01.06.2012 Environment

Grassroots Hope

Grassroots environmentalists, winners of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, bring hope to their communities. Story by Adrian Glamorgan

Here are six remarkable, brave people to take into your hearts. Their lives may seem tough, because they are, but the world they strive for is a world we most likely would want for each other. Travel with me to six parts of the planet and witness their courage.

In 1999, in faraway Ituzaingó, central Argentina, Sofia Gatica gave birth to a girl who lived for three days until her kidneys failed. This tragedy was not rare, for as Sofia Gatica knocked door to door, it seemed there was something wrong in every house, whether it be cancer, malformed babies, or sickness. She wrote to the Minister of Health, but to no avail. So Gatica got together with "sixteen mothers" in her district and started campaigning.

The main suspect was something to do with the soy fields. Argentina, after all, is the third biggest producer of soy in the world, assisted by Monsanto and other companies to take up genetically modified food monoculture, replacing local farms, dairies and orchards. Fifty million acres of soy are being sprayed with Roundup Ready - over half the country's cultivated land area. That's a lot of weedkiller: five million gallons every year. Gatica wanted it stopped. Police and local business were hostile. Anonymous phonecallers threatened the lives of her children. An intruder held a revolver to her head and told her to stop messing with the soy. She would not be intimidated.

Gatica held press conferences, campaigned, demonstrated, working with the Sixteen Mothers to spread the word: Stop Spraying. In 2008, the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez, ordered an investigation into the impact of pesticide use. This study revealed the town of Ituzaingó had cancer rates 41 times the national average. It was found glysophate, found in Roundup, caused abnormalities in animal foetuses. Local government banned spraying closer than 2.5km, and an Argentinian Supreme Court ruling banned agrochemical spraying near populated areas, also reversing the burden of proof onto companies like Monsanto and soy producers to show that the chemicals are safe. Gatica wants to ban glysphate nationally, as well as endosulfan, a highly acute toxin found in other pesticides and now in the water supply.

On the north coast of Alaska live the indigenous Iñupiat, the "real people" of the Bering Straits, still relying on subsistence hunting and fishing, including traditional whaling. Thinning ice from global warming is one worry, but leases for offshore drilling for oil and gas mean there are further catastrophic risks to their unique habitat: an oil spill in autumn, as the waters are freezing, would mean a nine month wait before a disaster could be stemmed, making BP's Gulf of Mexico spill seem small by comparison.

Iñupiat leader Caroline Cannon was raised by her Point Hope village elders to care for the environment, so Cannon became co-plaintiff in challenging the federal 2007-2012 offshore oil and gas development plan. In 2009, the federal court ruled in her favour in all but one lease, noting that the impact on the marine environment had not been adequately studied. But Shell Oil has acquired leasing rights in the Chukchi for $2.1 billion in 2008, and has convinced the federal government that its spill-responses are sufficient. However, they have failed to convince Cannon.

The World Bank points to 16 of China's cities being in the top 20 of the world's most polluted. While working for the South China Morning Post investigative journalist Ma Jun became aware of air quality issues as well as the huge water crisis. Ma founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs to monitor pollution and data about levels of enforcement, making this available online to the public through air and water pollution maps of China. Given up to 80% of urban Chinese are exposed to badly polluted air, more than half the water resources are seriously contaminated, and there are serious rates of heavy metal contamination of food, Ma believes only a participative approach in China is going to work. He is also prepared to encourage "Green Choice" by consumers to help influence corporate social responsibility. When Apple did not respond to a 2010 Green IT report about heavy metal pollution, he facilitated "Poison Apple" protests about the lack of supervision of contractors, subcontractors and supply chain. For example, Ma was concerned about 110,000 tonnes of untreatable chromium waste a year being produced by Apple. After 18 months' silence, Apple began its dialogue with Chinese environmental groups and took initiatives to clean up suppliers' practices. In mid-April 2012, Apple agreed to a jointly monitored audit with Ma's IPE of pollution controls at a supplier's factory in China, a breakthrough. Despite success with hundreds of companies, Ma knows the problem is still huge.

Recently, Evgenia Chirikova witnessed vote tampering that has helped return Vladimir Putin to the presidency in Russia, but her concern about corruption in politics began in 2007. Walking in the 2500 acres of protected parkland in northern Moscow, her beloved Khimki Forest, Chirikova and her second daughter came across red marks on trees, which she learned meant tagging them for removal. It was land that should have been protected, but the government had decided to build a highway, and that was that - Putin was outside the law. Chirikova gave up engineering and formed the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest, organising some of the biggest protests in Russian history. Follow the money, as journalists say. Chirikova did this, successfully persuading European banks to give up their pivotal funding of the highway. Chirikova learned that the project was as corrupt as it was pointless, that it appeared an overseas partner was being used to transfer taxpayers' money into offshore accounts, including those of close friends of Putin.

Pushback against protestors was vicious. Her friend journalist Mikhail Beketov, who had exposed this corruption, was assaulted and beaten so badly he could no longer walk or talk. He lost three fingers and a leg. Sergei Magnitsky exposed government official fraud; he was arrested, and tortured to death in custody. Days after providing the president with 11 alternative routes for the road cutting through Khimki Forest, Chirikova had child protection officials turn up at her home claiming she was neglecting and beating her children, threatening to take her children away. Chirikova made this threat public. "Ordinary citizens are our only hope," Chirikova has been quoted as saying, and despite the danger, she has stayed, promoting Gandhian nonviolent protest. As Leader of the Eko-oborona (Eco-Defence) social movement, she is in for the long haul.

Edwin Gariguez, or "Father Edu" belongs to that group of Filipino Catholic priests who carry his faith's gospel to the poor. When a Norwegian mining company Intex Resources wanted to dig an open pit nickel mine on Mindoro, using acid leaching and generating several million tonnes of toxic waste into the four major rivers of the island, Father Edu co-founded the Alliance Against Mining in order to ensure any such mining safeguarded the environment, protected indigenous communities' rights and fairly distributed profits. There were threats from mining officials and the military, and an activist colleague was murdered. Ultimately, Father Edu went to Norway to address parliamentarians and Intex shareholders. An 11 day hunger strike in 2009 led to The Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources investigating the mine's environmental and social violations. Intex's permit was indefinitely revoked, and not long after Intex's CEO resigned.

Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift Valley is the world's largest permanent desert lake, and its National Parks are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from its arid natural beauty, the area is rich with fossils of humanity's ancestors. At the northern end of the lake, in Ethiopia, there has been a 'dam boom'. The Ethiopian government plans to dam the lake's predominant source, the Omo River. The Gibe III Hydroelectric dam would be Africa's largest hydropower station, but it would also lower the river, deplete fish stocks, end the floods which the Kara and Nyangatom tribes need to grow their crops, and decrease potability. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the lake for their life, and with their life under threat, there are concerns about violence to come. Back in 2006 when she first learned of the project, Ikal Angelei felt outraged at the lack of community consultation, which led to her founding Friends of Lake Turkana. Angelei worked with indigenous elders, chiefs and decision makers to focus attention. Last year, the Kenyan Parliament unanimously demanded an independent environmental assessment from Ethipia, and UNESCO's World Heritage Committee has also called for a halt. Angelei lobbied key multilateral banks to withdraw financing.

Now you have met these six remarkable people, recipients of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize that honours grassroots environmentalists. They are beacons of hope who might bring a tear to your eye, as they did to me. Send them your best thoughts, kindness, or prayers if that is your way. Honour what they do in their place by doing what you can in yours.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism