Azzam Alwash of Iraq in the marshes he helped restore. (Goldman Environmental Prize)
The Goldman Environmental Prize is often called the “Green Nobel”. This year’s winners include activists from Italy, Indonesia and Colombia who made a difference in their communities. Host Steve Curwood talks with Azzam Alwash about restoring Iraq's marshes, with South African Jonathan Deal who fought to limit fracking there, and with Chicago's Kimberly Wasserman who helped shut down coal-fired powerplants.
CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Since 1990, every year around Earth Day the Goldman Environmental Prize winners are announced. There's one prizewinner from each of the six inhabited continents and each receives $150,000. Past winners include Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, and all the winners are cited for their grassroots activism.
This year’s winners range from Italian zero waste activist Rossini Ercolini to Indonesian forest defender Aleta Baun to Colombian recycler Nohra Padilla. And there are three more we'll speak with in our broadcast, starting with Azzam Alwash of Iraq, who returned to his native land after 25 years in America to fight for the restoration of Mesopotamian marshlands.
ALWASH: The marshes of Southern Iraq are a magical world. They are a wetland, a waterworld, in the middle of a parched, flat desert. My memories of that place are very warm in my heart. It is a place where I went around with my father in a boat as a young boy. To my mind's eye, reeds towered above the boat, covered the sky. The water was clear, the fish darting away from the boats, and every now and then we come to a clearing, and the breeze hits your face and cools you down. You contrast that to the Iraq I came back to 25 years after I left. Death and destruction replaced this verdant place, this Eden. Where there were reeds before, there were now tumbleweeds. Where there was water, there's salt-encrusted desert. Where there was clear blue skies, it became dust-colored yellowish sky.
CURWOOD: And as I understand it, Saddam Hussein drained thousands of square kilometers of these wetlands both to punish the people who lived there and also to make it tougher for rebels who were operating from there. Do I have that right?
ALWASH: Indeed. The marshes of southern Iraq are our Sherwood Forest. For eternity, the marsh Arabs went into the marshes and hid from the Sheriff of Baghdad at any given time. It's a place where the army cannot pursue you, where you know the neighborhood better than anyone else, and where you can live off nature without the need for outside resources. And so in '91, following the liberation of Kuwait, the Iraqi people went into rebellion. Saddam Hussein was afraid the rebels would be used by the west to undermine his regime. And at a time when Iraq was not allowed to sell a single drop of oil, the entire GDP of the nation went into this massive incredible project that ended up in the drying of the marshes, depriving the marshes of their source of life, of the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
CURWOOD: This sounds like a massive project that Saddam Hussein did, and, therefore, a massive project to undo. How did you go about restoring these marshlands? And where did the money come from to move all that earth?
ALWASH: Ah, well nature moves water. You see, all you have to do is dig a small ditch, maybe a foot wide, to the water level. And you know what, as soon as the water starts flowing, it starts washing the earth away, and the force of nature widens the breach from a one foot breach to ten feet to 20 feet depending how much water there is. Within six months of water coming back to certain places where conditions are just right, reeds begin growing, and with the water comes fish from upstream, and water buffalo comes back and the people start coming back. Now, you all have to understand the marsh Arabs are not tree huggers like me or you. They are restoring the marshes because it is a way of life. It's a place where they can make a living out of. It's about the economy. It's not about the environment. It's a place where sustainable development and sustainable living has been practiced for thousands of years before we even knew this way of life by those terms.
CURWOOD: As I understand it, there's a proposed dam in Turkey, the Ilisu Dam along the Tigris, that...well...wouldn't it cut the amount of water that these marshlands now get down to a trickle again?
ALWASH: Well, commensurate with the drying of the marshes, Turkey began not only building the Ilisu Dam, but a series of huge dams, about 33 major dams that are holding the water of the Tigris and Euphrates away from the marshes. And in fact, these dams have changed the biodiversity of the marshes. The floodwater that comes in the spring as the snows of the mountain of Kurdistan start melting creates these marshes and drives the biodiversity of the marshes. These floods come in just as the reeds are returning from winter hibernation, just as the birds are migrating, just as the fish is spawning. But more importantly, these floods renewed the life of agriculture land and the grasslands around the perimeter around the marshes. And these floods, essentially made agriculture sustainable in Iraq for 7,000, 8,000 years because there's a new layer of silt and clay that gets deposited every year from these floods. And one of the negative impacts of dams is the change of the hydrological cycle of rivers.
So, forevermore, or at least while the dams exist, the biodiversity of the marshes is going to change. We are changing from a flood system to a more brackish system. And I keep on telling the Iraqi officials that I'm not worried about the future of the marshes. Reeds can live in brackish water, rice can't. And if the Iraqi government doesn't do anything to address the issue of flood irrigation not only in Iraq, but in Turkey and Syria then agriculture will die in the land where it was born.
