SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – An environmental planner from Puerto Rico who fought to protect 3,000 acres of coastal land that has long lured developers to the U.S. territory and a subsistence farmer from Peru who helped stop a massive mining project are 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 honor 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 13-mile-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 2,000-pound 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, Gov. Luis Fortuño revoked protection for the area, saying he favored development to generate jobs and revenue. Current Gov. Alejandro García Padilla signed an order in 2013 restoring protection.
Also honored was Maxima Acuña, an illiterate, subsistence farmer from Peru who fought to keep her land from being turned over to a U.S. 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 Acuña 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.
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 220,000 acres 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 200,000 acres 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: Destiny Watford founded a rights group in South Baltimore when she was still in high school that helped defeat construction of what would have been the largest incinerator in the U.S. near her high school in the already heavily polluted area of Curtis Bay. 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.