Since its birth in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize has focused on honoring environmental champions focused on effecting change on a local level in each of the world's inhabited regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Islands, and Islands Nations, and South and Central America). By honoring “grassroots” leaders, the award has given a voice, and needed funds, to many issues that would otherwise be overlooked. Past recipients have helped stop destructive dams, protect endangered species, and clean up industrial waste often at great risk to themselves. This years winners' stories are examples of people making a difference despite the odds stacked against them.
By rallying the citizens of her hometown of Pezinok, Slovakia, public interest lawyer Zuzana Caputova was able to shut down an unregulated landfill that had been poisoning residents for decades. When another landfill was announced in 2003, she helped spearhead a campaign that halted construction, and led to the closing of the original dump. In a country with lax oversight, she has inspired other towns to begin to stand up for their health and environment.
In a country like Cambodia, that has one of the worst deforestation rates in the world — the fifth fastest, in fact — standing up to the government and corporations can be dangerous. Illegal logging is often facilitated by questionable government practices that have allowed large timber companies to force over 300,000 rural Cambodians off their lands. Ouch Leng worked undercover in one of the largest of these magnates. When he released photos and videos of what he uncovered, he was forced into hiding due to the numerous death threats against him. As a result of his actions, 220,000 acres of forest has been protected due to public outcry.
The Yanacocha Mine in Peru is one of the largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the world. When the owners decided to develop a new mine ten miles away, they planned on draining four lakes, turning one into a waste-storage pit. The possibility of ecological damage was high. But one substance farmer, Máxima Acuña and her family, would not leave their land. For three years her family was attacked, their home destroyed, and she was even sentenced to prison. But she was able to prove ownership to her property, and in 2014 the courts ruled in her favor. Her actions stopped the mine being developed.
For millennia the indigenous tribes of the Maasai and Hadzabe people have peacefully existed on the Tanzanian rangelands. The nomadic communities were natural stewards of the land, taking only what they needed, and moving on when needed. With the advent of large-scale commercial farms, national parks, and tourism operations, they were forced from their land. Edward Loure grew up in the Maasai tribe and spent over a decade creating a new way for the indigenous peoples to have access to their ancestral lands. As a result, over 200,000 acres have been set-aside, with another 970,000 acres in the works.
Destiny Watford began fighting for her small neighborhood of Curtis Bay in Baltimore when she was 16. The community is home to the nations largest medical-waste incinerator, plus numerous chemical plants. The high incidences of cancer, asthma, and heart disease in her community were testament to the damage being inflicted, so when plans were announced for the nation's largest trash incinerator, she decided to take a stand. Using the arts, and her fellow classmates, she was able to put a stop to the planned incinerator, and is working to turn the site into a solar farm and recycling facility.
Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera
During his 16-year fight to protect a 3,000 acres section of pristine Puerto Rican coastline, Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera faced down his own government, mega-developers, and a public that did not understand the importance of the area. As one of the few undisturbed Leatherback Turtle nesting areas in the world, the area is an ecological gem. Working for free, he founded the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor, and was able to stop the development of two mega-resorts. He is working now to secure the purchase of private lands in the area to ensure no future development.