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Grassroots Activists: Winners of the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize

As the final days of 2020 melt away, many are searching for signs of hope and renewal, tired from an uncertain and frightening year. Among the numerous worrying headlines, there are warnings about human’s environmental impact. Forests, rivers, and oceans all cry out under the heavy hand of global industrialization, and often the case seems hopeless. What can an individual do against such a massive problem? Change often comes from those individuals most affected by unhealthy practices – indigenous people, whose traditional ways of life are threatened, or by leaders of small movements working among powerful politicians. Every year, six leaders of these grassroots movements are awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, honoring them for their efforts and providing networking, support, and financial assistance to their campaigns. The committee that awards the prize chooses one winner from roughly each of the inhabited continents. Often called the “Green Nobel Prize,” it seeks to honor those who “focus on protecting endangered ecosystems and species, combating destructive development projects, promoting sustainability, influencing environmental policies, and striving for environmental justice,” often at great personal risk. These heroes not only provide hope for our environment but also for humanity’s ability to fight against self-destruction. 

To combat Ghana’s recurring power outages and blackouts, the Ghanian government proposed building a seven hundred megawatt coal power plant and port in the coastal fishing community in the Ekumfi area. This plan, however, ignored the dangerous wastewater and mercury emissions that are produced by coal-fired plants. Ezekiel, well aware of the impact, used his experience as a national coordinator of 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon and youth organizer to lead a campaign to educate people about the dangers of coal plants. Because of his efforts, the government of Ghana reconsidered the plant and eventually abandoned it, turning their attention to renewable-energy based power projects while preventing the coal industry from gaining a foothold in Ghana. 

Ecuador’s lush rainforests contain some of the most biodiversity in the world; however, the forests and the indigenous people that dwell there have been threatened by logging, oil extraction, and other industries for decades. In order to bring wealth from oil investments to Ecuador, Ecuador’s minister of hydrocarbons announced that nearly three million hectares of rainforest would be put up for auction for oil concessions in 2018. Unwilling to stand by and watch the destruction of their native rainforest, Nenquimo and other leaders of the Waorani indigenous tribe filed a lawsuit against government ministries for lying that the Waorani people had given them consent to auction off their land. Nenquimo also helped uplift indigenous communities by installing solar and rainwater catchment systems in local villages, supporting cottage industries, and helping indigenous filmmakers fund and document their stories. In April 2019, the Waorani people won their court case, and the ruling was upheld in the court of appeals, successfully protecting two hundred and two thousand hectares of indigenous rainforest territory while setting an important precedent for indigenous rights in Ecuador. 

Every year, millions of tourists travel to the Bahamas to enjoy the beautiful climate, beaches, and ocean life. These natural wonders, however, are endangered by the vast toll of tourism as plastic waste pollutes the ocean, harming both wildlife and the local economy. Ambrose, inspired by witnessing the removal of an internally lodged plastic in a sea turtle, educated herself about plastic and returned home to found the Bahamas Plastic Movement in 2013. Her campaign helped educate the youth about plastic and offer solutions to the problem. More recently, she drafted legislation to ban single-use plastics on the island and organized programs to campaign about the issue. Eventually, she and some of her camp students met with the environmental minister to discuss plastic waste, and three months later, the environmental minister announced a ban on single use plastic on the island. 

Pech, an indigenous woman from Mexico’s Campeche state, is a beekeeper, cultivating a rare, native bee that has been a part of Mayan culture since pre-Columbian times. Beekeeping is an important part of the economy in Campeche, and many families rely on it for their livelihoods. She led a campaign to halt the planting of genetically modified soy plants in Campeche, and eventually the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the planting of the soy beans without the Mayan’s consent violated their constitutional rights and threatened their native economy. Her efforts led to the Mexican Food and Agricultural Service’s revocation of American company Monsanto’s permit to grow the genetically modified soybeans in seven Mexican states. 

Although almost half of the world’s carbon emissions come from burning coal, new coal projects continue to grow, reliant on financial support from banks and investors. In the years between 2007 and 2013, France’s three largest banks gave out more than thirty-two billion dollars in loans to coal companies. Lucie Pinson is a French climate activist, campaigner for the Sunrise Movement. She used various methods to raise awareness and create change, including media campaigns, befriending crucial people, and buying shares in companies to attend shareholder meetings. By 2017, the fruit of her endeavors blossomed as no French banks financed new coal projects. After that, she focused on insurers of banks and is now moving on to the larger goal of stopping all financial institutions from investing in coal.

Paul Sein Twa is a member of the Karen indigenous group in Myanmar, who have faced decades of conflict in one of the longest civil wars since World War II. The home of the Karen people, the Salween River Basin, is the longest dam-free river in Asia. Because of the long conflict in the region, the basin’s thriving teak forests filled with iconic, threatened species such as the tiger, clouded leopards, sun bears, and more were relatively untouched. However, in recent years, agriculture, extractive industries, mining, and deforestation have begun to encroach on the abundance of biodiversity. In 1998, a mega dam was proposed within Karen territory. Sein Twa took action and used community-based approaches to conservation to protect Karen territory. He teamed up with non-government organizations and the Karen people to advocate for a transboundary protected region known as a peace park. He also worked to shift forestry practices back to indigenous methods. His park idea gained support and in 2018, saw success as a five hundred and forty-six thousand Salween Peace Park, including community forests and wildlife sanctuaries, was formed.

 

Works Cited

“About the Prize.” Goldman Environmental Foundation, 29 June 2020, www.goldmanprize.org/about/.

“The Goldman Environmental Prize Winners 2020 – in Pictures.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 Nov. 2020, www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2020/nov/30/the-goldman-environmental-prize-winners-2020-in-pictures.

“Introducing the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.” Goldman Environmental Foundation, 17 Dec. 2020, www.goldmanprize.org/blog/2020-goldman-environmental-prize-winners/.

“Meet the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.” Mongabay Environmental News, 4 Dec. 2020, news.mongabay.com/2020/11/meet-the-2020-goldman-environmental-prize-winners/.

Mongabay. “Paul Sein Twa, Myanmar.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 30 Nov. 2020, www.ecowatch.com/meet-the-2020-goldman-environmental-prize-winners-2649082195.html?rebelltitem=15. 

Photo Credit:

Mongabay. “Paul Sein Twa, Myanmar.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 30 Nov. 2020, www.ecowatch.com/meet-the-2020-goldman-environmental-prize-winners-2649082195.html?rebelltitem=15. 

2 Comments

  1. These are amazing stories! Excellent job Sierra!

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