Public Release: 

Field Museum gives Parker/Gentry Award to environmental activist, attorney, author Judith Kimerling

Award ceremony Aug. 29, 2007

Field Museum

CHICAGO--In recognition of her courageous and unrelenting efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples of Amazonia and Alaska, and their natural resources, Judith Kimerling has won The Field Museum's prestigious Parker/Gentry Award.

"For the past 12 years, The Field Museum has given the award to inspiring environmental innovators who, in the spirit of Ted Parker and Al Gentry, have made a profound difference in conservation," said Debby Moskovits, senior vice president of The Field Museum for Environment, Culture, and Conservation. "This year we are extremely pleased to acknowledge Judith Kimerling's courageous efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples and vast forests in the headwaters of the Amazon and wilderness of Alaska. Kimerling's work to establish independent verification of the environmental impact of transnational corporations' practices is fundamental in a world that is becoming increasingly dominated by oil concessions."

As an Assistant Attorney General for New York State during the 1980s, Kimerling litigated environmental cases, including Love Canal. In 1989, she became concerned about degradation and loss of the rainforests and began asking herself what a North American lawyer could do to help save the rainforests. She decided that to be effective she would need to work with the people who live in the rainforests so she moved to Ecuador and learned Spanish. She soon discovered that oil production was the driving force behind rainforest destruction in Ecuador, so she began to study the problem.

"I was appalled by what I saw," Kimerling said. "It was as if everything we had learned in this country at Love Canal was being ignored in Ecuador.

"I felt ashamed that U.S. companies would come into someone else's country and behave in this way," she added. "I didn't think that the American public or the Ecuadorian government would approve of this if they knew about it."

To shine an international spotlight on what she had observed, Kimerling wrote Amazon Crude (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1991). The book exposed the exploitation of the Amazon basin by transnational oil corporations as well as their disregard for the well-being of local peoples. It prompted a $1.5 billion class action lawsuit in the United States, Aguinda v. Texaco.

Kimerling is currently an Associate Professor of Law and Policy at The City University of New York, with a joint appointment at Queens College and CUNY Law School. Also, she is the international representative of Makarik Ñihua, an alliance of 38 Huaorani and Lower Napo Kichwa communities working to remedy environmental and cultural injuries caused by Chevron Texaco's operations in Ecuador.

"I am honored to receive this award especially because The Field Museum's conservation work is not just based on advocacy from afar but also based on the realities on the ground," Kimerling said. "Field Museum scientists understand that conservation in the Amazon depends most of all on the people who live there."

Indigenous rights

Kimerling's investigation of Amazonian oil field standards and practices, which more recently has focused on Occidental Petroleum in Ecuador, was informed by speaking directly with indigenous organizations and communities.

This approach has proven to be very successful, not only in providing her with hard evidence of the environmental ruin taking place, but also in arming her to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. As such, Kimerling has helped to give indigenous peoples in Amazonia a voice in decisions regarding land use and environmental conservation. But there is still much work to be done.

"As long as oil companies can have land expropriated, and the host country is willing to do this at a company's request, there will never be equitable bargaining power between the indigenous peoples and the oil companies," Kimerling said. "The process eviscerates indigenous rights and reduces indigenous participation to beads and trinkets."

Many oil companies now say that they have changed, that they apply international standards and best practices to protect the environment. Clearly, voluntary initiatives are needed to improve environmental performance, Kimerling explained. "Nevertheless, they are not a panacea that can replace the need for environmental regulation. In order to be effective, voluntary standards need to be clear and transparent, and their effectiveness independently verified with community involvement in the light of day."

Although some progress has been made in the past several years, it remains to be seen whether the rule of law in the oil fields of Amazonia is going to be an instrument of justice or a tool of domination, according to Kimerling. "Until the international community decides to get serious about regulating and monitoring international corporations - and supporting indigenous peoples who are asserting their rights - these kinds of problems are going to continue."

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The Parker/Gentry Award was established in 1996 by an anonymous donor. It honors an outstanding individual, team or organization in the field of conservation biology whose efforts have had a significant impact on preserving the world's rich natural heritage - and whose actions and approach can serve as a model to others.

The Award bears the names of the late Theodore A. Parker III and Alwyn Gentry, both ardent conservationists and leading naturalists. Parker, an ornithologist, and Gentry, a botanist, died on August 3, 1993, while surveying hill forests in western Ecuador. The pair worked closely with Field Museum scientists on several joint efforts, including rapid inventories for conservation. For more information, visit www.fieldmuseum.org/parkergentry.

The award will be granted during a private ceremony at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 29, 2007, at The Field Museum. Journalists are welcome to attend (business attire), but must register in advance.

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