Goldman Environmental Prize Winners Offer a Spark of Inspiration

Six eco leaders from around the world receive a cash prize and international recognition for their accomplishments

Environmental activism — like any other attempt at social change — is a slog. Victories are often tempered by setbacks and even the most clear cut wins can seem provisional. As David Brower, the founder of Earth Island Journal, famously said, speaking about how environmental defense is a constant struggle: “All of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent.” The effort for sustainability will always be a work in progress.

2013 Goldman Prize winnersPhoto courtesy The Goldman AwardsThe winners (clockwise from top left): Jonathan Deal, South Africa; Kimberly Wasserman, USA; Azzam Alwash, Iraq; Rossano Ercolini, Italy; Aleta Baun, Indonesia; and Nohra Padilla, Colombia.

It’s essential, then, that we take time to step back and recognize environmental victories when they come. It’s a matter of sanity, if nothing else.

By identifying and celebrating some of the most courageous environmental activists around the world, the Goldman Environmental Prize delivers a much-needed jolt of inspiration. Yes, Earth is beleaguered. But, even more important, there are people who are dedicating their lives to ensuring that we leave the planet as healthy as we found it.

Now in its twenty-fourth year, the Goldman Environmental Prize is sometimes called the Nobel Prize for the environmental movement. Winners — who come from every continent as well as island states — receive a $150,000 cash prize and the kind of international attention that offers a huge boost to local campaigns. Past winners include Wangari Maathai, founder of Africa’s Green Belt Movement, anti-mountaintop removal coal mining activist Judy Bonds, and Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many others.

The 2013 prizewinners were announced Monday morning. From the Goldman Prize’s press release about this year’s recipients:

With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, Jonathan Deal led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.

Giving up a comfortable living and family life in California, Azzam Alwash returned to war-torn Iraq to lead local communities in restoring the once-lush marshes that were turned to dustbowls during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

An elementary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement.

ALETA BAUN, Indonesia
By organizing hundreds of local villagers to peacefully occupy marble mining sites in “weaving protests,” Aleta Baun stopped the destruction of sacred forestland in Mutins Mountain on the island of Timor.

Kimberly Wasserman led local residents in a successful campaign to shut down two of the country’s oldest and dirtiest power plants—and is now transforming Chicago’s old industrial sites into parks and multi-use spaces.

Unfazed by powerful political opponents and a pervasive culture of violence, Nohra Padilla organized Colombia’s marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management.

The winners will be recognized tonight at a ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House. I’ll be among those in the audience (live tweeting, in case you’re curious), eager to receive a breath of inspiration from these powerful individuals.

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