THE leader of 12,000 Cree Indians living in the frigid reaches of Quebec has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to halt a hydro-electric dam project that would flood native lands.
Matthew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the Crees of Northern Quebec, received the prize April 18 in San Francisco along with a $60,000 grant. The Goldman prize is awarded annually to the top six environmental activists worldwide.
``I think this award recognizes all individuals who have contributed to the protection of the environment,'' Mr. Coon-Come said in a phone interview. ``But it is also a tribute to my ancestors, my grandfather, and father who were truly protectors of the animals, the land, and a way of life - and taught this to me.''
For more than two decades, Coon-Come has been fighting hydro-electric development in the James Bay region where the Crees have hunted and trapped for 5,000 years. Hydro-electric dams produce most of the province's power, and in recent years ambitious plans for several new multibillion-dollar dam complexes have been developed.
The battle of his life, Coon-Come says, has been the ongoing fight to stop Hydro-Quebec, the province-owned electric utility, from building James Bay II, which includes the Great Whale river dam complex. Coon-Come and other environmentalists say the reservoirs created by such dams kill life in the rivers, produce concentrations of mercury in reservoir fish - poisoning natives who subsist on them - and displace and kill wildlife.
Coon-Come has shown a flair for making his cause known that has driven Hydro-Quebec officials to distraction. He organized a 1990 canoe trip from James Bay to New York City where Hydro-Quebec dam projects are largely financed by the sale of bonds.
It wasn't long before US environmental groups were backing the Crees and pressuring New York and New England to reevaluate long-term power supply contracts with Hydro-Quebec. A big victory came when, in 1992, New York canceled a $17-billion contract. The chairman of the New York Power Authority has since recommended cancellation of another power contract.
Robert Kennedy Jr., a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was one of Coon-Come's early US allies in the Great Whale fight. ``Because of his leadership, the Cree have been able to assert themselves,'' he says. ``It's a model. For the first time in the Americas, Indians have been able to assert control over their land.''
Coon-Come says simply: ``I've traded in my bows and arrows for the electronic media, the judicial process, and a public awareness campaign. I'm not antidevelopment. But we have to question the whole notion of business as usual because that won't save the land or the animals.''
Coon-Comb and the five other winners will meet with United Nations Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali on April 20. (Other honored, see page 10.) This year's other winners are:
* Ildiko Schucking of Germany, who works to redirect the World Bank away from environmentally unsound projects.
* Andrew Simmons of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for his work establishing community-based conservation and development programs on his island of about 100,000 people.
* Laila Kamel of Egypt for helping establish the concept of recycling garbage in Cairo.
* Luis Macas of Ecuador for mobilizing indigenous people in protests against Amazon forest destruction by fuel exploration.
* Tuenjai Deetes of Thailand, who established new cultivation techniques among hill tribes devastated by war and logging.