Paying the earth and enjoying it

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San Francisco - Life holds few pleasures like giving away someone else's money - preferably pots and pots of it and when those who provided it are in the room at the time. So the second week of January is fast becoming a high spot of my calendar.

For the past two years I have been coming here to help give a total of nearly $500,000 (pounds 300,000) to six grass-roots environmental campaigners, as a judge of the Goldman Environmental Prizes. Started in 1989 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman - he founded a successful insurance firm, she (who died last year) was a descendant of Levi Strauss. They are the only awards of their kind in the world. My lips are constitutionally sealed on this year's winners until they pick up their $75,000 cheques in April. But last year's list - including a Mexican fighting to save the world's most ecologically rich pine forest, an Indian lawyer who had cleaned up hundreds of polluting firms by wringing 40 landmark judgments from his country's supreme court, and a Bulgarian woman who had set up more than 30 citizens' environmental inspectors to tackle the appalling state of her country - gives an idea of what it's about.

This being America, the winners are phoned immediately, no matter what their time zone. I make muted, unavailing British protests about ringing people in the middle of the night, but, in truth, they don't seem to mind - and their responses are often moving as a hard-up cause is suddenly given new life, or an embattled campaigner gets protection by being internationally recognised.

"You'll come to look forward to this," said a fellow judge last year. He was right.

The most startling, and disturbing, part of the judging is discovering how many nominees are viciously persecuted by those promoting environmental destruction. Last year's Mexican winner had survived three assassination attempts. He was bent over from spinal injuries after one, and his skull was shattered in another. Both the Indian and the Bulgarian had been repeatedly threatened with assassination. Fully half this year's finalists had also been seriously harassed - death threats, and the occasional attempt to put them into effect, being the most popular tool. As it happened, the group of finalists proportionately most affected were those from Europe.

On the long flight out, I read a prodigiously researched book - Green Backlash by Andrew Rowell (Routledge) - which documents the growing tally of murders, rapes, assaults, surveillance, sackings and the like of environmentalists around the world. More than 124 incidents have been catalogued in the US alone.

It all seems a long way from the comfortable, even complacent, existence of some established pressure groups which are now sizeable bureaucracies increasingly intent on finding a niche in the establishment. Rowell confirms that it is the campaigners at the grass-roots, usually far from national capitals, who suffer, adding: "The support these `front-line' activists are receiving from the mainstream environmental movement has been verging on non-existent."

All the talk here is about floods, the worst in California's history, turning 42 counties into disaster areas. About half of the normal annual rainfall fell in just a few days over the New Year, filling rivers fuller than ever before and bursting their banks.

Some of the worst-affected areas lie below the dams that are supposed to prevent flooding: the reservoirs got so full that the gates had to be opened, sending walls of water 10 feet high down the rivers. Meanwhile, an area around Sacramento, where environmentalists have successfully resisted a dam, was one of the few areas to escape. The disaster has been made worse by the canalisation of rivers, straightening the bends that used to slow the flow down and draining the wetlands that used to soak up excess water - and by widespread building on the flood plains.

The rest of the country is snow-bound, from sea to shivering sea. It has even been snowing in Las Vegas. But despite this, and our own Arctic spell, global warming appears to be on course. Average world temperatures for 1996, just released, show that - though cooler than 1995 - it was among the 10 warmest years on record. The 1990s so far are the warmest decade ever, with the 1980s in second place.

Last weekend's outburst by David Maclean, the Home Office minister - insisting that no beggars are "genuine" - reached here, with the British newspapers, some days later.

I knew Maclean as a rather under-whelming junior environment minister in the early 1990s and would counsel him against his professed practice of giving beggars "a piece of my mind". I really don't think he can spare it.