Not your Typical Grandma -- An Interview with Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Rosa Hilda Ramos
Rosa Hilda Ramos accepting Goldman Prize
Rosa Hilda Ramos is a 63-year-old grandmother, environmental activist, and one of the recipients of the 2008 Goldman Prize, recognizing grassroots environmental heroes. Ramos mobilized her community to legally take on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Now she is using part of the $7 million she won in a judgment against the Power Authority to permanently protect Cucharillas Natural Reserve, one of the largest wetlands in her area. On Earth Day, she arrived in the Puerto Rican legislature with one hundred children dressed as butterflies. The kids came with songs, dances, and origami butterflies. Rosa’s goal is cleaner air for her community and their children -- in other words more butterflies as neighbors, and fewer trucks!
Treehugger (TH): What inspired you to start Communities United against Contamination (CUCCo)?Rosa Hilda Ramos (Ramos): My husband and I bought what we hoped was our dream home in Cataño, across the bay from San Juan, Puerto Rico. We soon discovered we actually bought a nightmare, as the town had the most polluted air on the island. At night, the air became a toxic soup. Cataño had the highest cancer incidence of type O cancer in young people, and also the highest morbidity rate in asthma patients. Cataño was surrounded by polluting industry; none of the industries were in compliance with the Clean Air Act standards.Smokestacks in CatañoTH: How did you form your coalition?Ramos: I visited all the town neighborhoods, door-to-door, house-by-house, explaining the direness of the situation. I work with community leaders, public school teachers, universities, churches, government agencies, and volunteers.
TH: What made you decide to sue the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)/power plant and what did you learn from that experience?Ramos: After trying to move the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board to enforce the law and make the industries comply with emission limitations without any success, I went to court without lawyers. No lawyer wanted to represent us because of our monetary limitations. All of the lawyers I consulted thought there was no way we could win against such powerful adversaries, but we succeeded. We were able to force the public utility to both reduce its level of pollutants and pay a $7 million fine.
TH: How did you decide to spend the money to protect Las Cucharillas marsh?Bird in Las Cucharillas Marsh
Ramos: Part of the money will be used to defend myself from a SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation lawsuit], part to support the Cucharillas projects, and part to go on a trip with my family. I was never able to travel with my children before. Although they are now all grown up, they will enjoy it.TH: Do you think kids make good lobbyists/?Ramos: If small children are treated with respect and the issues are explained to them in a simple but powerful manner, they are great lobbyists. Who is better prepared to convey a strong message defending the future of our natural resources than our children?
TH: This has been a long and continued fight for you, how do you sustain your energy? And what gives you the strength to keep fighting?Ramos: My family support and that of the community is very strengthening. I try to enjoy life through simple activities. And I pray a lot.
TH: Many people don't think of grandmothers as activists, do you think being a grandmother helped your fight or did people at times take you less seriously?Ramos: You must be kind but strong. Age doesn’t have anything to do with it, but having children and a grandchild is the main reason I fight for a cleaner environment. I want them to be healthy. I try to help people understand the environmental and public health issues and make their own decisions. Pollution isn’t something you can hide under the rug. If you do, the rug will eventually be pulled out from under you.
TH: I love coqui frogs! I have a poster of Puerto Rico with coqui in my office. Can you tell me more about your plans for these frogs?Ramos: Coqui are lovable. The concerts these 17 species perform every night on the island are amazing. Sadly, the coqui are hidden under the leaves and not easily seen. We don’t have a place for people to see them. We are working to build an enclosed glass habitat for them, in order for the world to admire their looks as well as their songs!
This is part of a series of profiles on winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. This year's prize winners were announced on April 14.
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