Rudolf Amenga-Etego fought a water privatization project in Ghana. Manana Kochladze campaigned to protect the environment and residents in her native country of Georgia from a major oil pipeline.
They are two of the seven activists honored Monday in San Francisco with the Goldman Environmental Prize, the best-known award for environmentalists.
Awards are given to activists in six regions — Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and South/Central America — and each recipient receives $125,000.
Other winners include two Indian labor leaders seeking justice for an industrial disaster that killed more than 20,000 people, and Margie Richard, a woman who waged a campaign against a chemical plant spewing toxic fumes in Norco, La.
Experts say this year’s winners illustrate the strength of the global environmental movement. Often facing powerful foes, community activists are forcing corporations and governments to reconsider how their activities affect communities and the environment.
“You’re seeing some shifts in how industries proceed,” said Barbara Rose Johnston, a researcher with the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz. “If they have an ugly record of human rights and environmental abuse, it’s going to be difficult to do business in the future.”
Over the past decade, the Internet and other new technologies have given environmentalists tools to publicize their campaigns and link up with other activists around the world.
“It’s more difficult for (corporations) to hide,” said Stephen Mills, the Sierra Club’s director of international programs. “It’s easier for us to embarrass them publicly and inform their shareholders.”
An increasingly global network of environmentalists is pressuring corporations that moved their most polluting operations to developing countries.
“International solidarity is very important for creating pressure on institutions like the World Bank and IMF,” said Amenga-Etego, winner of the Africa award. “We are able to reach activists in these Western countries and we are able to get results.”
The battle has grown more frustrating for Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, the Goldman winners for Asia. They have spent years trying to hold Dow Chemical accountable for a 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 20,000 people and injured more than 150,000.
“The forces that we have to fight against are too powerful,” Bee said. “There is no effective law enforcing agency to hold large multinationals accountable.”
Dow Chemical, Union Carbide’s parent company, denies the claims of the Indian activists. Spokesman John Musser said Dow believes the case was resolved in 1989, when Union Carbide paid $470 million in a settlement with the Indian government.
Richard Goldman, whose foundation created the environmental prize in 1990, said the awards help activists gain credibility in their home countries and often bring protection from repressive regimes.
This year’s recipients said winning a Goldman prize not only helped to publicize their cause but strengthened their resolve.
“In a poor, obscure country, you think nobody’s listening, nobody’s watching,” said Amenga-Etego. “And you wake up one morning and you are told you’ve been recognized. It’s very encouraging. It has given us new hope.”
Additional background on the winners and the prize is online at www.goldmanprize.org.