Goldman Environmental Prize winners named

April 17, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Six environmental activists have been named as recipients of this year's Goldman Prize. The awards, given out by the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, are considered among the most prestigious in the world.

This year's winners ranged from an advocate for garbage collectors in Colombia, to hydraulic engineer in Iraq, to a school teacher from Tuscany.

For grade school teacher Rossano Ercolini, educating people in Tuscany about zero waste began with teaching his own students how to recycle almost everything in their trash.

"They told me, 'You are a wizard,'" said Ercolini.

But soon, that education campaign soon expanded into a regional fight, to block the construction of massive incinerators in the paper producing region. Ercolini says the fight helped establish zero waste recycling as a viable economic alternative in the minds of the Italian public.

According to Ercolini, "Zero waste is not only speaking about waste, it's speaking about people, of jobs, environment, economy. In several ways, we are the future."

In Bogota, Colombia, securing the future of recycling meant securing economic rights for a virtual army of freelance trash collectors, known locally as the waste pickers. Nohra Padilla took on the struggle to secure a pay scale and legal status for the mostly poor recyclers.

"Informal recyclers had been there since before the commercial companies had been there," she says.

For two other winners, it was the future of energy that drew them into environmental campaigns. Kimberly Wasserman organized neighborhoods in the Chicago area to shut down two of the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants in the country.

"They were simply an industry that was sacrificing our community for the sake of making money, and that's just not right," Wasserman argues.

While half a world away in South Africa, Jonathon Deal took on Royal Dutch Shell over plans to introduce the controversial high-pressure drilling technique known as fracking. The target area was a fragile desert habitat known as the Karoo, home to a startling variety of wildlife.

Deal says, "Shell greatly underestimated the spirit of the South African people and their connection to the Karoo."

In the mountains of Timor, in Indonesia, the connection of the people to the forests proved equally as strong. Aleta Baun, known as "Moma Aleta," organized hundreds of local villagers to occupy marble mines that were triggering de-forestation and landslides.

"The Timor people are named after soil, water stone and trees," she says. "For us the destruction of the forest would mean losing part of our identity."

The dream of restoring a lost identity was strong enough to draw Azzam Alwash back to post war Iraq to revive its devastated southern marshes, which were ordered drained and burned by former leader Saddam Hussein. They are home to a group known as the Marsh Arabs, whose history stretches back for thousands of years.

"The Marsh Arabs are our link to the beginning of civilization. What happened in these marshes, writing was invented, agriculture was invented, Abraham was born. This is not Iraqi heritage, this is world heritage," says Alwash.

The Goldman Prize is the largest award for environmental activism. Each individual will receive $150,000.


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