NEWS 2005


And the Alternative Nobel Prize Goes To...

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 29 (IPS) - Social activists from Mexico, Malaysia, Botswana and Canada have won the 2005 "Right Livelihood Award", an honour meant to celebrate groups and individuals who show outstanding vision and work on behalf of the natural world and its people.

The 250,000-dollar prize, which will be formally presented in the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm Dec. 9, will be shared by Francisco Toledo, an artist and community philanthropist in Oaxaca, Mexico; Canadian trade and social justice campaigners Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke; Malaysian union and community organiser Irene Fernandez; and the First People of the Kalahari, a grassroots Bushmen group that resisted the Botswana government's efforts to evict them from their ancestral home in the Kalahari Desert.

The "Right Livelihood Award," which is often referred to as the "Alternative Nobel Prize", has been given to more than 100 activists from 48 countries since it was founded in 1980 by Jakob von Uexkull, a Swedish-German stamp collector who sold his collection, worth about a million dollars, to finance the award.

Its past recipients include the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate and Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, as well as Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and Ogoni activist who was executed by the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha.

Winners of the award should be engaged in work that "fully respects other people and the natural world" and that involves some "personal sacrifice".

Toledo, a 65-year-old Zapotec Indian, was recognised for "devoting himself and his art to the protection, enhancement and renewal of the architectural and cultural heritage, natural environment and community life of his native Oaxaca".

A painter who has exhibited in galleries in Mexico, Europe, South and North America, and Asia, Toledo has created children's libraries in Indian communities, and founded a number of artistic and cultural institutions, including the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind, the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, and his own publishing house.

He also helped found Pro-Oax which is dedicated to the protection and promotion of art, architecture, culture and the environment of Oaxaca. As a community activist, he has also successfully fought the construction of modern luxury hotels, parking lots, highways, a cable car to the nearby Monte Alban archaelogical site, and a McDonald's fast food outlet in Oaxaca's famous main square.

Barlow and Clarke are long-time activists on trade and justice issues, currently with a special focus on water. Barlow, 58, has served as a long-time leader in the Canadian women's movement and helped found the Council of Canadians, a 100,000-member group with 70 chapters that was originally conceived to fight the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and to ensure Canadian sovereignty over its natural resources, including water. She played a leading role in opposition the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well.

Barlow has written or co-authored some 15 books on globalisation and the threats it poses to the "the global commons", the latest being "Too Close for Comfort, Canada's Future in Fortress North America".

Clarke, 60, served as head of the social action department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and chaired Action Canada Network, the largest coalition of civil society groups and labour unions in Canada to oppose the corporate free trade agenda.

In 2002, Clarke and Barlow published "Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water", which has been published in 40 countries. More recently, Clark authored "Inside the Bottle", an expose about the world's bottled water industry and its impact on water resources of the world's poor.

Fernandez, 59, has been Malaysia's most prominent campaigner for the rights of the most vulnerable people, including migrant workers, farm workers, domestic workers, prostitutes and AIDS victims. In the early 1970s, she organised the country's first textile workers' union and spearheaded efforts to organise workers in the country's export-processing zones.

In 1976, she joined the Consumers Association of Penang, which became a leader in consumer rights, environmental protection, and occupational safety. Beginning in the mid-1980s, she led campaigns to stop violence against women, including the All Women's Action Society in which she served as president for five years.

At the same time, she helped found the Asia Pacific Women Law and Development, where she served as director more than a decade.

In the early 1990s, she became chair of the Pesticide Action Network, which has promoted campaigns against genetically modified organisms and corporate control of seeds, as well as worker safety, and founded Tenaganita, an organisation also headed by her that campaigns for the rights and welfare of the approximately three million foreign workers in Malaysia and that also runs a halfway house for prostitutes with HIV.

Fernandez was arrested in 1996 after publishing a report on abuses committed against migrant workers and charged with "maliciously publishing false news". She was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to one year in prison. The case is currently on appeal.

The First People of the Kalahari (FPK) represents hundreds of Gana and Gwi Bushmen of Botswana, who have been among the last to live on the ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but who have been forcibly removed since 1996 to resettlement camps outside the park, where they live mainly on government hand-outs.

The group's leader, Roy Sesana, who will also share the Right Livelihood Award, was born in the Bushman community of Molapo, at least 50 years ago. He worked for several years in South Africa before returning to the central Kalahari in 1971 to train as a traditional healer.

Strongly backed by London-based Survival International, Sesana and the FPK steadfastly resisted the forced relocations, which they say are motivated by the government's interest in granting diamond concessions to De Beers, the multinational diamond company, through civil disobedience and legal action. In 2002, the government cut off their natural water supply to force the several hundred holdouts to move.

Just five days ago, according to Survival International, FPK leaders, including Sesana, were among a group of 28 Bushmen arrested by police for trying to take food and water to relatives who remain in the Game Reserve. The group said the activists were badly beaten by police after their arrests. The government charged that they were arrested only after they attacked police "with an assortment of weapons".

The FPK has been particularly effective in rallying international support, including a number of celebrities, such as British actress Julie Christie, to its cause. (END/2005)