Goldman Environmental Prize Winners Offer a Lesson in Courage

Annual prize, now in its 25th year, is an important reminder of the seriousness of environmental advocacy

Being an environmental activist in the United States (or Canada, or most of Europe) is so easy. Sure, the hours are long and the pay — if there is any, which is a privilege in itself — sucks. Most of the hard work is thankless. But you can go organize a protest against, say, the Keystone XL pipeline or a clearcut logging proposal and know that, when the demonstration is done, you can go home safely. You might even be lucky enough to be part of a community of like-minded dissidents whose similar passion energizes you. And even if and when you do decide to cross the line into civil disobedience, the consequences are likely to be no greater than a few hours in plastic handcuffs and then a relatively modest fine.

Sometimes, I worry that environmental activism in this country is too easy. I know, I know: There’s usually little to be gained from martyrdom. I’d rather have bodies in the streets than activists behind bars. Still, I can’t help but feel there’s a certain cognitive dissonance embedded in most of our environmental activism. The stakes are huge — the very sustainability of human civilization, the fate of countless millions of other species — yet the personal risks are low. When so little is demanded of us, it can be easy to forget how much we’re fighting for.

It’s crucial to remember how important — and how truly radical, in the best sense of the word — our advocacy is. This is one reason I am always grateful for the Goldman Environmental Prize, which serves as an annual wakeup call about the seriousness of the struggle to defend life on Earth.

Now in its twenty-fifth year, the Goldman Prize has become the preeminent honor for environmental activists. Each year the Goldman Foundation recognizes six activists from around the world who have demonstrated awesome courage, creativity, and resilience in their efforts to defend wild nature and human communities. Courage is the key word there. Often the Goldman winners have endured severe repression, death threats, even physical violence. Often when I hear the Goldman winners’ stories, I am reminded that the work for environmental justice and ecological sanity is a direct challenge to some of the greatest powers on the planet — the fossil fuel industry, the mineral companies, industrial agriculture, and the political hacks that serve them. And I’m reminded that success won’t come without a brutal, sweaty, and — yes — bloody fight.

This year’s winners, which include an anti-coal activist who was shot and crippled and a biologist now in exile from his homeland because of his advocacy, follow in the proud tradition of past Goldman Prize winners. I hope that as you read their stories you’ll get a jolt of inspiration.

The 2014 Goldman winners are:

Desmond D’Sa, South Africa

Desmond D'SaAll photos courtesy Goldman Awards

The city of Durban is one of the industrial centers of South Africa. Some 300 industrial-scale facilities are located there: paper mills, chemical plants, and oil and gas refineries. This heavy industry is disproportionately in South Durban, home to 300,000 mostly low-income, working class people who were forcibly relocated there under the apartheid regime to provide a labor pool for the factories. Local refer to the area as “cancer valley.”

In 1990 a company called Wasteman opened up a landfill to take hazardous waste from the nearby plants. Wasteman never sought input from the locals before setting up shop, so when the company sought to expand the toxic waste dump in 2009, local residents launched a campaign to top it. A former chemical plant employee, Desmond D’Sa, formed a group called the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance dedicated to fighting Wasteman’s plans. D’Sa organized the diverse ethnic groups of the area into a united front, researched what chemicals were being disposed of, and deployed “bucket brigades” to measure air quality in the region.

In 2010, after being pummeled in the South Africa media, Wasteman announced it was pulling back from its plans to expand the dump site. A year later, the landfill officially closed.

D’Sa has faced serious dangers because of his leadership. His house was firebombed, leaving him with scars and his family terrorized. But he remains committed to the struggle. “We have agitated, we have lobbied, to get the industry bosses held accountable for their actions,” he says. “We have showed that as a united force we can stop environmental racism.”

Ramesh Agrawal, India

Ramesh Agrawal

Nearly a fifth of India’s coal deposits are found in the state of Chhattisgarh. As coal mining companies rush to extract this coal to meet India’s huge energy demands, conflicts between local villagers and the coal companies have become more common, especially since traditional agricultural communities are rarely given a say in whether and where mining projects will occur. Often the mining interests are able to use their connections to national politicians to force through their mine proposals.

In 2008 Ramesh Agrawal, the owner of a local Internet café, began organizing against a huge mine spearheaded by a company called Jindal Steel and Power Ltd, owned by a member of India’s Congress Party. The mine would have been the largest in the state, but, as Agrawal learned, local villagers had not been informed about the mine or it’s possible environmental hazards, a violation of their legal right to vote whether or not to allow a mine in their neighborhood. “We were told the villages had no objections to the mining,” he says. “But there was no prior and informed consent.”

Agrawal began barnstorming the countryside to warn communities about the coming mine. The backlash came swiftly. ““First they tried to bribe me,” Argawal says. “Then they trapped me in a legal case and had me thrown in in jail. Still I pursued them.”

In 2012, after years of Agrawal’s organizing, a national tribunal revoked the mine’s permits, citing Jindal Steel’s failure to hold public meetings and obtain environmental clearance for the project.

Not long after the mine was defeated, gunmen broke into Agrawal’s Internet café and shot him in the leg, shattering his bones. He is still recovering today, and has to walk with a cane. But he has no regrets. “Every man has a responsibility to his society and his country. As human beings, we must preserve our natural resources and protect the environment,” Agrawal says.

