V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Environmental heroes

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, February, 2009

Ken Saro-Wiwa predicted his own death.

With certain clarity, Saro-Wiwa foresaw that he would be killed by his own government and made to spill blood for speaking out against Shell Oil and its path of environmental destruction on the Niger Delta.

"This is it. They are going to arrest us all and execute us," he said after the Nigerian military moved in to Ogoniland in the fall of 1993, where violence was escalating. "All for Shell."

Two years later, in what is widely believed to be a government set-up, Saro-Wiwa was hanged and executed for the brutal deaths of four Ogoni leaders despite worldwide pleas for clemency.

Today, 14 years later, Saro-Wiwa is largely regarded as an environmental hero who fought fearlessly against big oil on behalf of the Ogoni people who were living on oil-soaked farmlands, breathing toxic air and drinking dirty water.

Saro-Wiwa refused to be cowed into silence by his government or corporate bullies. He took the fight to the world and asserted his right to freedom of expression.

It's a right that will be celebrated by PEN Canada next week at the event Closer to the Land: Freedom of Expression and the Environment, which will gather naturalists and writers from across the country in Toronto.

PEN Canada works to emancipate writers who have been forced into silence either by exile or imprisonment for telling the truth "as they see it."

While Canadian writers don't face the same extremes, author Trevor Herriot said a disturbing pattern of muzzling has been emerging in Environment Canada since Stephen Harper became prime minister.

"There are subtle ways freedom of expression gets eroded," Herriot said by phone from Regina. "Governments have a way of limiting which information gets out."

Herriot is the author of Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. He joins other environmentalists, including singer Sarah Harmer, in a panel discussion about freedom of expression. For years he had enjoyed an open, easy relationship with scientists at Environment Canada. If he had a question, he knew he could pick up the phone and call an expert at the department to get his answer.

"But that all began to change," Herriot said. "A new protocol was put in place once Harper got into power. We had to go through the communications branch and the experts said they weren't supposed to talk to media."

A simple request for the latest numbers on the sage-grouse -- a rapidly declining species -- went unanswered.

"I couldn't get anyone to give me a straight answer."

It's a tried and true way of controlling the media, Herriot said: Blow off the query by letting a few days pass before getting back to the person, when the deadline has come and gone.

For more on Closer to the Land, visit www.pencanada.ca.

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ABDOLVAHED BOTIMAR

Journalist, Kurdish and environmental activist, Botimar, 29, awaits execution in Iran, charged with spying, "subversive activity against national security" and spreading "separatist propaganda."

Botimar is a founding member of the NGO Sabzchia or the Green Mountain Society.

The Iranian judiciary has denied that the two men were arrested because of their professional work, and insists they are being prosecuted for "taking up arms against the state."

ARUNDHATI ROY

Roy is a Booker Prize-winning author for her book The God of Small Things and an Indian activist. She campaigned against the Narmada dam project in the Gujarat region, saying it would displace half a million people with little or no compensation and wreak environmental havoc on the local ecosystem.

After refusing to apologize for criticizing the court's "disquieting inclination" to silence dissent, Roy was sentenced to serve one day in jail.

CHEN DAOJUN

Chen was detained last spring as part of a crackdown against citizens protesting the building of a petrochemical plants on the outskirts of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. He is the only protester facing subversion charges. A few days prior to his arrest, Chen wrote about the project and supported a boycott on an overseas Chinese website. A charge of "inciting subversion" has often been used to convict dissident writers and journalists, with prison sentences of up to 10 years.

HU JIA

Environmentalist and writer Hu helped rescue wild elk threatened by flooding and with efforts to protect the endangered Tibetan Antelope. He's long been a thorn in the government's side, alerting international media to human rights abuses in China. Before the Beijing Olympic Games, Hu was carted away on charges of "inciting to subvert state power" and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Hu was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last year.

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