The Best Day of 2008

04/15/2008 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

San Francisco -- The annual Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony always recharges my hope battery. However difficult the challenges we environmentalists face in the U.S., they pale by comparison with the odds that are faced -- and overcome -- by grassroots activists elsewhere. I met Rosa Hilda Ramos, one of this year's winners, three years ago when we were launching the Sierra Club's newest and most vibrant chapters, in Puerto Rico. Camilla Feibelman, our staffer there, has worked closely with Rosa Hilda, so I asked her to write today's blog.

Bogeymen and Butterflies

by Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Regional Representative, San Juan, Puerto Rico

When the Sierra Club's Board of Directors came to Puerto Rico to hear the locals' case for chapterhood in 2005, one speaker in particular held the audience between wowed inspiration and raucous laughter. That was Rosa Hilda Ramos, one of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize winners.

I remember Carl Pope making a beeline to me before the other speakers on that panel had finished. "You have to nominate this woman for the Goldman Award!"  It was clear that we had a winner on our hands.

Rosa Hilda and her husband had recently moved to their dream home in Cataño, a town across the bay from San Juan. But their dreams were quickly clouded by emissions from the nearby Palo Seco power plant, operated by the local energy authority. Both the EPA and the local government knew the plant was out of compliance. Even with the island's powerful ocean winds, Cataño's air did not meet EPA standards. Respiratory disease and cancer rates were notoriously high. When her own mother succumbed to cancer in the early 1990s and Rosa Hilda looked to donate her medical equipment, she found many others with similar illnesses. She began to see a connection between the Palo Seco plant and the health of its neighbors. The question of whether to fight or flee was only a brief one for Rosa Hilda: she is a firecracker, and her fuse had been lit. 

When the EPA and the local government failed to clean up Palo Seco, Communities United Against Contamination (CUCCo), an organization founded and run by Rosa Hilda, sued and represented themselves in federal court. (A cucco is a bogeyman, Rosa Hilda says. She wanted the polluters to be afraid of her fledgling group.) Puerto Rico's power authority was eventually fined $7 million dollars for their violations. But instead of allowing the money to disappear into the federal coffers, Rosa Hilda had something else in mind.

The day that Rosa Hilda discovered Puerto Rico's Hidden Lagoon the butterflies and the dragonflies exploded in to motion around her like confetti at the height of a parade. Looking at the Palo Seco plant belching in the distance, she knew the fine money should go to protecting the lagoon and the surrounding Las Cucharillas marsh as a nature reserve. So the community brought the marsh to the state legislature. Children dressed up as butterflies and dragonflies and flitted along the marble floored halls of the capital building. These kids were lobbyists that could not be ignored, even by the hardest of hearts.

Now, La Cienega Cucharillas is a 1000-acre marsh that quietly filters runoff water that drains from surrounding roads, industrial facilities, and factories before spilling into the San Juan Bay. Because of Rosa Hilda and CUCCo's efforts, the marsh has now been named a nature reserve. Many of the lands are still in private hands and are at risk for development. Nonetheless, Rosa Hilda's vision continues to bloom. She envisions an artistic botanical garden, a series of butterfly gardens, and a glass museum that links people to the water and species below and around them.

On the last night of the Sierra Club Board's visit to the island and the evening after approving Puerto Rico as the first new chapter in ten years, Carl described the island as a bioluminescent lagoon. The waters may appear calm and impassive, but when moved sparks of light fly. Rosa Hilda is that movement, that momentum toward action.