April 19, 2009 / 11:44 AM / 11 years ago

Six global campaigners win "environmental Nobels"

* Six campaigners win environmental world’s "Nobels"

* African winner says mine threatened best rainforests

* U.S. coal mine activist receives death threats

By Peter Griffiths

LONDON, April 19 (Reuters) - From the rainforests of Africa to the mountain-top coal mines of West Virginia, six campaigners who have fought governments and industry to protect the planet won prestigious Goldman Environmental Prizes on Sunday.

The awards, often referred to as the Nobel Prizes of the environmental world, went to activists in six continents who took on everything from toxic chemical dumps in the former Soviet Union to ship-breaking in Asia.

Previous winners of the award, established in 1990 by two U.S. philanthropists, include the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 after leading protests against oil companies in Nigeria.

This year’s African winner is Marc Ona Essangui, who campaigned against plans by a Chinese state-owned company to open an iron ore mine in the rainforests of Gabon, west Africa.

Ona, who uses a wheelchair due to childhood polio, has been repeatedly threatened, and arrested and evicted from his home.

"Threats shouldn’t prevent you from carrying on your fight," he told Reuters by phone from Gabon. "It could destroy the most beautiful forests in central Africa."

His campaign helped lead to a review of the project, which is currently on hold, the prize’s organisers said.


The North America winner was Maria Gunnoe, a former waitress who campaigns against the environmental impact of mountain-top coal-mining in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia.

The method involves blasting the tops of mountains, removing the coal and pushing the rubble into valleys. Critics say it pollutes land, destroys streams and causes flooding.

In an area where coal is the backbone of the economy, Gunnoe has divided the community and received death threats.

"There’s a lot of people here who support what I do. But there’s others who drive in here every day for their jobs, and given a choice, they would run over me in a heartbeat," she said in a message on her website.

In Europe, the prize went to Olga Speranskaya, a Russian scientist whose Moscow-based campaign group Eco-Accord aims to rid former Soviet republics of old toxic chemicals once used in agriculture or industry.

"They are among the most toxic and dangerous substances and cause birth defects ... and even cancer," she told Reuters.

The other winners, who receive their $150,000 prizes at a ceremony in San Francisco on Monday, are:

* Asia: Rizwana Hasan, from Bangladesh, who has raised public awareness of the dangers of ship-breaking.

* South & Central America: Hugo Jabini and Wanze Eduards, from Suriname, who organised local people to campaign against logging on their land.

* Islands: Yuyun Ismawati, who campaigned for better waste management in Indonesia. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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