Six grassroots environmental activists are recipients of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Awards, presented in a moving ceremony today in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The recipients hail from far-flung corners of the world, with representatives from Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South America, all illustrating the need for action to protect wildlife and ecosystems from the frozen Arctic to the tropical Philippines. The activists, working at the intersection of business, government and community, have endured great personal risk to save land, creatures and indigenous communities from degradation, destruction and death. The ceremony opened with an impassioned speech by one of the children of the Goldman Prize founders. Susie Gellman urged the assembled audience of environmental funders, nonprofits and engaged students to voice their opposition to the XL Pipeline.
Each recipient’s story is amazing, moving, and a little chastening. As we learn of their courage in the face of death threats and seemingly insurmountable opposition, I have to ask myself, do I have the courage to emulate them? The winners are:
IKAL ANGELEI, Kenya
Risking her life, Ikal Angelei is fighting the construction of the massive Gibe 3 Dam that would block access to water for indigenous communities around Lake Turkana.
MA JUN, China
Ma Jun is working with corporations to clean up their practices with an online database and digital map that show which factories are violating environmental regulations across China.
EVGENIA CHIRIKOVA, Russia
In the face of rampant political corruption, Evgenia Chirikova is mobilizing her fellow Russian citizens to reroute a highway that would bisect Moscow’s protected Khimki Forest.
FR. EDWIN GARIGUEZ, Philippines
A Catholic priest, Father Edwin Gariguez is leading a grassroots movement against a large-scale nickel mine to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people.
CAROLINE CANNON, USA
Caroline Cannon is bringing the voice and perspective of her Inupiat community in Point Hope to the battle to keep Arctic waters safe from offshore oil and gas drilling.
SOFIA GATICA, Argentina
A mother whose infant died as a result of pesticide poisoning, Sofia Gatica is organizing local women to stop the indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.
I am not as brave as these exemplary activists, but there are some patterns visible from their successes that can guide all of us in efforts to preserve the planet’s precious and endangered resources and beings. Three tactics emerge:
1. Work both bottom-up and top-down.
The key to creating change is on-the-ground work to inform and involve local communities, especially those who “were here first.” Each prize winner focused on a local issue, such as a dam or a mine or the spraying of toxic chemicals, and worked for change in their immediate area, often with traditionally disenfranchised indigenous people, before trying to affect larger regions. Coupled with local activism, each of the winners worked to marshal pressure on the global power brokers, from the OECD to UNESCO to the European Investment Bank. Sofia Gatica rallied local mothers to investigate the high number of deaths and illnesses in her community in Argentina: “I started meeting with other mothers who were also suffering from the deaths and illnesses of their children and formed the group the Mothers of Ituzaingó. We spent years holding press conferences and demonstrations in attempts to meet with government officials and doctors to get support for our cause. I joined a commission formed by the Córdoba Minister of Health, Horacio Barri, and together we went door to door and recorded more than 200 sick families in the community. Our findings were terrifying—the cancer rate in our community was 41 times the national average.” Father Edwin Gariguez observes the importance of parsing the “good” guys from the “bad”: “The current mining policy is very favorable to the mining companies and we need to change that to remedy the negative impacts that mining has throughout the Philippines. But I do need to give credit to the current administration for their efforts to do away with previous administrations’ actions in terms of corruption.”
2. Technology empowers “ordinary” people.
Several of the prize winners acknowledged the power of the Internet to mobilize and inform their movements. Ikal Angelei of Kenya notes: “We have found that Facebook is one of the most effective methods of communication. It’s the best way we have of telling a large group of people, ‘It’s us against them. We have to stand up for ourselves or no one else will.’” Ma Jun credited social media for finally causing Apple to capitulate and apply pressure around the activities of their suppliers: “But most importantly, the consumers in China and western countries have been posting about Apple’s environmental pollution on blogs, Twitter and other social media channels, pressing Apple to respond. I trust that the pressure is coming from various sources.”
New tactics need to support the tried and true methods of getting attention and soliciting action. Father Gariguez led an 11-day hunger strike to stop destructive nickel mining. A letter-writing campaign to UNESCO served to protect the Khimki forest in Russia that was threatened by the cronyism of Vladimir Putin and his allies.
3. Show up, don’t give up.
Environmental activism, like so much effective change, is 90 percent showing up, being present, vocal and persistent at countless city council meetings, demonstrations, and hearings. Persistence in the face of miserable odds can pay off, as Evgenia Chirikova notes: “We were able to organize a crowd of over 5,000 for one of the largest environmental protests in Russian history, and organized protest camps in the forest that have lasted many months through the dead of winter, despite the extreme cold and many attempts by the police to attack the groups and shut us down.” Inupiat (Native American) Caroline Cannon attended hundreds of industry meetings and federal hearings, representing the concerns of the tiny community of Point Hope, Alaska, and its dependence on an Arctic free of pollution. She noted that the work never ends; even promises from a president need to be monitored: “I was excited and nervous to meet President Obama. When he hugged me at the end of our meeting, and thanked me for representing my community so strongly, I was hopeful that he would stay true to his word about protecting our land. As we get closer to the government’s decision on Arctic drilling this spring I hope he keeps his promise to protect our community.”
While working to pass laws to protect the environment and people is important, we see time and again that it is not enough, that corrupt officials and corporations’ focus on quick profits at the expense of ancient peoples and land short-circuits the protection put in place. Only constant vigilance and pressure can ensure the we have a diverse and healthy environment to pass on to future generations. By working with local communities and communicating local needs and injustice to the rest of the world, all those who care about the environment can play an important part.
Image: 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipients. www.goldmanprize.org