Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Power of the Individual

Cross posted from ACE Blog

Six individuals one from each continent (two from Suriname this year), are selected annually to receive the Goldman Prize, a prestigious, international award for excellence in environmental activism. And once a year, thousands of people from all around the world descend upon San Francisco to recognize these fierce and effective environmental activists. The ACE team was lucky enough to attend this event last night, and also meet with environmentally-minded youth from around the Bay Area and beyond.

As we exited BART and headed toward the city center, it became immediately clear that this was no ordinary Monday. Thousands of excited-looking people made their way through the muggy heat and into the Opera House. Up in the balcony, we were amazed to see over five hundred enthusiastic youth settling in for an evening of powerful storytelling, beginning with an in-person hello from Al Gore and Robert Redford.

The winning activists have worked tirelessly over the years, and against incredible odds. Their lives have been threatened, and they have been subject to a great deal of hardship. But the results they have achieved for their communities, and for future generations, are simply enormous.

The night began with the story of the winner from North America, Maria Gunnoe. While Gunnoe wasn’t born an “environmental activist,” she was quick to realize the environmental injustices in her community due to coal mining. She hails from Boone County, West Virginia - the heart of coal country. A 1,200-acre mountaintop removal mine began on the ridge above her home. Here's what "mountaintop removal" looks like. Mountain tops are literally blown off. And today, her house sits directly below a 10-story valley fill that contains two toxic ponds of mine waste comprised of run-off from the mine. Check out her video for the full story on this heartbreaking environmental damage.

Maria Gunnoe decided enough was enough. She began organizing against coal mining and the powerful corporate interests that threaten her community’s relationship to the land. She provided grassroots trainings and has encouraged residents to speak out during hearings on mountaintop removal. In 2007, she helped win a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. The lawsuit repealed mountaintop removal valley fill permits in southern West Virginia granted without environmental consideration, and banned new permits. She also worked to stop the valley fill projects right above her home, ones the lawsuit did not prevent.

Here's why Maria Gunnoe does what she does, in her own words: “The people of Appalachia have sacrificed everything including their lives for energy in America. We must put a stop to mountaintop removal coal mining and transition to renewable energy to allow us our homeland security and to preserve our rightful place and culture in the mountains.”

Coal miners and corporate interests harass Gunnoe regularly as a result of her work. But she is not giving in, and is now working to help pass the Clean Water Restoration Act.

Other winners included Marc Ona Essangui of Gabon, Rizwana Hasan of Bangladesh, Olga Speranskaya of Moscow, Yuyun Ismawati of Indonesia, and Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini of Suriname. Their stories are just as powerful as Maria Gunnoe's, and their actions weave together a fabric of global environmental stewardship.

The stories of the Goldman Prize winners put our work here at ACE into perspective. While the winners may be older, the message of their work transcends any boundaries of age, geography, race, gender, and so on: individuals can have an enormous impact.

And this central message is what ACE is all about.

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