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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Goldman Environmental Prize Goes to Chinese Dissident

Air Date: Week of

Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports on this years winners of the Goldman Environmental prizes. Among the recipients of what's been called the "Nobel Prize for the Environment" are a Chinese dissident who was sent to jail for opposing plans to build a giant dam on the Yangtze river.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

If you were a grassroots environmental activist, how would you like to get $60,000 - no strings attached - as a thank-you for your work? That's exactly what the Goldman Environmental prize has meant for more than two dozen people over the last four years. The Goldman prize is the world's largest award honoring eco-activism. Recently in San Francisco, this year's winners were announced. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED has our story.

BAYHA: The Goldman Environmental Prize is often referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment. That's not a moniker that sponsors Richard and Rhoda Goldman came up with themselves, but they say they're honored by the comparison. The $60,000 annual prizes are awarded with no strings attached to six grass-roots environmental activists around the globe, one from each of the inhabited continents. In its four years, the Goldman Prize has won praise from numerous world leaders, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Cuba's Fidel Castro. But Richard Goldman says international recognition is just one goal of awarding the prize.

GOLDMAN: Actually, we use the prize as a means of reaching an end which is much broader than just recognition of the people who win the prize. And if the prize winning is a catalyst to a better understanding and support of the environment for future generations, that is really what we're shooting for.

BAYHA: The Goldman Prize is notable for honoring activists who mix their environmental work with a healthy dose of politics. It's not unusual for prize winners to have spent time in jail, had their writing censored, or their homes raided by police. This year's crop of winners is no exception. Australian John Sinclair's 22-year campaign to protect the world's largest sand island off the coast of Queensland embroiled him in a costly legal battle with the conservative state government. Juan Meyer Maldonado of Colombia faced death threats as a result of his efforts to preserve the world's highest coastal mountain, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. And Chinese journalist Dai Jing was thrown in jail after writing a book opposing plans for the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River. Dai Jing says she was surprised to win an honor for environmental heroism.

DAI JING: I don't consider myself an environmental hero. I'm a journalist, fighting for limited freedom of expression in my country.

BAYHA: Dai Jing's book, Yangtze, Yangtze, initiated China's first public environmental debate in 1988. The compilation of essays dealt with the threat the Three Gorges Dam megaproject poses to an area of natural beauty and environmental riches that Dai Jing describes as China's Grand Canyon. The book, which she spent her own money to publish, was eventually banned, and Dai Jing lost her job as a journalist at Beijing's daily newspaper. But her efforts are widely credited for influencing the Chinese government's decision to postpone the Three Gorges Dam project for at least five years. Dai Jing says China's environmental movement is young, and is overshadowed by the country's push for development and industrialization.

DAI JING: As a writer, as a journalist, it's very hard to convince people against the lure of money and development. It's almost easier to have people stand against a dictatorship than to commerce.

BAYHA: Dai Jing plans to use her Goldman award to establish China's first independent environmental organization. She says the $60,000 prize will keep the organization, called Environmental Watch, going for three years. And she says she isn't bothered by the keen interest she expects from governmental officials.

DAI JING: I'm already used to government pressure. Working in environmental protection may prove to be easier than other pressures.

BAYHA: Dai Jing hopes her efforts will continue to influence the Chinese government on key environmental issues, a sentiment echoed by Richard Goldman, who says many of the prize winners over the years have won significant policy battles as a result of their work.

GOLDMAN: There's so many things that can come from this. For example, we have also written to heads of state and we've had endorsements received from 81 countries. The work of the grass-roots heroes can be multiplied into national policies.

BAYHA: The other winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize are Svet Zeblin of Russia, one of the founders of Russia's grass-roots environmental movement; Joann Tall, a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota who's fought to protect native lands from mining and commercial exploitation; and Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsen of Namibia, for their efforts to stop rhino and elephant poaching. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.



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