CURWOOD: Azzam Alwash of Iraq. He's one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. And now we turn to Kimberly Wasserman, who won for her community organizing that led to the shutdown of two coal fired power plants within the city limits of Chicago. Let me start by asking, how did you learn about the health effects of coal plants on people who live near them?
WASSERMAN: I heard about it first through the door-to-door organizing I did as a community organizer with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. I had just had my first-born son and I was taking him with me to go door-to-door and talk with our neighbors. Over the course of the first couple of weeks we really started to see a lot of families who had children with asthma or adults with asthma or seniors who were being impacted by bronchitis and other respiratory issues. And then about two months into my work, my son had an asthma attack and in taking him to the emergency room and talking with the doctor, we learned that asthma isn't actually inherited, it's based on the environment that you lived in.
So that was really the ammunition for myself to continue to go door-to-door and really try to find out, was there really a sole source for the air quality issues in our neighborhood. And over the course about a year, we came across the coal power plant, a plant that looked very unassuming. It gave off white smoke that a lot of our young people had called “the cloud factory” and when we started to understand what the process for converting coal into electricity was and started to understand there was a lot of contamination coming out of the smoke stacks, we realized we really believed this might be the source of a lot of our problems.
CURWOOD: Now, as I gather, your neighborhood, the Little Village, is largely people of Mexican descent with a number of folks who don't have the appropriate paperwork to be in the United States. I imagine they were nervous about all this organizing and attention you were bringing to the neighborhood.
WASSERMAN: Most definitely. As the Mexican mid-west capital, definitely immigration, language and income played a lot into how people participated, but I think our leadership development really hit to that because we wanted our community members to know regardless of language, regardless of immigration status, you have a fundamental right to clean air, clean land, and clean water.
We may not speak English, but we pay our taxes. We pay them every time we buy something in the store. We pay them every time we pay a mortgage on our house. And we are contributing to this society and our community. And really just empowering our community to know that this is about their rights. Reminding our politicians that we don't owe you anything, you owe us. Politicians work for us, we don't work for them. And if we can't change the way their doing things, we'll vote in a person who will.
CURWOOD: Now take me back to a point where you had some researchers come in and document just how deadly these plants were for your community, and what the reaction was to the numbers that they came up with.
WASSERMAN: About two years after we started going door-to-door, the Harvard School of Public Health released a report on the coal power plants in Illinois. When we got our hands on it and we saw, in fact, what we believed was true, that 41 people a year died in our community because of the coal power plants, over 3,000 asthma attacks a year, and over 1,500 emergency room visits a year, that was the ammunition our community needed to go to our politicians and say, “How can you sell our community out for profit? How can you sacrifice us for the sake of industry? Where did we go wrong as a community? Where did we go wrong as a nation?”
And unfortunately the reality was that 41 people dying a year did not move our politicians. They looked at it as, well, for the sake of jobs, we'll keep killing your people in your community. And it really took the education of not just our community, but all the communities in Chicago to understand that the air pollution did not stop at the boundaries of our community. It impacted us all, and we all had to hold these folks accountable.
CURWOOD: Those numbers are astonishing. I mean, if these plants were there for 40 years, and killed about 40 people a year, that's like 1,600 people died.
WASSERMAN: Exactly. And actually they were there for about 60 years. So we're looking at about 3,000 people.
CURWOOD: What happened to those power plants? And how has your neighborhood changed as a result of your work?
WASSERMAN: As of leap day of last year, the coal power plant announced that they would be shutting down. And in September of 2012, they did. The air quality has greatly improved. We are right now working on collecting a lot of the data to understand how have the asthma rates locally been impacted? But we do know by looking at other cities – when Atlanta hosted the Olympics, the local emergency rooms actually saw an eight percent drop because the highways were shut down in downtown Atlanta to accommodate the Olympics. And so if you can have an eight percent drop just by shutting down the local highways, we can only imagine what the impact would be by shutting down two of the dirtiest coal power plants in Chicago.
CURWOOD: As part of our Earth Day coverage we are speaking with some of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. That was Kimberly Wasserman of Chicago. And now we go to Jonathan Deal of South Africa. He took on Shell Oil and its plans to frack for gas in South Africa’s wild and scenic dry lands known as the Karoo.
DEAL: The Karoo is a rural area, quite sparsely populated. To give people a parallel, in the United States, it looks something like Wyoming. It's a very arid area with a beautiful and rich diversity of succulents. And one of the unique things about it is that everybody that lives in it, wherever they come from and whatever their culture or creed is, has some type of historical connection with the Karoo. Their families either come from there or they've got some memory of the Karoo, and my personal love affair with the environment, it started when I wrote and published a book in 2007 called Timeless Karoo.
