May 9, 2008

Sublime Courage

By Javier Sierra

What motivates the angels among us? What drives them into defending the rest of us against the worst injustices? Where do they get that sublime courage that elevates us all?

These are some of the questions I asked four of these angels, the Latin American winners of the 2008 Goldman Prize, widely considered the Nobel Prize for environmentalism. And their answers have been as motivating as the drive that leads them to risk even their lives.

“There is no doubt our sacrifice cannot even be compared to the sacrifices of the thousands of victims of Texaco’s pollution. They suffer daily because of illnesses, because of death and because of so many other tragedies.”

Those are the words of Luis Yanza, an Ecuadorian attorney, who, along with Pablo Fajardo, is litigating the legal challenge triggered by one of history’s worst ecological catastrophes.

Texaco, a corporation now owned by Chevron, from 1964 to 1990, allegedly spilled some 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of formation water, an oil extraction byproduct, in the Ecuadorian Amazon with devastating consequences.

“We can assure you that more than 80 percent of both surface and underground water is polluted with hydrocarbons from the Texaco oil exploitation,” says Yanza.

This has translated into a slow death for the 30,000 inhabitants of the devastated area. Cases of respiratory diseases and birth defects have skyrocketed. The incidence of cancer is seven times higher than that for the rest of Ecuador.

And what’s Chevron-Texaco’s response? They are washing their hands, arguing that their pollution is not responsible for the catastrophe. The suit, which has brought both Yanza and Fajardo several death threats, could be resolved this year in the Ecuadorian courts.

Meantime, Fajardo serves notice that he’s not giving up: “In this battle, I have understood that working for a clean environment today is working toward peace for humanity tomorrow - facing the future. That is what I intend to do.”

And that’s what Rosa Hilda Ramos has done; turn her community, Cataño, the most polluted town in Puerto Rico, into a healthy place for the enjoyment of its 35,000 inhabitants.

By the early 1990’s, the many industries operating there, especially the oil-fired power plants, had turned the air into an unbreathable concoction.

“The intensity of pollution terrified me. I used to walk down the streets and see many sick people sharing the same respirator. I could not abandon them, and we started this battle,” remembers Ramos, who at the time had just lost both her parents to cancer.

The battle started by convincing the residents —who were suffering Puerto Rico’s worst incidence of cancer and respiratory illnesses— that strength is in numbers. She founded Communities United against Contamination (CUCCo), organized public hearings and reported the mighty Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

After more than a decade of tireless struggle, Ramos claimed victory when the EPA found PREPA guilty of violating the clean air laws and fined it $7 million. Because of Ramos’s insistence, part of that money was dedicated to buying land from private interests in the Las Cucharillas marshland, the only green space in the community.

“It was a hard battle, but it was worth it. We have completely cleaned up Cataño’s air. All industries have either reformed or left,” says Ramos with deserved pride.

The ecological nightmare that faced Jesús León Santos, on the other hand, is called erosion. In the early 1980’s, Oaxaca, the Mexican state where León grew up, suffered one of the world’s worst erosion rates. Eighty-three percent of its soil had been stripped bare.

“We had to restore our land. The shortage of water and wood for cooking was just terrible,” remembers León, who, after organizing the campesino communities, oversaw the planting of one million native trees and the construction of hundreds of miles of anti-erosion barriers to retain rainwater.

The result is the astounding recovery of hundreds of thousands of acres that allow Santos and his fellow campesinos to follow sustainable farming practices and to honorably provide for their families and avoid massive migration.

“My partners and I have achieved something valuable that not even government programs have been able to accomplish,” proudly concludes Santos.

The pride and the courage these four Hispanic heroes inspire is the best prize for those of us who applaud them.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit

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