April 17, 2016
By: Kurtis Alexander
From California’s redwood groves to the jungles of the Amazon, the push to stop deforestation has become a global fight for the health of the planet. But few places have posed the kind of danger that environmentalist Leng Ouch encountered in the rain forests of Cambodia.
The son of a pedicab driver in the country’s rural south, Ouch went on to work undercover as a timber dealer, taxi driver and tourist in order to expose the mass logging that devastated his homeland — destruction sponsored by a government that sought to punish Ouch and his family for outing the pillage.
“Two soldiers came to my house to do something to me. But luckily I wasn’t there,” Ouch said. “They want me to stop speaking about the corruption in the government.”
Ouch, 42, has continued to speak out. For his fearlessness, he is one of six recipients of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award recognizing grassroots activism. The prize was established in 1989 by the late San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman and his wife, Rhoda.
This year’s winners include a a Slovakian attorney who battled to keep her nation from becoming Europe’s dumping ground for trash, a Puerto Rican man who fought to save a pristine stretch of coastline on his native island, and a Baltimore woman trying to keep a potentially harmful trash incinerator out of her neighborhood.
“This is recognition and understanding of our struggle,” said Destiny Watford, the Baltimore activist who stood up for her community. “It shows that the work that we’re doing matters.”
The recipients will be honored Monday night with $175,000 prizes at a ceremony at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
Ouch, who arrived in the city Tuesday, is credited with drawing attention to the Cambodian government’s role in clear-cutting forests and, in many cases, getting officials to stop.
Deforestation in places like Southeast Asia is not only prompting the loss of habitat for millions of species, it’s also driving climate change as less greenhouse gas is absorbed by trees. Although deforestation worldwide has declined in recent years, it remains a problem.
Cambodia’s rate of tree loss is the fifth fastest in the world, according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
The logging there, Ouch explained, has been fueled by a government program that leases out land in the name of agriculture. What really happens, he said, is that corporations step in to clear the trees and sell the wood to China. An estimated 300,000 rural residents have been displaced in the process.
Despite a childhood marked by extreme poverty, Ouch’s memories of the destruction motivated him to attend law school and later found the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force.
The organization has since documented government-sponsored logging through videos and photographs, which spurred protests in Cambodia and helped turn public sentiment against the nation’s land-leasing program.
“Ouch’s work has put him at immense personal risk,” the Goldman Environmental Foundation wrote in a statement on this year’s prizewinners. “Today, Ouch lives in hiding following numerous threats to him and his family. Despite this danger, he continues fighting rampant government corruption to save the Cambodian forest for future generations.”
Ouch’s efforts led to the cancellation of 50,000 acres of leases inside the Virachey National Park, home to sun bears, otters and dholes, a wild canine, according to the foundation.
“I’m very, very scared, but I have to continue my work,” Ouch said. “I want the world to know.”
Other recipients of Goldman prize
Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, 43
Herrera is recognized for his work preserving a wild stretch of coastline on the Atlantic tip of Puerto Rico.
The environmental scientist used his legal know-how and grassroots organizing to build community and legislative opposition to two proposed seaside resorts, according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation. His effort is credited with saving the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a 3,000-acre swath of coastline between Luquillo and Fajardo that is home to a host of wildlife, including the massive leatherback sea turtle.
Destiny Watford, 20
Watford is honored for her four-year fight to stop a potentially hazardous trash incinerator from being built in her native south Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay.
After residents failed to convince policymakers that the project would spew toxic heavy metals and pose a health risk, Watford and her classmates lobbied the businesses and organizations that had agreed to buy power from the planned incinerator, according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
“We were just high school students. We didn’t know what action we should take,” Watford said, noting that their activism took a distinctive form. “We were musicians, poets and writers. We wrote poems, sang songs and wrote speeches.”
The group successfully convinced 18 of 22 organizations to rethink their agreements, cutting needed revenue for the project. While plans for the incinerator haven’t been officially canceled, the plant hasn’t moved forward and now risks having its permits nullified for missing construction deadlines.
Máxima Acuña, 47
Acuña’s environmental success was stopping a potentially hazardous mine from being built in a Peru’s remote northern highlands.
The subsistence farmer and unlikely activist was thrust to the fore of a national debate about whether Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corp. owned a large swath of land in the Andes, including Acuña’s property. Acuña pursued a lengthy legal battle to hold onto her plot, which kept the mining from moving forward — at least for the time being.
According to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, Acuña has been relentlessly harassed and even beaten by local officials who work in cahoots with the mining company. Her fortitude has kept the region’s freshwater from being tainted by mining contaminants.
Edward Loure, 44
Loure, a native of Tanzania’s Maasai community, is credited with preventing the government from stripping land from the country’s indigenous people.
As director of the nonprofit Ujamaa Community Resource Team, Loure spent a decade documenting the land rights of native communities. He secured more than 200,000 acres of land for the Maasai and Hadzabe people, according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation. Part of his negotiation was making sure the native residents would be good stewards of the land, which is home to wildebeests, gazelles and rhinoceroses.
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