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Six winners of prestigious Magsaysay Awards to be honored Aug. 31

By Michaela del Callar

MANILA, July 27 — This year's winners of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards led by top Filipino scientist Romulo Davide will be honored with Asia's version of the Nobel Prize and a US$ 50,000 cash prize in an Aug. 31 ceremony, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation said.

President Benigno s. Aquino III has been invited to deliver the keynote address during the awarding ceremony next month at the Philippine International Convention Center, organizers said.

The president's late mother, former president and pro democracy icon Corazon Aquino, won the Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1998 for her role in the historic 1986 "People Power" revolution and the difficult work of restoring democracy in the years after the Martial Law regime.

The six winners this year from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Taiwan would deliver public lectures from Aug. 28 to 30 at the Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila and join a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of President Ramon Magsaysay on Aug. 31.

The awards were named after the popular Philippine president, who died in a plane crash on March 17, 1957. Magsaysay is revered for selflessly championing the cause of the poor, specially those in rural agricultural areas.

The President of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation Carmelita Abella, said this year's winners "are six remarkable individuals, all deeply involved in creating sustainable solutions to poverty and its accompanying disempowerment – whether in the forests or on farmlands, in exploitative industries or in inadequate education."

"Working selflessly in unpretentious yet powerful ways, they are showing how commitment, competence and collaborative leadership can truly transform millions of individual lives and galvanize progressive community action," Abella said.

Davide decided to be an agricultural scientist after growing up in a poor farming village in the mountain barangay of Colawin in Argao, Cebu province where the common lament was that little could be harvested from small, over-cultivated farms.

But he drew inspiration from his father, who often said, "There are no barren soils, only barren minds."

Davide, 78, became one of the country's top scientists, hailed as the "Father of Plant Nematology" for his many years of teaching and groundbreaking research on nematode pests that infest and destroy agricultural crops. He holds a doctorate degree and advance training in the United States and Ireland.

His discovery of nematode-trapping fungi led to the development of Biocon, the first Philippine biological control product that can be used against nematode pests attacking vegetables, banana, potato, citrus, pineapple, rice and other crops – a practical substitute for highly toxic and expensive chemical nematicides.

One of his discoveries has been commercially marketed to fight banana nematode infestation in the Philippines, Latin America and other parts of the world.

The Department of Agriculture named him "Outstanding Agricultural Scientist" in 1994. Davide used his cash prize to launch in Colawin a program to help farmers increase their farm yields. The government adopted the program in 2008 all over the country.

The winner from Indonesia, Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto, was hailed for his role in helping ease the pillaging of Indonesia's forests, which has been called one of the biggest environmental crimes in recent history. It is estimated that Indonesia lost about 1.5 million hectares of forest each year in the 1980s and 1990s due to rampant, illegal logging, according to the foundation.

Ruwindrijarto, an avid forest trekker and mountaineer, organized with his friends a group called Telapak, which aimed to carry out small projects for wildlife protection and village self-help. The group, however, later confronted the more complex issue of illegal logging.

Partnering with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which specializes in the investigation of environmetal crimes, Telapak began undercover investigation of Indonesia's logging concessions and later uncovered illicit and transnational operations of timber bosses, brokers and smugglers in cases involving billions of dollars and the trade in endangered hardwood.

"It was dangerous work as Ruwi would personally experience when he and an EIA representative were forcibly detained in the premises of a timber company in central Kalimantan, physically assaulted, threatened with death and pursued by a mob even after they had found refuge in a local police station," according to the foundation.

Their exposes sparked public indignation and heightened pressures on Indonesia and other governments to tighten and enforce regulations on timber production and trade.

Telapak also promoted sustainable, community-based logging and has created community-logging cooperatives that legally and sustainably manage forests in more than 200,000 hectares of forest land.

Bangladeshi lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan, who was born in Dhaka to a family with a tradition of public service, worked for the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) which handled close to a hundred cases involving industrial pollution, sand extraction from rivers, forest rights, illegal fisheries, waste dumping and others.

Since 2003, Hasan and BELA have fought a battle in the courts to prevent toxin-laden ships from entering Bangladesh unless they have been decontaminated at their port of origin and to enforce standards for the protection of workers and the environment.

In Bangladesh, around 150 decommissioned ships mostly from rich nations arrive every year to be beached and dismantled as scrap. The ships poison coastal waters with toxic chemicals and expose 20,000 workers, many of them children, to extremely dangerous working conditions.

Although the battle is not yet over, Hasan has scored major successes, including the imposition of compensatory fines against a polluter and a 2009 Supreme Court order for the shutting down of all 36 ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh which have been operating without environmental clearance.

BELA also mounted a successful campaign in 2000 for a law that would ban the filling up of wetlands, although the law was never enforced. In 2004, Hasan put the law to a test by filing a case against a rich and powerful land development company for filling up a land for a new township in the middle of a flood-flow zone.

Hasan eventually won when the court ruled the housing project illegal.

Taiwanese Chen Shu-chu, a vegetable vendor from Taitung Ciity in southeastern Taiwan, lives a frugal life so she can donate to various charities that help poor children go to school. She has managed so far to give seven million Taiwanese dollars or about US$ 320,000.

“Money serves its purpose only when it is used for those who need it,” Chen says. “My philosophy in life is simple. If doing something makes you worried, then it must be a wrong thing. If it makes you happy, then you must have done the right thing. I feel happy whenever I could help other people.”

Her philanthropy was inspired by the kindness shown to her family by her schoolmates when one of her brothers contracted a chronic disease that drained the small family savings. The school she attended started a fund drive to help the family.

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

“She knew poverty and despair, but witnessed kindness as well, simple truths that have guided the rest of her life.” Born to a poor family in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu in India , another Magsaysay laureate Kulandei Francis gave up being a priest to devote himself wholly to social work.

He founded the Integrated Village Development Project (IVDP) that helped empower women and poor families in the remote Krishnagiri district.

The program has become a financially disciplined, self-reliant, member-owned and managed organization, giving them access to credit that has fueled successful village programs in health and sanitation, housing, livelihood, and has established a primary school for tribal children.

Another prize winner from Cambodia, agricultural expert Yang Saing Koma, helped his poor Southeast Asian country considerably increase its rice production through an ecologically sustainable approach to rice production with the use of organic fertilizers by 85 percent.

First introduced in 2000 to 28 reluctant farmers, his method has spread to more than 100,000 rice farmers, registering a 61 percent increase in rice in Cambodia.(PNA) CTB/MDC/rsm

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