Honoring those who would risk their lives for the environment

Katie Hsia-Kiung

Speaking from experience, environmental activism in the U.S. can be frustrating. In some cases, it can end in the death of an important bill. In other countries, however, environmental activism can end in the death of those trying to effect positive social change. It is easy to take for granted our right in the U.S. to fight for the environment, but it is a freedom that others around the world do not yet have.

The obstacles that the environmental movement faces in these less fortunate countries were front and center at the Goldman Environmental Awards ceremony, which honors grassroots environmental heroes, many who take great personal risks to protect our planet. I had the privilege of attending the event last week – along with over three thousand people. Six environmentalists representing each of the inhabited continents of the world were honored for their remarkable achievements in making historic progress in their communities, from shutting down a toxic waste dump in South Africa to halting the construction of a large-scale dam in Peru.

The author with prize recipient Rudi Putra.

When Ramesh Agrawal’s name was announced, he was slowly accompanied up to the podium by a man on one side and a cane on the other. After almost two years, Ramesh is still recovering from being shot twice in the groin and thigh.

According to police, the men responsible for the attack had ties to the steel company whose coal mine project Ramesh had helped to defeat. Despite fierce opposition mounted by the coal industry, Ramesh was able to harness the internet to inform his fellow villagers of their right to oppose the environmental violations being committed in their community. As a result of his work, the National Green Tribunal revoked the permits for the mine. Although his assailants have yet to be prosecuted, Ramesh continues his work to help disenfranchised communities assert their rights as property owners.

Another recipient, Desmond D’Sa from South Africa, suffered a similar attack when his home was firebombed and much of his property was destroyed. Desmond’s impactful advocacy and community organizing resulted in the permanent closure of a toxic waste site located in South Durban, home to predominately low-income and working-class people who were forcibly pushed to that area by the apartheid government. Despite this attack, Desmond continues to work tirelessly to grant the right of clean air and water to disadvantaged populations who suffer from extreme air pollution.

The awards ceremony was certainly eye-opening, and made me appreciate living in a country where people can fight for what they believe in without fear, and where the Supreme Court recently upheld a rule that will reduce air pollution for 240 million Americans. It also left me with a sense of hope. Despite menacing obstacles, there are people around the world who are doing remarkable work to preserve and protect our environment. I’m hopeful these awards will inspire more people to do the same.

As Ramesh said, “Every man has a responsibility to his society and his country. As human beings, we must preserve our natural resources and protect the environment.”

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