Apr 18 2012

Activist Beat on the Goldman Environmental Prize

Activist BeatThe Activist Beat with Rose Aguilar, host of Your Call on KALW in San Francisco is a weekly roundup of progressive activism that the mainstream media ignores, undercovers, or misrepresents.

On Monday night, six grassroots environmental activists received the Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco. In addition to the international recognition these activists deserve, they also got $150,000 each to continue their important work.

When 31-year-old Ikal Angelei heard about the construction of a dam in East Africa’s Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, she knew she had to stop it and save her people and culture. Lake Turkana provides a vital life stream for the desert region of Kenya, especially for traditional nomads and hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishermen who live around it.

Ikal formed the Friends of Lake Turkana movement and met with members of the community to hear their concerns. Village chief Esther Mana told Ikal, “If our government is unable to come to some agreement and stop the dam, then there is no point. We will be better off if the government will dig a grave for us and as soon as that dam begins, we can all walk into that grave.”

The community got together and pressured the Kenyan Parliament and the World Bank to halt the $60 billion dam project. Their efforts were successful. “The feeling just can’t be explained. This is one hurdle, but it’s been so exciting,” said Ikal.

Ma Jun received an award for the work he’s done to raise awareness about pollution and water contamination in China.

Up to 80 percent of China’s urban residents are exposed to badly polluted air and more than half all rivers are seriously contaminated. Every year, 12 million tons of food products are contaminated with heavy metals.

Ma Jun began his career as a journalist in Southern China. He was inspired to write a book about China’s water crisis. Because the problem is so enormous, he founded the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs to get the public involved and mobilized, and it’s not easy to be an activist in China.

The organization’s website provides a list of multinationals sourcing from China, including General Electric, Nike, and Wal-Mart. Ma Jun says most have responded. The major brand that doesn’t disclose its supply chain is Apple. Even when Apple was being accused of major pollution issues, it refused to respond. It took outreach, outrage, and public pressure before Apple finally agreed to get involved. They’re now pressuring 15 factories to clean up their supply chain. It would take an organization to work full-time just to make sure those factories are complying.

Ma Jun says this is a tiny drop of water in the ocean, so “we have a long way to go.”

Evgenia Chirikova won an award for standing up to corruption in Russia and working to save the Khimki forest, which is comprised of 2,500 acres of federally protected parkland in a northern suburb of Moscow. It’s known as the “green lungs of Moscow.”

She was shocked to learn that the forest would soon be destroyed because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin revoked the federal protections to build the Moscow/St. Petersburg highway. French construction giant Vinse became the lead in the $8 billion project.

Evgenia said her community knew that money would go into the pockets of Putin and his cronies and they had to fight that corruption.

Without any experience in organizing, Evgenia left her engineering practice and formed the group, Defend Himkee Forest. When they started clear cutting without permits, the activists took their actions and protests into the forest and created a camp to stop the construction. They threw themselves in front of bulldozers suffering beatings and arrests.

In response, 5,000 people took to the streets of Moscow, where they gathered over 50,000 signatures. It was one of the largest environmental protests in Russian history. The Russian government decided to halt construction of the road. It was a sweet moment for the activists because admission of injustice rarely happens in Russia.

Six months later, construction resumed. That environmental movement eventually morphed into a larger movement calling for political reform. ‘We all live in Himkee forest’ is now their rallying cry. Evgenia says, “common people must come together to defend their rights and we must never give up.”

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