"Exhibiting You" - Story

Environmental Warriors

Women Protecting the Earth

Submitted: 05/29/2008

Olya Melen -- Ukraine

As a public interest environmental lawyer, my goal is to seek the rule of law to preserve nature for present and future generations. Our fragile Mother Earth badly needs legal defenders.

She's been accused of being a traitor and a Romanian spy. She's been underestimated and ridiculed for her youth and lack of experience. But for 22-year-old Olya Melen, "Nothing is impossible."

With no previous trial experience, this gutsy junior attorney took on the Ukrainian government to protect the Danube Delta, one of the most valuable wetlands in the world. Five years after the United Nations designated the Danube Delta a Biosphere Reserve, the Ukraine government began dredging a canal across the wetlands to allow large cargo ships to travel between the Danube River and the Black Sea.

Melen fought a team of experienced government attorneys for two years, pressuring them and filing complaints without end to protect the Delta from development. Against greater odds, Melen and her team tasted victory in 2006, when the courts ruled that the canal construction broke environmental laws and would adversely affect the Danube Delta's biodiversity. However, the territory is still under threat. To this day, Melen and her colleagues are working to prevent further construction for as long as it takes.

Anne Kajir -- Papua New Guinea

Landowners depend entirely on their forests as a means of survival. It will be genocide if the robber barons continue to roam at will or plunge deeper into our last remaining rainforests.

She has been stalked, robbed, and physically attacked on multiple occasions for her commitment to promote Indigenous Land Rights. At great personal risk, Anne Kajir has spent over a decade bravely fighting against the culture of corruption that infiltrates the Western State of Papua New Guinea.

For thirty years, illegal industrial logging by multinational corporations has stripped the land of its rainforests and the indigenous people of their rights. Anne Kajir has stepped in as the strongest voice for Papua New Guinea's indigenous people in their fight against the government and the country's lead logging company, Rimbunan Hijau (RH).

For five years Kajir served as senior council to indigenous landowners fighting RH, the government forest authority and the State over repeated violations of federal law. Although the PNG constitution guarantees the land rights of traditional communities living in the forest, the laws are not being upheld. To raise awareness about the problem, Kajir has moved from the courts back into the communities to educate the people about the advantages and disadvantages of logging. Kajir's legal advocacy has already halted a major logging production in the Western Province.

Hers is a fight for the trees and the rights of local clans to uphold their way of life. It is also a fight for future generations to have access to their natural heritage and traditions. Her work has and will continue to set a precedent for how all logging is handled in Papua New Guinea.

Kaisha Atakhanova -- Kazakhstan

I believe in changing lives, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that we start talking about ecological justice. We have the wisdom and we have the strength, so I know we can do it.

Biologist turned lobbyist Kaisha Atakhanova took her research from the laboratory to the streets to the national parliament. Her goal: To protect Kazakhstan's land and people from nuclear waste. "I began to realize that my scientific work was meaningless if it didn't help people," she said. "So I decided to work with them, to help them defend their ecological rights."

From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union used Kazakhstan as a nuclear testing ground, detonating the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs. As a biology student, Atakhanova examined the genetic effects of forty years of radiation exposure. She found genetic mutations and an irradiated food supply. Today, cancer rates in central Kazakhstan are five times higher than the rest of the country.

In 2001, the Kazakh Government announced their plan to import foreign nuclear waste. Committed to keeping her country clean, Atakhanova orchestrated a relentless campaign too stop adding more waste to Kazakhstan's nuclear burden.

The government and atomic energy industry were forced to stop and listen to concerns of regular citizens. In late 2003, the national parliament dropped their plan. Her victory has encouraged the growth of a grassroots environmental movement in Kazakhstan.

Libia Grueso -- Colombia

We, as a black community, share a history and a common vision grounded in the idea that nature is our principal ally. We want the liberty to construct a different kind of life based on nature, so the world can see. That is our dream.

Libia Grueso stands apart as one of the most inspiring leaders of Latin America's "Black Environmentalism" movement. Against a deadly backdrop of corporate exploitation and civil war in the Pacific Coast of Colombia, she has made it her life's work to advocate for the rights of Afro-Colombians and to protect the land they reside in.

Afro-Colombians make up 94 percent of the population in this community. They are descendants of black slaves emancipated without reparations in the mid-1800s; a people whose way of life is intrinsically connected to the biodiversity of the rainforest. The Pacific Coast of Colombia is counted one of the five richest biological areas in the world. But in recent years, the region has been devastated by logging, gold mining, industrial agriculture and a civil war that has displaced two million Afro-Colombians to date.

Libia Grueso brings hope to the people as an influential activist and leader for the Afro-Colombian civil rights movement. Cofounder of the Process of Black Communities (PCN), an organization dedicated to advocating for Afro-Colombians, she and the organization were instrumental in getting "Law 70" passed. The law granted Afro-Colombians legal recognition and territorial rights on the lands they have lived on for hundreds of years. Grueso continues working on developing new strategies for sustainable development that preserves the territory and the Afro-Colombian way of life.

Her words sum up the stories of all four of the women profiled here: "Conservation is not an act of heroes and heroines; it is an act of everyday responsibility. Conservation is a result of each of us becoming conscious of our own responsibility and solidarity with life."

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