more governmental reforms were in store when President Viktor Yushchenko took office in 2005. But Melen says the Danube Delta is still under threat. "The fight is not over yet," she says. "President Yushchenko still wants to continue the canal construction for the economic interests of Ukraine. And that's why we are hoping that the new government will help in our legal work and bring the rule of law in our country."

Melen plans to continue her campaign to protect Ukraine's natural environment, and areas of the UNESCO World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve.

Craig Williams - the Goldman Award winner from North America - was recognized for his campaign to require the U.S. Department of Defense to use an environmentally safe method of destroying its ageing chemical weapons. The Kentucky-based activist and veteran of the Vietnam war got involved when he learned in a public meeting that he lived near a chemical weapons facility that was slated for incineration. "There's over 500 tons of chemical warfare agents stored directly behind me," he says. "Should there be what they call worst [case] credible event, well over 20,000 people would be killed."

The military facility in Williams' community is just one of several hundred in the U-S that holds some 24,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons. Williams decided to take action and in 1991 formed the Chemical Weapons Working Group. "It's an international coalition of grassroots organizations from the Pacific, Russia and the United States who are advocating the disposal of chemical weapons globally. But who wish to prioritize the safety and well being of the communities and protection or our environment, while we pursue that goal."

The Pentagon yielded to the coalition's appeal in 2003, announcing that it would not burn chemical stockpiles in Kentucky and three other states. It agreed to use a safer method for weapons disposal recommended by Williams' group.

The 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize was also awarded for campaigns to protect communities from dam construction in China, to stop illegal logging in Papua New Guinea, and to preserve the tropical rainforest in the northern Amazon of Brazil. Since 1990 the annual award has recognized 113 people from 57 countries.