Suren Gazaryan, Russia

Suren Gazaryan

Suren Gazaryan developed a deep love for wild nature when he was a boy. He often explored the wilderness area of Krasnodar, a region in a Western Caucuses that includes some of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in Europe, and eventually developed a passion for caving. His passion became an profession as his fascination with bats led to graduate studies and a career in zoology.

While doing fieldwork in Krasnodar in the 1990s, Gazaryan discovered illegal logging and construction in the area. The unchecked development worsened as members of the Russian elite began building massive luxury getaways in the area. The forest clearing accelerated when, in 2007, the nearby town of Sochi was picked to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Gazaryan began collaborating with a local conservation group, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, to monitor and try to stop the deforestation: “I said to myself, we are losing this site we have been studying. What’s the point in studying it if we’re going to lose it tomorrow?” The grassroots activists even challenged plans for a lavish palace on being built for then-president Dmitry Medvedev.

Gazaryan’s energy paid off. Illegal logging in the Chernogorye Wildlife Refuge was halted. In 2010, after years of intensive campaigning, the Utrish Nature Preserve on the Northwest shore of the Black Sea was created with the highest level of protection available under Russian law.

The victories, however, have come at a real personal cost. In June 2012 Gazaryan was sentenced to a three-year probation for organizing a rally near the regional governor’s mansion. Then, just a few months later, he was charged with allegedly threatening to kill security guards at an illegal construction site. Today he is living in exile in Estonia. “My main goal is to continue to try to change people’s consciousness so they better understand that nature isn’t just something that we can sell off and get rich on,” Gazaryan says. “We have to preserve these places for future generations.”

Rudi Putra, Indonesia

Rudi Putra

It might sound counterintuitive, but Indonesia activist Rudi Putra is working to save the rainforests of Aceh by using a chainsaw.

A biologist by training, Putra has dedicated himself to removing the illegal palm oil plantations that are driving deforestation around his home. About 90 percent of the world’s palm oil (a widely used ingredient in cosmetics and processed foods) comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite a current moratorium on logging for palm plantations in Indonesia — signed by the Malaysian president in 2011 — illegal palm plantings continue.

Putra’s passion is the Sumatran rhino, very few of which remain in the wild. At first, he tried to help the rhino through anti-poaching efforts. Eventually he realized that the greatest threat to the rhino was deforestation: “If its habitat continues to be disturbed, this species will go extinct,” he says.

So Putra began working with area police, local villagers, and some palm oil companies to identify and then chop down illegal palm plantings. His work has resulted in the dismantling of more than 1,200 acres of palm oil plantations. Within a few years, he has found, the native jungle returns and restores the landscape. “The forest returned on it own, naturally,” he says.

Helen Slottje, United States

Helen Slottje

When Helen Slottje quit her high-powered, well-paying job at a corporate law firm in Boston and moved to Ithaca to be with her new husband, David, she was hoping to make a quiet new life for herself amid the bucolic scenery of upstate New York. It was a real shift, she says, to go “from corporate lawyer to … having a better quality of life.”

Then, in 2007, she learned about natural gas fracking. Soon her efforts to halt the natural gas rush near her new home had become just as consuming as her former corporate job — with all of the long hours and tremendous stress, but none of the nice salary.

Using the skills she had developed during her time as corporate lawyers, Slottje helped the grassroots anti-fracking activists to carefully parse the voluminous reports from New York Department of Environmental Conservation. She gave fracking opponents pointers on how to prepare and deliver effective public testimony to be used at local and state hearings. And eventually, after carefully combing through the New York State Constitution, Helen Slottje found a way to empower local communities to keep fracking out of their areas.

“My thinking was, there has to be something,” Slottje says. “I don’t know what it is, but if I sit down and look at everything, there has to be something. It would be so unfair, and effectively un-American, that this could happen in your town and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”

Under the home rule provisions of New York State law, Slottje concluded, towns could use their zoning ordinances to reject gas drilling within their jurisdictions. “While you couldn’t regulate the industry, you could just say no.”

That was in 2010. Four years later, 172 towns throughout New York have passed fracking bans or moratoria. The strategy has spread to other states across the country, as communities from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Colorado have voted to prohibit fracking, which has been linked to ground water contamination, small earthquakes, impacts on human health, and at least one massive fish kill.

Ruth Buendía, Peru

Ruth Buendia

In 2010, the governments of Brazil and Peru signed an agreement to construct a series of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin. Most of the energy would go to Brazil, but most of the impacts would hit the Indigenous communities of Peru. For example, the Asháninka people who live on the Ene River would see their homeland destroyed by the Pakitzapango dam. “This place is sacred to us culturally as Asháninka,” says dam opponent Ruth Buendía. “We have creation roots here. This is the place where all Indigenous Amazon people first appeared.”

The bi-national agreement had failed to get prior and informed consent for the dam from the Asháninka, a violation of human rights treaties that both Brazil and Peru have signed. “If the government has given us these legal rights, it’s up to us to apply the law,” Buendía says.

So Buendía — who at just the age of 27 had become the executive director of the Asháninka Center of the Ene River (CARE) — traveled to Washington, DC to present a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In December 2010, as a result of Buendía’s advocacy, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy rejected a request from Pakitzapango Energy that would have allowed the dam to move forward. In 2011, the main shareholder in the dam announced that it was withdrawing its support. With the dam now tied up in legal limbo, Buendía has expanded her advocacy to demand land rights for her people.

“CARE always has to be on the lookout, like an eagle, carefully watching what the government is doing,” she says. “The hydroelectric dam project was our wakeup call.”

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