Native activists win the Goldman

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SAN FRANCISCO ? If anyone deserved it, they surely did.

After more than a decade of traveling, talking and testifying on the need to protect caribou habitat from oil drilling, Sarah James, Norma Kassi and Jonathon Solomon jointly won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in late April.

The three Gwich'in Athabascan activists were instrumental in winning an uphill battle to block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In a move that surprised some in the oil industry and delighted environmentalists everywhere, the Senate voted April 18 to prohibit oil and natural gas drilling on the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain.

Another indigenous woman, Jean La Rose of Guyana, was the winner for the South and Central America region. An Arawak, La Rose is program administrator of the Amerindian Peoples Association and a leader in protecting tribal lands from mining. In spite of harassment, she filed the country's first ever indigenous land rights lawsuit.

"This year's winners exemplify how much can be accomplished by visionary leaders who have the courage to struggle for sustainable development for their communities and the health of the planet," said Richard Goldman, an insurance executive who founded the environmental prize in 1990.

The winners are selected by an international panel from nominations submitted by environmental organizations throughout the world. Prize winners spend 10 days in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony, media briefings and meetings with political and public policy leaders.

Over the years, James, Solomon and Kassi have traveled from their remote communities hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle and in the Yukon to testify before Congress, speak at universities, and educate voters and school children about the interdependent relationship between the Gwich'in people and the caribou.

"The caribou are sacred to our people," Kassi said. "We are grateful the American people spoke through their senators to say that."

As the largest award of its kind, the $125,000 Goldman award is given each year to "grassroots environmental heroes, who demonstrate conviction, commitment and courage for their sustained and important environmental achievements," said Richard Goldman, an insurance executive who founded the environmental prize. "They are proof that ordinary people are capable of duly truly extraordinary things."

The $750,000 international annual award is given to individuals who inspire others to protect the health and safety of their communities from destructive government projects, multinational corporations, corrupt leader and international financial institutions, Goldman said.