A Rwandan who fought to save mountain gorillas amidst his country’s genocidal wars, a Bolivian worker who won the world’s first major victory in the struggle over privatising public water and two American journalists who risked their careers to expose the dangers of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), are among winners of the 12th annual Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded on 23April in San Francisco.

The award, given in six geographical categories to eight people this year, includes prize money totalling $750,000 and allows winners to continue their work and expand public awareness of what are often “life-and-death environmental crises”. It is the world’s largest award for environmental activists and winners are selected by an international panel of more than 20 environmental organisations and individuals from nearly 50 nations.

Africa’s winner is conservationist Eugene Rutagarama who risked his life to save Rwanda’s last 355 mountain gorillas. He was forced to flee Rwanda during the massacres of the 1990s, during which most of his family was killed, but returned as soon as possible to rebuild the national park system and protect the gorilla habitat from human encroachment as the government resettled millions of refugees.

South and Central America’s winner is a Bolivian labour leader, Oscar Olivera who became an advocate for universal rights to affordable, clean water. In 1999, the Bolivian government reacted to pressure from international financial institutions by selling the public water system of one of its largest cities to a US corporation, which “immediately raised water rates to the point where many families were paying up to a third of their income for water”. Finding this intolerable, he led a coalition that took to the streets in the tens of thousands to bring the city to a halt for days, eventually leading to negotiations that forced the government to cancel the sale.

North America’s winners are TV journalists Jane Akre and Steve Wilson who researched the potential health risks of rBGH, the genetically modified hormone injected into US dairy cows to stimulate milk production and among the first genetically modified products approved by the government, but banned in Europe and Japan. Their revelations resulted in the journalists losing their jobs.

Europe’s winners are Greek biologists Myrsini Malakou and Giorgos Catsadorakis who led the charge to create a wetlands conservation area located in remote northwestern Greece. The prizewinners had worked for years researching, organizing, and advocating sustainable farming and economic activities to restore the area, which paid off last year when Albania, Macedonia, and Greece jointly created the first trans-boundary protected area in the Balkans.

Asia’s winner is Yosepha Alomang, an indigenous woman of Irian Jaya in Indonesia who has organised resistance to the world’s largest gold mining operation set in virgin rainforests. She was detained, placed in confinement, and tortured for her efforts, but continues with her activism.

The winner from the island nations is Bruno Van Peteghem from the French Pacific island of New Caledonia, who is working against mining interests to protect a coral reef from destruction and is leading a campaign to place the reef on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“The world is getting smaller, and the need is growing for everyone to take responsibility for keeping our planet healthy,” said Richard N. Goldman, founder of the Goldman Environmental Prize. “The winners this year illustrate how the environment is affected by wars, international business, economic policies, and the tendency to put short-term gains ahead of long term solutions. They also illustrate how the courage and commitment of a single visionary individual can make a difference for generations to come.”

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