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Environmental Heroes:  Asia's Von Hernandez - 2003-05-21

The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients, and there have been a total of 94 of them since the prize was launched in 1989, hail from every region of the globe - Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Island Nations, North America, South and Central America.

In the third in her series of profiles of this year's Goldman Prize laureates, VOA's Rosanne Skirble speaks with Von Hernandez, a Filipino who has been leading the fight against waste incineration in his country.

Picture this: a garbage landfill that grows into a mountain of waste. Such a mountain was part of the landscape in Quezon City, in metropolitan Manila, where Von Hernandez lives in the Philippines. One day in 2001, a torrential rain caused the waste mountain to collapse, killing 300 people, mostly children who'd been picking through the garbage pile scavenging for a livelihood. Von Hernandez says he was appalled by the tragedy. "Things could really be better. We try to convince our leaders that it is all common sense," he said.

Trash is a big problem in Manila, whose 10 million residents and many businesses generate 7,000 tons of waste a day. To get rid of this waste, the city government in the mid-1990s proposed building the world's largest incinerator. That prompted Von Hernandez and other local activists to launch an aggressive campaign against trash-burning, not just in Manila but across the Philippines.

"At that time incineration would not make the waste problem disappear, what it would do was transform the problem into a toxic pollution,” he said. “[The incineration would] liberate heavy metals from the materials you are burning and create new compounds, some of them more toxic than the original, including the dioxins and the ferons, which many consider to be the most toxic substances known to science."

These hazardous chemicals have been linked to birth defects, cancer, respiratory ailments and reproductive dysfunction among people who live near incineration plants.

Von Hernandez says he organized mass protests, testified in hearings and solicited grassroots support to draw attention to the health and environmental problems of incineration.

"We linked up with communities. We linked up with other environmental groups. We linked up with women's groups, with scavengers, with junkyard operators to stop these proposals,” he said. “We organized petitions sent to Congress. We organized spouses of legislators and trained them on ecological waste management to tell them as well that there is an alternative approach."

The strategy worked. The Clean Air Act of 1999 banned waste incineration in the Philippines, the first country in the world to take such action. But, Von Hernandez says, the victory was short-lived as attempts to repeal the law began almost as soon as the Congress approved it.

"These attempts [to repeal the law] come not only from waste management proponents, incinerator proponents, but also from local government officials who have an interest in keeping the status quo, because it benefits them in a different kind of way,” he said. “There was also [challenges] from international funding agencies who continue to dangle loans for the construction of these projects and from foreign governments who have an interest in promoting technologies coming from their countries. So these are the forces we are up against."

Von Hernandez says other obstacles have been budgetary cuts and government corruption.

"Some mayors in metro Manila, particularly would not want to disturb the way things are done. They just want a dump, a hole to fill with garbage and they want to move these waste holding companies,” he said. “And, we have exposed the ties between these waste holding companies and city executives. Some of the waste holders, for example, are relatives of local government officials. The more waste they actually take to the dumpsite, the more money they earn. So they have an interest in propagating this wasteful practice."

Instead of burning waste, Von Hernandez promotes cleaner solutions including separating garbage at its source, composting and recycling, methods he says could both protect the environment and provide jobs. "If you look at the garbage, you can find different materials, plastic, paper, but nothing that declares itself as waste. It is the act of mixing stuff together that makes waste,” he said. “And, the flip side of waste is resources. If you recycle these resources in the waste stream this would lessen the pressure on primary processing, on extraction of mining and logging, and we would be able to recover these resources and bring them back into the productive economy.”

Von Hernandez says his fight against incineration is actually a struggle against over-consumption and dirty industrial development. He hopes to use the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize to continue raising public awareness about the problem and to focus on new ways to recycle valuable natural resources before they turn into waste.