Prize for activist who fought for lush corner of Puerto Rico

2016-04-18 21:02
Puerto Rican parrot. (Ricardo Arduengo, AP)

Puerto Rican parrot. (Ricardo Arduengo, AP)

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San Juan - An environmental planner from Puerto Rico who fought to protect 1 200ha of coastal land that has long lured developers to the US territory is one of six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize.

Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera joins activists from Peru, Tanzania, Cambodia, Slovakia and Baltimore, Maryland in receiving the prestigious, $175 000 award issued by the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation to honour grass-roots activism around the world.

Rivera told The Associated Press that Puerto Rico more than ever needs to protect its natural resources, given the island's dire economic crisis and a growing push to develop pristine areas for more revenue.

"We're killing the hen of the golden eggs that our tourism depends on," he said. "The crisis we have right now because of our fiscal situation does not compare with what's coming because of climate change."

Rivera campaigned for more than a decade to protect an area known as the Northeast Ecological corridor on Puerto Rico's northeastern tip. The 18 km long area is a nesting site for the federally endangered leatherback turtle and has more than 861 types of flora and fauna, including 50 rare, endemic or threatened species.

Rivera got to know the area as a surfer in his teenage years, drawn by the same waves that help push the 900kg leatherback turtles onto pristine beaches where they build hundreds of nests a year.

The area also attracted developers who in recent years sought to build two large hotels, four golf courses and 4,000 luxury homes. In 2009, Governor Luis Fortuno revoked protection for the area, saying he favoured development to generate jobs and revenue. Current Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an order in 2013 restoring protection.

Other winners include Leng Ouch of Cambodia, who went undercover to document illegal logging of trees in a country where environmental activism can be deadly. His work prompted the government to cancel land concessions representing 89 000ha of forest.

Edward Loure, member of a Maasai tribe, led a group that successfully pushed to allow communities, instead of individuals, obtain land titles. This move has allowed communities to protect more than 81 000ha of rangeland in northern Tanzania, where safari and hunting industries have displaced hunter-gatherer communities.

The Goldman Prize also was awarded to two women who fought against pollution: US high school student Destiny Watford founded a rights group in South Baltimore that helped defeat construction of what would have been the largest incinerator in the US in the already heavily polluted area of Curtis Bay. And Slovakian public interest attorney Zuzana Caputova rallied residents and petitioned the European Parliament to reject a second dump site in the vineyard town of Pezinok, where officials believe toxic waste has caused a series of serious illnesses.

Also honoured was Maxima Acuna, an illiterate, subsistence farmer from Peru who fought to keep her land from being turned over to a US and Peruvian mining company that sought to drain four lakes in a push to expand one of the largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the world as part of a $4.8 billion project.

Military personnel were accused of destroying her home and beating Acuna and her daughter unconscious.

She told the AP that her family sought to prove that "humble people and farmers are able to fight for our rights and prevail." However, the legal fight over the property is still ongoing.


Read more on:    us  |  puerto rico  |  environment

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