For 30 years a wealthy San Francisco environmentalist has been awarding cash prizes to outstanding conservationists around the world for their achievements in preserving the planet. Eight winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize were honored in San Francisco Monday at a news conference coinciding with the celebration of Earth Day.
Richard Goldman, who, with his late wife Rhoda, founded the annual prize, praised this year's winners as "heroes of the environment, visionary leaders who have displayed the courage to fight for the health of Planet Earth."
Five of the winners received $125,000 a piece. Three others won as a group and shared the prize. They are leaders of the Gwich'in tribe of northwestern Canada and northeastern Alaska who fought successfully, it turns out, against the Bush administration's proposal to drill for oil in what is known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Jonathan Solomon, Sarah James and Norma Kassi have devoted years campaigning against degradation of the arctic, arguing that the proposed drilling would not only despoil the pristine ecosystem but also devastate the Porcupine Caribou herds essential to their tribal culture for thousands of years.
The U.S. Senate only last week voted decisively against the proposal after a long battle, but Ms. Kassi, while pleased with the vote, thinks it's not over yet.
"Well, certainly it's a major hurdle that we have gone through and I think the American public has spoken through the Senate of the United States saying that this is a very sacred place in the world and for North America, and that we must protect it. However, the powers-that-be in the administration right now, and the major oil companies who basically work very closely with that administration, are going to continue to push for development in that area and as well as the Alaskan legislators."
Another prize winner was a Muslim woman, Fatima Jibrell. Born in Somalia, she returned home in 1990 after a university education in the United States and, despite the disruption of civil war, established an environmental activist group called Horn Relief, which was credited with saving much of the northeastern region from massive logging and achieving a ban on the wholesale exportation of charcoal to the Persian Gulf States.
Other winners included Pisit Charnsnoh of Thailand, an ecologist who works with the fishing industry to protect and restore his country's coastal ecosystem devastated by industrial fishing and increased logging. Jadwiga Lopata of Poland also won the prize; she is a conservationist who devised an educational program called eco-tourism, in efforts to preserve Poland's traditional family farms as a way to preserve the diminishing open space.
Another winner is Jean La Rose, an indigenous Arawak woman from Guyana, who despite harassment used legal pressure to slow down destructive mining practices that have devastated Guyana's rainforests and threatened native lands. Alexis Massol-Gonzales of Puerto Rico, who inspired the creation of community-managed forest preserves in what had been a mining zone, was the final winner.
Since 1990, there have been 87 winners from 55 countries, many of them honored for exposing themselves to personal risk to safeguard the environment.