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Oct 192009
 

By Harriet Blake

As the Nobel Prize Committee noted in awarding President Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the world is in a better place than it was a year ago.

The world also is in a better place thanks to six young people who are being honored on Tuesday for their heroic environmental efforts. The 2009 Brower Youth Awards, sponsored by Earth Island Institute, will be given to:

  • Sierra Crane-Murdoch, 21, of Vermont, for helping unite the movement to fight coal.
  • Adarsha Shivakumar, 16, of California, who has put into place a biofuel solution in rural India.
  • Diana Lopez, 20, of Texas, who started an organic food source in San Antonio.
  • Hai Vo, 22, of California, for transforming food purchasing at the University of California.
  • Robin Bryan, 21, of Manitoba, whose project protects 1 million acres of forest in Canada from industrial logging.

Each award recipient will receive a $3,000 cash prize and be recognized at 10th annual Brower Youth Awards Gala in San Francisco. The Earth Island Institute, which sponsors the Brower Youth Awards, is a nonprofit group that recognizes people who come up with solutions to protect the planet.

Sierra Murdoch

Sierra Crane-Murdoch

The common thread that connects the six winners is their youthful idealism and  shared passion. As Sierra Crane-Murdoch said via e-mail, “It’s our idealism that energizes our ideas, and it’s comaraderie that makes our ideas succeed.”

Crane-Murdoch says she became an organizer when she arrived at Middlebury College and joined an environmental forum called The Sunday Night Group.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors,” she says, “but I actually started to really care about the environment when I began to understand the human component…and realized that climate change is affecting disadvantaged communities that haven’t caused the problem in the first place.”

Her work with the Sunday Night Group led to Step It Up and 350.org, founded by Middlebury professor and environmentalist Bill McKibben, which she includes among her many mentors. She says that environmental organizing was considered their “5th class” at Middlebury, but “when Power Past Coal came along, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to commit entirely to the project and take classes.”

So Crane-Murdoch took a leave of absence to go live in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia and learn about the issues of dirty coal. She now has one more semester at Middlebury, after which she plans to return temporarily to Appalachia. She is a 2009 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, which is directed by McKibben. Currently she is reporting on former union coal miners who are standing up to mountaintop removal coal mining.

Adarsha

Adarsha Shivakumar

Two years ago, at the age of 13, Adarsha Shivakumar of Pleasant Hill, Calif., co-founded Project Jatropha. The organization promotes the plant, Jatropha curcas, a small perennial shrub with oil-rich seeds. Shivakumar says the plant can grow on marginal lands without diverting valuable land from food production. It’s considered an ecologically friendly and economically profitable crop for the farmers of rural India.

Shivakumar says every year he and his sister spend time with their grandparents who live on a farm in south India. “During that time,” he says, “we regularly visit the nearby villages…to see the work done by Parivarthana, a non-governmental farmers aid organization.” Many of the villagers grow tobacco for a living, but to do this the farmers must burn large amounts of firewood to cure the tobacco leaves. Because the farmers do not have a lot of wood on their land, they have turned to cutting down the trees of the local national park.

“My sister and I realized that if we do not make an effort to wean the farmers off tobacco, then the whole forest and all of its incredible biodiversity would disappear,” Shivakumar says.

Shivakumar’s group collaborated with Parivarthana and a plant biotechnology company, Labland Biotechs, to convince farmers that Jatropha seeds could be converted into biofuel.

“Carbon dioxide emissions are local,” says Shivakumar, “but their effects are global.” Though the project is based in India, he hopes it will influence others to help curb global warming and decrease dependence on fossil fuels.

Diana Lopez of San Antonio got excited about social justice and the environment after one of her high school teachers introduced the class to the Southwest Workers Union. The union had a youth chapter that focused on living wages, youth organizing, environmental justice and border global organizing.