THE BLOG
05/01/2014 03:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

"Buy Them, Sue Them, Wipe Them Out"

The narrative arc of the 25th annual Goldman Environmental Prize begins in the North Caucasus, where Suren Gazaryan, a caver turned bat biologist turned environmental activist, joined the Environment Watch on North Caucasus in their campaign to block former Russian President Medvedev from building a lavish palace in a protected national preserve. Medvedev backed down. The Urish Nature Preserve was given high strongest possible protections under Russian law.

But when Medvedev's predecessor/ successor, Vladimir Putin, appropriated public lands in another preserve for a palace of his own, Environment Watch's protests had an uglier outcome. Many of the protestors were arrested; some are serving three year prison terms, and Gazaryan faced a trumped up attempted murder charge which forced him into exile in Estonia.

The same theme -- how often political leaders and privileged elites become ruthless predators upon the weak and relentless despoilers of the commons -- dominates this year's award ceremonies. And "buy them, sue them, wipe them out" is clearly the dominant response of governing elites when citizens fight back.

Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari, an Asháninka from Amazonian Peru, fled the explicitly murderous Shining Path Guerillas who savaged her Ene River region. But when she returned her people were again put at risk -- this time by an agreement signed by a smiling Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva and Peruvian President Alan Garcia Perez, which stripped away the Asháninka homeland for a series of hydro-electric dams. She and the Asháninka have thus far stopped two of the dams, but the struggle continues -- abundant power for Brazil and Peru's elites trumps the ancestral rights of the Asháninka.

South Africa's Desmond D'Sa tells the audience that the arrival of a multi-racial elected government under Nelson Mandela utterly failed to stop the steady expansion of chemical and power plants and toxic dumps in South Durban's "cancer valley" -- when he and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance managed to block expansion of the Bulbul Drive Landfill, D'Sa's house was firebombed -- and his community now has to battle a proposed $10 billion expansion of Durban's port, which would take their homes without compensation and increase an already lethal local pollution burden.

In Acheh, Sumatra Rudi Putra organized an innovative solution to the problem of illegal palm oil plantations invading the Leuser Ecosystem with it's incredibly population of Sumatran rhinos, orangutans and other wildlife. He and the local police worked together to persuade illegal palm oil operators to allow their trees to be removed so that forest and wildlife corridors could restore itself. But now, having stopped the illegal forest destruction, the Aceh provincial government is proposing simply to legalize even more massive invasions of the Leuser Ecosystem. Again, the powerful prey on the powerless.

Here in the US, Helen Slottje's struggle falls on the "buy or sue" end of the spectrum. Residents near her home in Ithaca, New York often signed natural gas drilling leases with little understanding of what the process would actually do to their farms and communities. Helen identified an opportunity under New York "home rule" doctrines for communities to protect themselves by banning gas drilling within their city limits -- now over 170 towns and cities in New York have made that choice, but the gas industry is challenging these democratic choices in the NY Supreme Court.

My heading -- Buy them, sue them, wipe them out -- actually comes from India, ( in Hindi the three phrases alliterate, all beginning with K) -- and refers to the strategies adopted by India's mining companies, particularly coal interests, seeking to deal with determined grass-roots oppositions to their destructive projects. Ramesh Agrawal, the owner of an internet café in Raigarh, Chattisgarh watched devastation fall upon Chattisgarh community after community as mining and coal fired power plants ate up the landscape. Using India's new Freedom of Information Act, he alerted local villages to proposed mining projects, among them a coal mine proposed by Jindal Steel and Power (JSPL). When JSPL tried to bully the mine through without holding required public meetings or obtaining needed environmental permits, the community took Jindal to India's National Green Tribunal, which stopped the mine. In retribution, gunman broke into Agrawal's shop and tried to kill him -- by throwing his cell phone at them he diverted their aim enough that they failed, but left him with a badly shattered leg and a long recovery process.

As Bobby Kennedy reminded the audience at the start of the 25th Anniversary ceremony, the heart of the Goldman Prize is the recognition that democracy and environmental protection are inextricably linked -- and the most powerful environmental victories are those that come by empowering ordinary people to make extraordinary transformations in their society -- transformations that make not only the naked autocracy of Vladimir Putin unthinkable, but also the brutal seizures of local lands by governing authorities in places like Indonesia, Brazil and India, and the willingness of the powerful to allow industry to destroy the lives and communities of ordinary people in places like South Africa and the United States.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."