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
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,"
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
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
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
"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.