Goldman Awards Given
To Risk-Takers On Six Continents

by Dee Rossman
Issue #22, Summer 1996 

It is only a few steps down from Fifth Avenue to the urban oasis of the Wildlife Center in New York's Central Park, but it is a world away from the struggles of six environmental heroes honored here today. This year's Goldman Environmental Prize winners are grass-roots organizers from six inhabited continents and each of their lives illustrates the courage and tenacity of people with a passion. 
From the success of marine biologist Bill Ballentine in establishing reserves in the waters off New Zealand as unexploitable "no take" zones, to the sole reporter addressing environmental issues in Uganda, journalist Amooti Mdyakira, who personally helped thwart the smuggling of endangered chimpanzees and African Great Grey parrots from his country, each environmentalist has faced frustration, monumental obstacles, and even life-threatening opposition. 
Edwin Bustillos has survived three attempts on his life over the past two years as he struggled to preserve the biologically diverse ecosystem of the Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental. His opposition comes from drug traffickers, who operate a flourishing trade in the isolated Sierras. In spite of the danger, Bustillo has founded a human rights and environmental organization called the Advisory Council of the Sierra Madre in order to create a 5,000,000 acre biosphere reserve. Aimed at protecting not only endangered animal species and more varieties of pine than anywhere else in the world, the reserve will become home to the four different human cultures native to the Sierra Madre for over 2,000 years. A remote community surrounded by old growth forest has been officially declared the first indigenous community reserve of the region. 
Campaigning against the nuclear power industry has brought charges of "obstructionist" to Albena Simeonova, Bulgarian pioneer for a cleaner environment. A teacher and organizer, she is director of the Foundation for Ecological Education and Training (FEET) which brings the message about pollution to ordinary people. Her novel initiative to create "Ecological Inspectorates" at the local level has successfully empowered citizens to report environmental problems to independent professionals who respond swiftly to the problems. Despite ill health, Simeonova organized the first public debate between opponents and proponents of nuclear power, and has successfully persuaded Bulgarian environmental groups to band together as the "Green Parliament." 
Meanwhile in India, lawyer M.C. Mehta was drawn into a public interest role that has resulted in 40 landmark environmental judgments and numerous Supreme Court orders since 1984, making him perhaps the most successful environmental litigator in the world. He was introduced to environmentalism when challenged to do something to stop the destruction by air pollution of the marble on the Taj Mahal. When industrial pollution fouled the sacred Ganges River so severely that it caught fire, Mehta became a believer and has dedicated his career to bringing environmental protection into India's constitutional framework. He has successfully established that courts can require compensation in environmental suits and has proven that individuals have the right to a clean and healthy environment. Mehta's success reaches beyond Indian borders to inspire lawyers around the world to take up the environmental cause. 
Senator Marina Silva was not born to the wealth, privilege, or political position typical of a member in the Brazilian federal senate. Born in the heart of the Amazon, she spent her childhood making rubber, hunting and fishing to help her large family survive. Although poor and illiterate, she traveled to the city because of ill health where she not only succeeded in getting an education; she went on to earn a college degree in record time. In the early 1980's she returned to the state of Acre and joined Chico Mendes in the "empates" - peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber tappers against deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional land holdings. The assassination of Mendes in 1988 did not defeat the movement. Instead it served to strengthen the will of the people and to empower Silva to push for creation of extractive reserves. In 1994 she became the first rubber-tapper ever elected to Brazil's federal senate. As a populist senator, Silva has skillfully built support for environmental protection of the reserves. 
The Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded by the private foundation of Richard N. Goldman and his late wife Rhoda H. Goldman, who died unexpectedly in February of this year. The Goldman Prizes have been awarded annually since 1990, making the $75,000 'no-strings-attached' prizes to six individuals the world's largest awards to grass-roots environmentalists. 

Writer Dee Rossman covers stories for EarthLight on the East Coast. 

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