Survivors of the world's worst industrial disaster won Goldman Environmental Prize

Press release - 19 April, 2004
Two women survivors from the world's worst industrial disaster -the Bhopal gas tragedy- have won one of the most prestigious international environmental awards. Dubbed the "Nobel Prize for the Environment", the Goldman Environmental Prize (1) was awarded to Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, for their role in keeping the memories of Bhopal alive, and leading the struggle in Bhopal for justice since 1984, when poisonous gas leak from Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people.

Champa Devie Shukla (left) and Rashida Bee pose with their award during a reception in honor of the 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners, 21 April 2004, at National Geographic in Washington, DC.

Long-term fighters for justice for Bhopal and survivors of the worst chemical disaster, Rashida and Champa have won the Goldman award for leading a trade union struggle for the livelihood rights of more than 80 women survivors, and rehabilitation and justice for all victims of the disaster. They have mobilised thousands of survivors from the slums of Bhopal by making them aware of their rights and the pending liabilities of Union Carbide, which is currently owned by DOW Chemical Company (2).

Rashida and Champa Devi's have travelled the world to gain wide support and to bring attention to the ongoing tragedy of Bhopal (3). "This prize will go a long way in helping reconstruct the lives, jobs and health of people devastated by Union Carbide/DOW. In addition, we will use a portion of the money awarded to set up our own national prize in India for those people, who are also fighting against corporate crime", said Champa Devi.

In the course of their struggle and campaigning, both women have faced strong pressure and harassment. They have been threatened with lawsuits and arrested by the police during protests (4). "The Goldman Award for Bhopal puts Union Carbide's legacy squarely in DOW's face. The world is awakening to the crimes in Bhopal and this award shows that DOW can no longer ignore the Bhopal liabilities it has acquired. The longer DOW stalls in meeting their liabilities, the worse it will be for the company and its shareholders", explained Rashida.

On December 3rd, 1984, more than 40 tons of poisonous gases leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the heart of Bhopal city, immediately killing 8,000 people. Since then, more than 20,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster. Survivors and their children continue to suffer long-term health effects ranging from cancer and tuberculosis to birth defects and chronic fevers.

Multiple studies, including a Greenpeace environmental assessment in 1999 at the disaster site, have found mercury, nickel and other toxins in the local groundwater and dangerous levels of toxins. Many of the people, who continue to live in the vicinity of the factory, including survivors of the deadly gas leak, are left with no alternative but to use groundwater contaminated with toxic pollutants. Greenpeace and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal -ICJB (5) urgently demand DOW Chemical to take full liability for this disaster.

"This celebration today is a clear recognition for their struggle that has been going on for the past twenty years to reach justice. It is a struggle that will continue until corporates like Union Carbide and DOW are held responsible for their crimes," said Casey Harrell, Greenpeace US campaigner.

Greenpeace is also calling for international agreements to be established to hold corporations criminally and financially liable for industrial disasters and ongoing pollution.

Notes: (1). Goldman Environmental Prizes are awarded for sustained and important efforts to preserve the natural environment, including, but not limited to: protecting endangered ecosystems and species, combating destructive development projects, promoting sustainability, influencing environmental policies and striving for environmental justice. Each year six grassroots individuals from six regions of the world are recognized as "environmental heroes". Rashida Bee and Champa Devi were awarded the environmental hero of Asia. (2). In February 2001, Union Carbide became a full subsidiary of DOW chemicals. (3). Rashida Bee went to Johannesburg in August/September 2002 to bring her case forwards to attendants of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, where she also opened a photo exhibition on the ongoing Bhopal tragedy by the Indian photographer Raghu Rai. During 2002, Rashida, Champa and other survivors travelled on various occasions to Europe to bring their case forewords to DOW managers, politicians and other decisions makers and to show solidarity with other victims of corporate crimes. In May 2003 Rasida and Champa campaigned in the US where they - finally - had a face to face meeting with the DOW CEO to discuss the case of the Bhopal tragedy and ongoing needs of the survivors. (4). Arrested along with 65 other activists under charges of Criminal Trespass into the DOW-Carbide premises on November 25, 2002, when a clean up of the premises was attempted by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Subsequently, the Chief Minister of the State of Madhya Pradesh announced that he was dropping charges against all those who were arrested that day.(5). The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) is an umbrella organisation of all the groups who have joined forces to campaign for justice for the gas survivors of Bhopal. The ICJB is spearheaded by survivors (the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh) and long-time supporters like the Bhopal Group for Information & Action