A hero for the planet

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Feature story - April 14, 2003
Dubbed the Nobel Prize for the Environment, the Goldman Environmental Prize is being awarded to Von Hernandez, Greenpeace's Toxic's campaigner from the Philippines. Von has fought for years to stop the spread of incinerators and other polluting practices to developing countries and now he is the first Filipino to win the Goldman prize. Von wins the award for his role in achieving historic legislation in the Philippines that bans waste incineration nationwide.

Von Hernandez, 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, Asia (Philippines).

With a generous smile and smooth singing voice, Von Hernandez can immediately make you feel comfortable and inspired. He is as at home lobbying governments in the Philippines and around the world as he is in his home town organising community action against polluting technologies.

As one of Asia's leading activists against waste incineration, Von helped make history in 1999 when the Philippines became the first country in the world to ban waste incineration nationwide. Today, Von is on the forefront of a heated battle to hold the ban in the face of government corruption and industry pressure. His work has been held up as a model for waste incineration activists throughout the world.

Von grew up in Manila and became active in the incineration issue when he began working for Greenpeace as a toxics campaigner for Southeast Asia. "At that time, my campaigning focused almost exclusively on the dumping of hazardous wastes from the industrialised world to developing countries. It did not take long for me to realise that it wasn't just hazardous waste that was being dumped in Asia, but also toxic technologies and products," says Von.

Waste disposal is a municipal nightmare in the Philippines. Every day Metro Manila produces 6000 tonnes of garbage, much of which ends up in Hernandez's current hometown of Quezon City. Quezon City is home to Payatas, the region's biggest dump and the focus of international headlines in 2000 when a rain storm caused the dump's mountain of garbage to collapse, killing at least 300 people and destroying more than 500 homes.

With waste incineration being touted as the solution to Manila's waste problems, Von and his allies jumped into action. They informed local communities that waste incinerators are the largest source of hormone-disrupting dioxins, one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. The incineration process produces ash with concentrated amounts of heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic and cadmium that, when buried, pollute groundwater for generations. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, cancer, respiratory ailments and reproductive dysfunction among people who live near incineration plants.

A recent report found dioxins in the breast milk of Filipino women who live near and work in the Payatas dumpsite to be extremely high - many times higher than the health limit set by the World Health Organization.

"Like hazardous wastes, dirty technologies like incinerators tend to follow the path of least resistance," says Von. "Typical of the attitude of irresponsible multinational companies, the incineration industry will always find advantages in operating in less regulated environments. Aware that environmental monitoring and enforcement capacity is severely lacking in the global south, with a little bit of public relations - obsolete incinerators can easily be packaged as modern, non-polluting technologies for handling waste - and this is exactly the trend we are seeing in many Asian countries."

As the Convenor of the Philippine Clean Air Coalition and coordinator of Greenpeace International's Toxics Campaign in Asia, Von helped turn the incineration controversy in the Philippines into a national electoral issue in 1998. He helped organise mass protests, testified in hearings, and waged a national public education campaign in the media to draw attention to the devastating health impacts of waste incineration and to highlight proven alternatives to burning waste. Hernandez was instrumental in securing widespread support for the campaign, including the support of the Catholic Church, which commands enormous respect and authority in a country where Catholicism is the dominant faith.

In the course of campaigning Von faced strong industry pressure and harassment. He has been threatened with libel suits, ridiculed in the press by industry sympathisers, and blamed for the Manila garbage crisis. Public officials who wanted to lift the incineration ban even publicly threatened to dump garbage on Von's doorstep.

But his perseverance paid off when the incineration ban was approved in the Clean Air Act of 1999. The ban is scheduled to take full effect this year, but powerful members of Congress and local government officials, some of whom have documented ties with the waste management industry, are working furiously to have the ban repealed so that proposals to install mega-incinerators and landfills can move forward.

"I see the migration of incinerators in the Asian region as part of the continuing translocation of the destructive Western industrial development model, whose key hallmark is over-consumption. As such, I see our victory against incineration not only as a triumph against polluting technologies, but more importantly as a key opportunity for developing countries like the Philippines to break away from the traditional development paradigm and chart a different course for managing its resources in a sustainable way. In other words, this is an opportunity for countries like the Philippines to avoid repeating the mistakes of the West."

But last year the people's clean air movement was dealt a blow when the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in favour of Jancom Environmental Corporation, a waste management consortium, and its plans to build a mega-landfill and a huge waste incinerator to service Metro Manila. While President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ultimately used her authority to reject the contract, the legal door has been opened, making the ban more vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, international financial institutions like the Asian Development bank, the World Bank and the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation continue to promote incineration projects in the Philippines and throughout the developing world.

In response, Von is leading the charge to promote cleaner alternatives to waste incineration, including segregating garbage at its source, composting and recycling - methods that have been proven to create jobs and revenue for municipalities while protecting public health. Following the success of the campaign to ban incineration, Von moved swiftly to create the Eco Waste Coalition to urge the Philippine government to adopt legislation that would manage and allocate resources to more sustainable methods of waste disposal. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act was adopted in January 2001. Von is now working with the coalition to push for full implementation of the incinerator ban and the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

Von is also global activist and his passion for the planet reaches beyond his country. He was a rousing presence at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg where, together with local allies and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, he held a "zero waste" forum that drew more than 100 environmental leaders from 20 nations. That same year, he was instrumental in organising the first "Global Day of Action Against Waste Incineration" which involved more than 125 organisations from 54 countries.

"Our fight against incineration, landfills and polluting technologies is actually a struggle against the negative and destructive forces of over-consumption and dirty industrial development," says Von. "It is essentially a struggle to shift the dominant paradigm to one which is truly respectful of life and the rights of future generations."

Now in San Francisco to receive his award with the other winners, Von was congratulated by the founder of the Goldman Environmental Prize. This year's winners have looked beyond themselves, often risking freedom or safety, to inspire their communities to fight for environmental protection, said Richard N. Goldman. We are honoured to recognise work that exemplifies how much can be accomplished when ordinary people take extraordinary action to protect the health of our planet.

Each year six grassroots individuals from six regions of the world are recognised as environmental heroes. Visit the Goldman Environmental Prize site to read about the other winners.

1 Comment Add comment

(Unregistered) kawaii says:

how can i contact this guy? i would like to get him as a speaker for a symposium. please help me. tahnks.

Posted June 9, 2011 at 15:06 Flag abuse Reply

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