Each of them has become a focal point of fighting human rights violations such as land theft, discrimination, the withholding of health services, dictatorship, environmental destruction, and global warming.
Maria Gunnoe, United States
Taking a stand against environmental destruction
‘Everyone lives downstream’, environmental activists will tell you. When ‘mountaintop removal moved into my backyard in 2000’, single mother Maria Gunnoe sprang to action. ‘One thing about West Virginia people is we’re not the kind to give up and walk away.’
A crime of geological proportions is taking place in the five Appalachian states, where more than 500 mountaintops have been leveled and 2,000 miles of streams have been buried. Residents suffer the greed of corporations, reminding everyone of the fact that ‘democracy doesn’t work on automatic pilot’.
Like a modern-day Mother Jones, Maria is unstoppable. ‘Our environment is all we’ve got. Our lives and health depend on it.’ For that, she insists on the abolishment of mountaintop removal and of the dirty politics that allow it to continue.
Pablo Fajardo, Ecuador
Fighting for justice against an oil giant in the Amazon jungle
‘One of the problems with modern society is that it places more importance on things that have a price than on things that have a value,’ says Pablo Fajardo, lead attorney in a landmark lawsuit against oil company Chevron. The company has a track record of pollution and malpractices in the Amazon region.
In Fajardo’s view, ‘the lawsuit is a fight not just about oil companies in the jungle, but about 500 years of South American history.’ As a child, he witnessed ‘an oil-world hell’. While working as a laborer and teaching evening classes, he did a distance course in law, enabling him to eventually become the lead attorney for the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia on behalf of 30,000 affected people.
‘We are in a collective fight for justice, for the people, the earth, and the environment.’
Liliana Ortega, Venezuela
Providing legal aid and education in a land of impunity
‘We try to wake people up about human rights,’ says Liliana Ortega. Ever since the Caracazo riots of 1989, she has worked for the Committee of Family Members of Victims (COFAVIC) against impunity and for human rights awareness in Venezuela, a nation that sees around 900 extrajudicial executions per year.
With her team, she gathers testimonies, keeping track of human rights violations, and educating people as diverse as school children to police officers. After Caracazo, the scales had fallen from her eyes about the conditions in the barrios, Venezuela’s slums.
‘We defend people. We defend principles. We don’t know and don’t need to know whether you are left or right, catholic or protestant, from the upper class or from the barrios.’ To bring about change, she leaves no stone unturned.