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Grassroots Activists Receive Goldman Environmental Prize

Desmond D'Sa addresses a meeting of fisherman in Chatsworth, Durban, South Africa. (Goldman Environmental Prize)
Desmond D'Sa addresses a meeting of fisherman in Chatsworth, Durban, South Africa. (Goldman Environmental Prize)
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From VOA Learning English, this is Science in the News.

I’m Anna Matteo.

And I’m Christopher Cruise.

Today on the program, we tell about the winners of a major environmental prize. We also tell about the first amendment of China’s environmental protection law since 1989. And we report on a new international agreement to protect the world’s oceans.

Activists Claim Goldman Environmental Prize

Six environment activists recently received the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize is presented every year. The $175,000 award recognizes people who have struggled against opposition to protect the world.

One of the six winners is Desmond D’Sa of South Africa. He grew up in Durban and worked in a chemical factory. Gas and oil processing centers, paper mills and chemical factories surrounded his poor, working class neighborhood. Half the 300,000 people who live there have asthma -- a disease affecting their lungs. And, many suffer from cancer.

An industrial explosion led Desmond D’Sa to organize opposition to expansion of a toxic landfill near his neighborhood. Harmful wastes were left in the area.

Mr. D’Sa describes the effort he organized.

“We have health workshops. We take bucket samples to ensure they know what’s causing all the illnesses. And so we (have) developed the knowledge base. We have agitated. We have lobbied. We were able for the first time in the history of this country to get the industry bosses to be held accountable for the(ir) actions.”

The landfill was forced to close. The award winner is now fighting plans to expand the port of Durban. The expansion would increase pollution, and displace thousands of people without paying for their land. He is working on this campaign even after threats to his life and property.

“But we’ve shown that as a united force, you can stop environmental racism. And we’ve shown communities that there needs to be a new way of doing business.”

Biologist Rudi Putra of Indonesia is the Goldman Prize winner representing island nations. The majority of the world’s palm oil grows in those countries. The oil is used in everything from cookies, chocolate and baby food to beauty and soap products.

Palm oil plantations, or farms, are replacing the forests in Sumatra. That Indonesian island rates among the planet’s richest in differing ecosystems -- a community of organisms and their environment. He has succeeded in getting village chiefs, local officials and the police to join him on his personal campaign. But he says there is much more to do.

“Recently, we started an international petition against damage to the ecosystem, and we got over 1.4 million signatures worldwide, which were submitted to the Indonesian government to cancel their plans to develop the rainforest here. We are determined to win this battle, too.”

Scientist Suren Gazaryan from Russia represents Europe in the 2014 Goldman Awards. He organized a blockade to stop plans by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to build a home in protected forest land near the Black Sea. President Vladimir Putin had removed the area’s guarantee of legal protection to let work on the project continue.

“We started a social media campaign against the project that recruited 10,000 people. This showed the public that the very people responsible for creating these laws were the first to violate them.”

Suren Gazaryan won that battle. He returned to the Black Sea to fight the building of a summer house for President Putin in a protected old-growth forest. The scientist was falsely accused of threatening security guards, and fled to avoid prison. Today he continues his environmental work in Estonia.

“Looking forward, my main goal is to continue to try to change people’s consciousness so that they better-understand that nature isn’t something we can just sell off and get rich on. We have to preserve these places for future generations.”

Other Goldman prize winners include Ramesh Agrawal from India. He began a successful campaign to stop a huge coal mining project in an area already affected by pollution. He launched the campaign from his small Internet café’.

Ruth Buendia from Peru is another winner. She caused suspension of a work on a dam. The dam would have displaced thousands of native people.

Finally, American lawyer Helen Slottje used her legal knowledge and skills to defend many towns set for gas-drilling operations.

The Goldman Environmental Prize is in its 25th year. Over time, it has been awarded to 163 activists from 82 countries.

China Amends Environmental Law to Fight Pollution Problems

China’s parliament has passed a measure that observers say will help the country fight pollution. The new law increases the actions that environmental organizations may take against polluters. The law also identifies geographical “red lines” -- areas that require special protection. And it gives Chinese officials more power to punish offenders.
Smoking chimneys near residential buildings in Tianjin, China. Air pollution sometimes covers parts of the country at dangerous levels.
Smoking chimneys near residential buildings in Tianjin, China. Air pollution sometimes covers parts of the country at dangerous levels.