CURWOOD: Tell me, what exactly have you been able to accomplish in terms of blocking the fracking in South Africa there?
DEAL: At the very least, even if it were to go ahead, we would have a very stringent set of rules and conditions, and a much more delayed and measured start to the technology than what you have seen in the United States. It has put our government into a position where they could negotiate with a company like Shell to get far more benefits for the country from any sort of revenues if it ever went ahead.
CURWOOD: You have a national moratorium on it at this point.
DEAL: The moratorium was lifted in September the 8th of last year. The Minister of Environment, who is a fairly arrogant lady, almost gave the impression that the licenses for exploration would be issued in a week or two. And here we are in April the next year. I believe it is the result of the number of formal letters we have written to the government promising them that if they issue exploration licenses under these circumstances, we will see them in court.
CURWOOD: Jonathan, what can Americans who oppose fracking in this country learn from your efforts?
DEAL: It's a two-way street. What we can learn together is to harness the power of the media. I want to leave America with the guts of a global coalition starting. And whether I'm busy in a small town in the Northern Cape of South Africa called Williston, or we're talking about an activist busy with the town of Williston in North Dakota, we need to be able to speak to a local representative and say you might think that this issue is local and you're going to getting away with sweeping it under the carpet, but I'm promising you that we're going to take it global.
CURWOOD: Now, something that's true for all of you is getting everyone on board. How hard or how easy was that for each of you? I mean, Kimberly, you had to convince folks who were undocumented to speak up. Assam, you live in a very dangerous part of the world. Of course, Jonathan, Karoo is a vast place with not a lot of people.
DEAL: Steve, it's very difficult to get people to respond to something unless they feel an immediate threat, because essentially you're asking them to sacrifice time or money, resources that are very scarce to a lot of people. Essentially, the way I had to pitch it was to tell them that we're working on the future. This is not for us, it's for future generations of unborn Africans. The effects of what's going to happen is going to come home to roost in future generations.
ALWASH: In the case of the marsh Arabs or Iraq in general, the most difficult task was to convince people that democracy works. That if you actually organize, and make sure your voice reaches decision-makers, change will come. The Iraqis that I met in 2003 had grown up under 50 years of authoritarian regimes where decisions come from the top and everybody executes without question. Then you tell them that ten of you can come up to Baghdad to tell decision-makers about the desires of the community, and the difficulty was, the first time they went, there was no action. The second time they went, there was no action. And to keep on preaching to them that in the end it will work, that was the difficult task. But now, they actually organize trips on their own. It's beautiful. They're learning the skills needed to survive in a democratic Iraq.
CURWOOD: Now it's clear your hard work paid off for all of you, but there must have been times during the process when you wanted to give up. Where were those and how did you get past those low points?
ALWASH: Yes. When your daughter calls you crying because you missed a birthday, when your wife calls you because there's a bill that she didn't know how to deal with. Yes, it's tough. There are times when you question your sanity, and what is it that you're doing. But the job is not done, and you can't leave it midway.
WASSERMAN: I think the hardest part is when you fail. When you try to have something happen, be it an ordinance or law or moratorium, or you try something that doesn't work, you can very easily decide that, “You know what, I have nothing left in me and I have nothing else to give.” But I think the hard part is getting up and wiping yourself off and standing up and saying, “You know what, I'm going to learn whatever lesson it is that I'm supposed to learn from this and I'm going to stand back up again and I'm going to keep moving forward and try to find that mustard to keep moving on. I think knowing that as much as we sacrifice with our families and as much as we sacrifice with our community, that they're looking to us to do the right thing and to keep moving forward.
CURWOOD: You've spent a number of hours, days now, with the other prize winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. What have you learned from meeting each other?
WASSERMAN: I think I've learned that the answer is right here in front of us. And it comes from every corner of the world. The reality is that our solutions are in our voice and in our communities and we just need to keep fighting them forward.
DEAL: I've learned that there are battles around the world that many of us are not even aware of. I've met three women – the prize recipients – Kimberly, Nohra and Aleta – and the two ladies – one from Indonesia and the other one from Colombia are absolutely the bravest women I have ever met.
ALWASH: Here, here.
DEAL: For me to stand up against a giant like Shell in a well functioning democracy like South Africa is one thing. For them to take on corporate and government interests in countries like Colombia and Indonesia takes real guts.
ALWASH: I'm looking at every one of us. And my conclusion is that we're all stubborn. We do not give up. And that's what it takes I think.
CURWOOD: Azzam Alwash is an Iraqi. Jonathan Deal's a South African. Kimberly Wasserman is from the south side of Chicago. They are three of this year's six Goldman Environmental Prize winners. Thanks to all of you.
GUESTS: Thank you.
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