When the Pentagon announced plans to incinerate stockpiles of chemical weapons near his home more than 20 years ago, Craig Williams fought back.
The Vietnam War veteran successfully lobbied to halt the planned incinerator near Berea, Ky., and has since helped build a nationwide coalition to demand safety and openness in the storage and disposal of chemical weapons.
Williams, 58, is one of six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the most prestigious award for environmentalists. The winners, selected from six regions of the world, are to receive $125,000 each at a ceremony Monday evening in San Francisco.
“We’re trying to protect these communities from our own weapons of mass destruction,” said Williams, a cabinetmaker who now heads the Chemical Weapons Working Group. “We didn’t have to go to Iraq to find these things. They’re right here.”
Established in 1990 by the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation, the annual prize has been awarded to 113 environmental activists from 67 countries. Winners are nominated by environmental organizations and individuals worldwide.
This year’s recipients show how environmentalism is changing, said Lorrae Rominger, the foundation’s deputy director.
“The environmental movement and the prize winners are becoming more sophisticated,” Rominger said. “It’s not just about protesting anymore. It’s about creating new laws or working with governments so they uphold the laws that are already on the books.”
This year’s other winners:
- Anne Kajir, 32, an attorney in Papua New Guinea, used the law to challenge powerful timber interests and protect her country’s tropical forests and the rights of indigenous people living there. She uncovered evidence of government corruption and complicity in allowing illegal logging.
- Olya Melen, a 26-year-old attorney in Lviv, Ukraine, sued the Ukrainian government to halt construction of a canal in the Danube Delta, one of the world’s most biologically diverse wetlands, covering more than 1 million acres on the Black Sea coast. “I really hope this prize will help attract more attention to ... the issue of canal construction and the Danube Delta’s fragile environment,” Melen said.
- Silas Siakor, 36, of Monrovia, Liberia, dug up evidence that former President Charles Taylor used money from illegal timber harvests to finance a 14-year civil war blamed for 150,000 deaths. He submitted documentation of unlawful logging and human rights abuses to the United Nations Security Council, which then banned timber exports from Liberia. Taylor was arrested in Nigeria last month and charged with war crimes.
- Tarcisio Feitosa Da Silva, 35, of Altamira, Brazil, spent more than 10 years fighting to protect tropical forests and communities in the Brazilian Amazon. He also helped expose illegal logging and human rights violations, prompting the government to protect about 150,000 square miles of tropical forest. “This is the moment to show the world the threats that the forest and the people who live in it are under,” said Feitosa. “But there are going to be a lot more people who are going to be angry at the work we’re doing.”
- Yu Xiaogang, 55, of Kunming, China, designed a pioneering watershed management program that lessened the environmental and social effects of a dam at Lashi Lake in southwest China. He brought together residents, entrepreneurs and government officials to rebuild the area in way that protected the wetlands ecosystem and fishermen’s livelihoods.
Protecting ‘our way of life’
Philanthropist Richard Goldman started the annual prize with his late wife, Rhoda. He said the award, which is granted with no strings attached, helps the activists gain respect and credibility with their governments and gives visibility to their causes.
Goldman said he’s encouraged that 16 years after the first prizes were handed out, environmental protection has become a bigger priority for governments worldwide.
“People are paying more attention to the environment,” Goldman said. “Our way of life is being threatened by this issue more than anything else.”