Experts say the law will help force government officials and businesses to work for stronger protection of the environment. This marks the first time China’s environmental protection law has been amended since 1989.

Lawmaker Xin Chunying says the amendment will have an important effect on the future of China’s environmental protection efforts.

“The revision of the environmental law is a heavy blow (in the fight against) our country’s harsh environmental realities…”

China’s growing economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But the country has suffered heavy environmental damage from its fast development. Many Chinese are dissatisfied with high levels of air, water and soil pollution.

The government has said that China places importance on the environment. But for many years, local governments have been judged only on their economic performance.

Xu Nan is deputy editor of China Dialogue, a website that watches environmental issues.

“A prominent change in this revision is that the administration of the environment has been given a legal framework. Some of the concerns included in the law were already somewhat in practice, but now we have a legal framework. This means that in China now there is a stronger and more official system of duty.”

The amendment gives environmental agencies legal power to seize offending polluters and demand severe punishment. It states that citizens have the right to collect information about the environment.

Two years passed before China’s parliament was able to approve the measure. Lawmakers rejected three earlier versions, a mark of the fierce battle of interests behind the law. Class action cases against polluters were one major issue.

The amendment has extended the right to act in environmental cases. Chinese media say now more than 300 organizations can take legal action to represent those harmed by pollution.

On paper, the changes satisfy a number of demands that have been growing among China’s civil society. Still, observers say they will watch carefully how the new rules are enacted.

Xu Nan says this is true for any kind of new legislation in China. She says just gaining official legal guidance is a good step.

Conference Promises to Save the Oceans

Experts on the health of oceans recently called for action to fight climate change, overfishing, habitat loss and pollution. The experts met in The Hague at a conference with a very long name: the Global Oceans Action Summit for Blue Growth and Food Security.
Corals and fish are seen at Australia's Great Barrier Reef (file photo).
Corals and fish are seen at Australia's Great Barrier Reef (file photo).

The Netherlands served as host country for the summit. The Netherlands united with summit organizers and two international agencies to announce a joint effort on ocean health. The two are: the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Bank.

Valerie Hickey works for the World Bank. She says the conference brought together over 600 people to discuss how best to support what she called “broad-based blue growth food security.”

“This was about making sure that we can invest in the oceans in a way that alleviates poverty, that shares broad prosperity, while turning down the heat.”

Ms. Hickey is the World Bank’s sector manager for agriculture and environmental services. She says general agreement was possible at the ocean summit, unlike many meetings on climate change.

She says summit delegates did not negotiate over the wording of a final statement. Instead, she says, the summit was a chance for more than 80 officials to promise, in her words, “real action in real time.”

Ms. Hickey said it was not necessary for people to speak only from government positions. She said the delegates agreed on a three-part plan to protect the oceans. She said the first part would be to set up partnerships.

“We need to bring in the private sector. We need to increase our investments in small- and medium-size enterprises. Because at the end of the day, it’s local communities, it’s family fishers, it’s small-scale fishers who are going to drive broad-based blue growth in the ocean space.”

She says the delegates also talked about the need to speed up action to make sure they can end illegal, ungoverned and unreported fishing.

The third part of the plan, she says, calls for financing from new places and new partners to support blue growth programs. Ms. Hickey says she is sure that these suggestions will move from promises to action.

“Absolutely, I can say personally that we, as the World Bank, are committed to following up on the actions that we promised to do after the summit. It includes helping countries to undertake natural capital accounting of their ocean resources so they can begin to realize real returns from their ocean assets in a sustainable way.”

Netherlands Agriculture Minister Sharon Dijksma served as chairperson of the summit. She praised the world community for showing a desire to move forward and act on ocean health and food security.

This Science in the News was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was based on stories from VOA reporters Joe De Capua, Rosanna Skirble and Rebecca Valli.

I’m Anna Matteo.

And I’m Christopher Cruise.

Join us again next week for more news about science on the Voice of America.

Grassroots Activists Receive Goldman Environmental Prize

Grassroots Activists Receive Goldman Environmental Prize

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