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Environmental Heroes:  Peru's Maria Elena Foronda - 2003-06-09

The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients - 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 final piece in her series on the 2003 Goldman Prize laureates, VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on an activist from Peru who is leading efforts to undo the environmental havoc wreaked by her country's fishmeal industry.

The primary colors of the city where Maria Elena Foronda Farro lives on the northern coast of Peru are white, red and black. The town, she says, is enveloped with pollutants that spew from the smokestacks of fishmeal factories.

Peru is the world's largest producer of fishmeal, a product used in animal feed and fertilizers. Chimbote, she says, is at the industry's epicenter.

"Chimbote used to be a beautiful area for fisherman," she recalled. "Imagine a white sandy beach, blue seas and wetlands. Then in less than five years in the 1960s 42 factories sprung up and the population exploded from 4,000 to 40,000."

Today Chimbote has 300,000 residents and is the third largest and third most polluted city in Peru.

The growth was unplanned. Factories were built next to homes and schools. And, she says, the place smelled. In Chimbote there is a saying, "where it stinks there is money" meaning for this town that economic growth and pollution go hand in hand.

Maria Elena Foronda Farro, the daughter of a union organizer, was educated outside Peru, but moved back to Chimbote in the mid-1980s to do volunteer social work. She was appalled by living conditions in the shanty towns near the factories and the effect of pollution on the impoverished people of Chimbote.

"Think about it," she said, "being exposed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to these contaminating gases. The people here suffer from allergies, skin diseases, and respiratory diseases like asthma and other pulmonary problems." And, in 1991 she said, "the unsanitary conditions set the stage for the worst modern outbreak of cholera."

The factory emissions and waste have also seriously degraded the coastal ecosystem and marine environment.

"The sea is so murky that the sun's rays can not penetrate the waters," she said. "Photosynthesis can not take place. There is hardly any ocean life in this zone. Fishermen used to fish here, but now they have to take their small boats 14 or 16 hours off shore. So we are talking about a health problem and an economic problem."

Maria Elena Foronda Farro says the situation was desperate when she began a grassroots campaign to bring the issues to the attention of the local and national government.

She founded Natura, a conservation group, and helped neighborhoods organize through local "Citizen Environmental Vigilance Committees" to investigate, monitor and negotiate with fishmeal companies to curb their toxic pollution.

But the road to change has not been easy. In 1994, Ms. Foronda Farro was accused of connections with a terrorist group the Shining Path and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"I was falsely accused," she said, "and later cleared by the Supreme Court in Peru, which ordered my release after 13 months."

She says her imprisonment attracted support from international environmental and human rights groups. It also reinforced her commitment to raise health and pollution standards and to forge new alliances locally, nationally and internationally.

"We have gotten the Chimbote local government to incorporate environmental concerns into its 15-year strategic development plan," she said. "And on a regional and national level, we are working with industry to promote sustainable fishing practices."

Eight of the 26 fishmeal companies in Chimbote have implemented clean technology practices in their plants. And the schools have environmental clubs for students.

Chimbote is slowly changing. "Environmental protection," she said, "is recognized as a basic human right. But the most important thing is that the people believe in what they do. And, this work has given our people back their dignity and self esteem. The Goldman Prize is not just about me, Maria Elena Foronda. Our success is because of thousands of others throughout Latin America who are working to create a more habitable planet ruled by social justice."