Indonesian Forest Savior Among Magsaysay Winners

By Jim Gomez 27 July 2012

MANILA, Philippines—An Indonesian mountaineer who faced death threats while battling illegal loggers and a Bangladeshi lawyer who fought to keep old, rusty ships from being dumped in her homeland were named recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards on Thursday.

This year’s six honorees battled great odds to improve the plight of the poor in forest communities, farmlands and exploitative industries, the Manila-based foundation in charge of the awards said.

The awards honoring people in Asia who have changed their societies for the better are named after a Philippine president who died in a plane crash in 1957. Each recipient will receive a certificate, a medal and a US $50,000 prize.

They were “all deeply involved in creating sustainable solutions to poverty and its accompanying disempowerment,” foundation president Carmencita Abella said in a statement.

Indonesian mountaineer Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto organized a group called Telapak in the 1990s to carry out undercover investigations of his country’s lucrative logging concessions.

With the help of a UK-based environmental group, he helped expose illegal logging and smuggling activities that sparked public outrage and pressured Indonesia to tighten regulations on timber trade. He was threatened with death, assaulted and once detained by a timber company in central Kalimantan but was not deterred, according to the foundation.

His group also helped villagers organize logging cooperatives to sustainably manage more than 200,000 hectares (494,200 acres) of forest.

Lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan waged court battles with her legal group to stop old ships decommissioned by wealthy nations from entering Bangladesh to be dismantled as scrap, unless they have been decontaminated at their origin. Thousands of poor workers, many of them children, work in dangerous conditions in the junk yards.

“Few cases of social inequity are as stark and dramatic” as those handled by Hasan, the foundation said.

Another prize winner, Kulandei Francis of India, organized poor women to create the Integrated Village Development Project in remote Krishnagiri district.

The group organized savings and credit groups that received preferential treatment from banks. More than 150,000 poor members benefited from multimillion-dollar savings and loans that helped fund health, housing and sanitation projects, including a school for tribal children.

Other winners include Filipino agricultural scientist Romulo Davide, whose research led to the development of a biological product used to control pests attacking vegetables, banana, potato, citrus, rice and other crops.

Chen Shu-chu, who sells vegetables at a market stall in Taitung city in southeastern Taiwan, lives a frugal life—eating only two meals a day—enabling her to give seven million Taiwanese dollars ($320,000) to charities for the care and education of poor children. Inspiration for her philanthropy came years before, when her schoolmates launched a fund drive to help her poor family afford treatment for a sick brother.

“The aid was not enough to save her brother’s life,” the foundation said. “But the memory of that kindness stayed with her.”

A prize winner from Cambodia, agricultural expert Yang Saing Koma, helped his poor Southeast Asian country dramatically increase its rice production by encouraging small farmers to shift to organic fertilizer.

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng won the award, regarded as Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in 2007. Unable to travel to Manila at the time, his wife, Yuan Weijing, attempted to fly to Manila to receive the award on his behalf but her passport and phone were confiscated at the Beijing airport.

Chen and his wife are living now in the United States, where he is studying.