San Francisco, CA -- The best day of the year for me is always the day the Goldman Environmental Prize winners come to San Francisco. However beleaguered I am feeling, hearing the stories of these incredible activists from around the world--about their bravery, aspirations and achievements--always makes me feel fortunate and blessed.
This year was no exception. The Sierra Club has worked with the U.S. winner, Craig Williams, chosen for his leadership in forcing the Army to safely detoxify, rather than dangerously incinerate, our stocks of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Arsenal in his hometown of Berea, Kentucky. Ross Vincent, a Sierra Club activist who led the similar and successful effort in Pueblo, Colorado, has been part of the Chemical Weapons Working Group with Williams. Yet, while we succeeded in Pueblo and Berea, the Army proceeded with incineration in Anniston, Alabama, and Tooele, Utah. Like so many environmental victories, this one was bittersweet.
The most startling lesson for me at this year's Goldman ceremony came from African winner Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor. His struggle against illegal logging in Liberia's tropical forests played a significant role, it turns out, in toppling the despotic regime of President Charles Taylor, who used the proceeds from illegal logging to keep himself in power. And in the Ukraine, winner Olya Melen also found that her fight to protect the Danube Delta was deeply enmeshed in the politics of that nation's Orange Revolution.
It's a stunning fact: Of this year's winners, a record three received their prizes for uncovering and combating illegal logging in tropical forests. These people have put their lives on the line to halt this logging. What has the U.S. government done? Well, it tried to shut down Greenpeace for exposing the importation of illegally harvested timber. And then it expressed great smugness that it was spending "up to" $17 million a year on protecting the Congo Basin.
So while we lift our cups to celebrate the heroism of the Goldman Prize winners, we also must remind ourselves that without more vigilance and action on our part, the United States will continue to let down the rest of the world.