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Eco-prize winners shared vision: Protect home

When Orri Vigfusson saw wild salmon populations plummet in the frigid waters off Iceland, the former banker and vodka entrepreneur decided to use his business skills to save what he considers "the most spectacular creature on Earth."
Hammerskjoeld Simwinga, Ts. Munkhbayar, Willie Corduff, Orri Vigfusson, Sophia Rabliauskas, Julio Palacios
Recipients of the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize are, from left: Ts. Munkhbayar of Mongolia, Julio Palacios of Peru, Sophia Rabliauskas of Canada, Willie Corduff of Ireland, Hammerskjoeld Simwinga of Zambia, and Orri Vigfusson of Iceland.Eric Risberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A self-educated yak herdsman from Mongolia and a retired vodka producer in Iceland might not seem to have a lot in common but take a closer look: they're among the six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award of its kind in the world.

Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, the herdsman, was selected for forcing the closure of destructive mining operations along a river in the landlocked country.

The winners, selected from six regions of the world, were announced in San Francisco on Monday. Each receives a prize of $125,000.

Munkhbayar created the Onggi River Movement, which helped convince the Mongolian government to tighten and better enforce mining regulations, leading to the revival of once dried-up lakes and rivers.

"I spent my childhood by the banks of the Onggi River and I think of myself as one with the river," Munkhbayar said.

At first his appeals to the government were ignored, then he organized protest marches.

His group also appealed to candidates during a 2004 national election, who after they won helped form a parliamentary lobby group for the protection of the Onggi River.

"Munkhbayar was chosen because of the huge impact he has had on the issue of responsible mining and water protection in Mongolia," said Richard Goldman, the founder of the prize.

"Not only has he worked with governmental leaders in crafting appropriate legislation, but he has also made it a point to continue educating the public about their water resources," Goldman said.

Mongolia, landlocked between China and Russia, is largely poor. The country has opened up its mining industry to overseas investment, but environmental concerns have at times been lost in the country's rush from communism to capitalism as well as a move away from traditional herding lifestyles.

Munkhbayar said one of his goals was to educate the public — the Alaska-size country has 2.8 million people, a third of them nomadic herders — about the environment and their rights.

He said the next step is for the government to pass a law listing the places where mining is banned.

'Green capitalism'
Orri Vigfusson, the former vodka entrepreneur and banker, saw wild salmon populations plummet in the frigid waters off Iceland and decided to use his business skills to save what he considers "the most spectacular creature on Earth."

In 1989, the Iceland native founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, which has raised $35 million to buy fishing rights from commercial fishermen in England, France, Greenland, Iceland and Norway. By paying fishermen not to fish, the fund estimates more than 5 million salmon have been spared.

"Fish stocks everywhere are in decline," said Vigfusson, 64, of Reykjavik. "Through green capitalism, we can restore those stocks effectively — and yet very inexpensively — and make sure everybody benefits."

The Goldman prize has been awarded to 119 people from 70 countries since philanthropist Richard Goldman and his late wife Rhoda created it in 1990. The winners, announced around Earth Day each year, are nominated confidentially by environmental groups and individuals worldwide.

This year's other prize recipients:

  • Hammerskjoeld Simwinga, 45, of Mpika, Zambia, helped curb widespread poaching of elephants and other wildlife in the North Luangwa Valley by creating new economic opportunities for poor villagers who had few options outside the illegal ivory and bush meat trade. Since he joined the North Luangwa Conservation Project in 1994, wildlife populations have rebounded, leading to a surge in tourism and new jobs. "People are now seeing the benefit of protecting their natural resources," Simwinga said. "Not only do they see the beauty of a live animal, but the live animals are now putting money in their pockets."
  • Julio Cusurichi Palacios, 36, of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, helped create a 3,000-square-mile reserve in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon to protect "uncontacted" indigenous tribes and rain forest ecosystems from illegal logging. Working with environmental groups, the Shipibo indigenous leader is suing the U.S. government to block illegally harvested mahogany from entering the United States.
  • Sophia Rabliauskas, 47, of Manitoba, Canada, worked to secure protection for 2 million acres of boreal forest on the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg, the traditional territory of her tribe, the Poplar River First Nation. The region's forests are threatened by industrial logging, mining and hydropower development.
  • Willie Corduff, 53, of Rossport, Ireland, mobilized his small farming village to stop Shell Oil from building a gas pipeline that would cross the land of more than two dozen farmers. Worried about the health and environmental impacts, Corduff and his neighbors launched a campaign to stop the project and even spent three months in jail for blocking access to their property. Their campaign paid off — a court recently ordered Shell to redesign the project. Corduff said he had never heard of the Goldman Prize before winning it and still does not know what he will do with the $125,000 award. "I didn't know there was anybody watching us or taking notice," Corduff said. "I don't consider myself an environmentalist. I just thought this area has to be protected. I have to protect home and my community."