Nicknamed the “Green Nobel Prize,” the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize recognizes grassroots activists from six continents who have moved the needle on environmental issues their communities face. This year’s recipients led the charge on environmental justice, wildlife and rainforest conservation, plastic pollution, dams and coal projects.
“These phenomenal environmental champions remind us what can be accomplished when we fight back and refuse to accept powerlessness and environmental degradation. They have not been silenced — despite great risks and personal hardship — and we must also not be silent, either. It takes all of us,” Susie Gelman, vice president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said in a press release.
Here are the six everyday environmental heroes and the impact they’ve made.
The 30-year-old Malawian woman has been taking on the nation’s largest plastic manufacturers for the past five years. Her goal: to eliminate single-use plastics in the country, CNN reports.
According to Mongabay, 75,000 tons of plastic are produced in Malawi each year, most of it thin plastic that is difficult to recycle. Plastic also clogs drains, creating pools of standing water that become breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. One study found plastic in 40 percent of cows slaughtered in one community, Mongabay reports.
To take on the root of the issue, Majiga-Kamoto worked with two other activists and civil society groups to create a grassroots campaign that pressured authorities to instate a plastic ban in Malawi. “After a protracted legal battle with plastic manufacturers, the Malawi Supreme Court upheld a national ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics in July 2019,” CNN writes.
Thai Van Nguyen
Thai Van Nguyen, 39, is the founder of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, an organization that, between 2014 and 2020, successfully removed more than 1,500 critically endangered pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade, according to an announcement from the Goldman Environmental Foundation. Nguyen also started his country’s first anti-poaching unit. Since 2018, the unit “has destroyed 9,701 animal traps, dismantled 775 illegal camps, confiscated 78 guns, and arrested 558 people for poaching, leading to a significant decline in illegal activities in Pu Mat National Park,” the announcement said.
Pangolins are used in traditional medicine throughout China and Vietnam and are the most trafficked animal in the world, CNN reports. The Goldman Environmental Foundation estimates that more than one million pangolins have been poached worldwide in the past decade. In 2004 alone, 60 tons of live pangolins were seized in Vietnam.
“The pangolin is the only scaly mammal in the world. Losing the pangolin means losing a part of the ecosystem, making it unbalanced,” Nguyen told CNN.
Called the “Blue Heart of Europe,” the Balkans support the last free-flowing rivers in Europe, and thanks to Maida Bilal, 39, one river has a chance at staying that way. In December, 2018, Bilal led a group of women from her village, Kruščica, a small mountain village west of Sarajevo, in a 503-day blockade of dam construction equipment that led to the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River. Rivers in the region are biodiversity hubs that house nearly 70 endemic fish species and 40 percent of all endangered freshwater mollusk species on Earth, a Goldman Environmental Foundation announcement said.
The Kruščica River, which flows through the Western Balkans, is the main water source for almost 150,000 people. “On Aug. 24, 2017, police attacked the protestors, including Bilal, who was struck on the head, and her 70-year-old father, who was arrested,” Mongabay reports.
Kimiko Hirata’s work focuses on her native Japan, the world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter, Mongabay reports. Hirata, 50, is the director and founding member of the NGO Kiko Network, which works to stop climate change, a Goldman Environmental Foundation announcement said. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Hirata took a booming coal industry head-on, pressuring coal-funders, namely commercial banks, to divest from the fossil fuel.
As a result of her work, more than one-third of Mizuho Financial shareholders voted to move away from coal and more than 10 major developers made commitments to stop funding coal projects. So far, 13 planned coal plants have been canceled, which represent almost 40 percent of planned coal projects in Japan. “A mammoth feat for an NGO in a country where NGOs are little respected by government and industry,” Mongabay reports.
Sharon Lavigne, 68, is a retired special-education-teacher-turned-activist who lives in a strip of Louisiana deemed Cancer Alley — a hotbed for environmental injustice that concentrates toxic industries primarily in communities of color, The Guardian reports.
In her hometown of St James parish, Lavigne organized marches, circulated petitions, hosted town hall meetings and launched media campaigns after elected officials approved a $1.25 billion Chinese-owned plastics plant, according to The Guardian. It worked. In 2019, the company, called Wanhua, withdrew its application, Mongabay reports.
The plant would have generated a million pounds of liquid hazardous waste every year and parish council members granted permits to the company that altered zoning, allowing the plant to be built closer to homes than zoning permits, so the plant could be close to homes. The company was also exempt from paying property taxes for 10 years, said Mongabay.
Liz Chicaje Churay
Liz Chicaje Churay, 38 is a member of the Bora indigenous community that lives near Peru’s northeastern border with Colombia, and is responsible for protecting more than 2 million acres of the Amazon Rainforest, the BBC reports.
When her community decided that establishing a formal national park in the Peruvian Rainforest, which had been threatened by logging and mining for decades, was the best way to protect it, Chicaje Churay led the charge, Mongabay said.She and another indigenous community leader, Benjamin Rodriguez, worked with researchers, conservationists, and government officials to begin to establish the boundaries of what would become Yaguas National Park. Chicaje Churay worked with her community to map the region via satellite imagery. The park was made official in January 2018, covering a swath of peatlands and rainforest roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park. Benjamin Rodriguez was awarded posthumously, after dying in July 2020 from complications of the coronavirus, Mongabay reports.
2021 Goldman Environmental Prize Virtual Award Ceremony