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Six Grassroots Activists Win $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize

Grassroots environmental activists from six regions of the world are this year's winners of the 18th Goldman Environmental Prize. The privately-funded award recognizes people for their courage and initiative in responding to environmental problems.

Hammer Simwinga is from Zambia's North Luangwa Valley, where poaching in the 1980s decimated the wildlife in North Luangwa National Park and left villagers in extreme poverty.

The Goldman Foundation recognized Simwinga for developing an alternative to elephant poaching that has given people jobs and allowed wildlife to rebound. "When the project started, the park was almost gone. The aim was to rehabilitate the whole thing so that animals could go back. [It] was my role to help my local people to come up with something which would really support them."

Simwinga founded and still heads the North Luangwa Wildlife Conservation and Community Development Programme. It promotes small business loans and supports sustainable agricultural practices among the region's farmers. Former poacher Godfry Chikalipa says these efforts helped him end his career as a poacher. "His project has made a huge difference in my life by improving me with training. I've been able to have steady work from these skills for many years."

Chikalipa say he feels more hopeful about his future and about North Luangwa, its people and its wildlife.

Simwinga says the project now reaches 35,000 people in 65 villages. "The animals have almost recovered. The community has done that. Their livelihood now depends entirely on agricultural production."

The Goldman Prize for Asia was awarded to Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a former herdsman from the sparsely populated steppes of Mongolia. His mission has been to shut down destructive mining operations along the country's scarce waterways.

Searching for new capital investment in the era of free trade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the government of Mongolia, awarded 37 foreign and domestic companies rights to mine gold along the Onggi River. That's a vital waterway that supplies drinking water to 100,000 people and 1 million head of livestock.

Munkhbayar says aggressive mining was destroying Mongolian land and culture. "I realized our water was becoming contaminated and my river was dying."

In 2001 Munkhbayar founded the Onggi River Movement and then went on to join forces with ten other river groups to create the Mongolian Nature Protection Coalition. "This movement has taught me not to rely solely on the government, demonstrating that ordinary people can change things if they take the initiative," he says.

Through his civic efforts Munkhbayar convinced the Mongolian government to tighten and more strictly enforce mining regulations and to begin environmental restoration. Due to his efforts, 35 of the 37 mining operations in the Onggi River Basin have ceased operation. Munkhbayar says clean water and air are life itself for Mongolians. "We say, blue sky - father, divine earth - mother. We believe and respect this in our hearts because we're children of mother earth."

The Goldman Prize laureate for Island Nations is Orri Vigfusson, an entrepreneur and life-long outdoorsman from Reykjavik, Iceland. Disturbed by declining salmon stock in the North Atlantic, Vigfusson developed an innovative plan. He would pay commercial fisherman not to fish. "I feel that my mission in life is to get back the salmon stocks into historic abundance where it was sort of 200 years ago."

In 1989, Vigfusson founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund to raise money to buy out commercial salmon fishing rights. He says from the beginning, he realized that a cash handout was not enough. "So we decided to use our expertise to develop other sustainable fisheries, like in Greenland, where we developed the lumpfish industry."

Greenland is now the largest producer and exporter of lumpfish caviar in the world

The North Atlantic Salmon Fund has raised $35 million for its programs. It has negotiated buyouts or moratoriums against fishing with governments and commercial fishing operations in England, Greenland, France and Norway. Vigfusson says the latest estimates find that commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 15 years.

Other Goldman Prizes this year honored grassroots efforts to stop oil pipeline construction in a small community in Ireland, activism to protect boreal forests in Canada, and initiatives supporting indigenous peoples and rainforest habitats in the Peruvian Amazon.