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Meet the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners

  • This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors one grassroots activist from each of the six inhabited continents.
  • The 2021 prize winners are Sharon Lavigne from the United States, Gloria Majiga-Kamoto from Malawi, Thai Van Nguyen from Vietnam, Maida Bilal from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kimiko Hirata from Japan, and Liz Chicaje Churay from Peru.

The prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “Green Nobel Prize” will be awarded today to six environmental activists, one from each of the world’s inhabited continents.

This year’s winners include a special education teacher whose activism stopped the construction of a billion-dollar plastics manufacturing plant along the Mississippi River; a woman whose efforts led to the creation of a national park in Peru the size of Yellowstone; a community leader whose organizing and 500-day blockade of heavy equipment stopped the construction of two dams in the Balkans; an activist who helped cancel 13 coal power plants in Japan and is the first female prize winner from Japan; a man who has dedicated his life to rescuing endangered pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade and ending poaching; and a woman who fought for a national ban on thin plastics manufacturing in Malawi.

“When it comes to the environment, the global community of grassroots activists, leaders, thinkers, and philanthropists is only growing and becoming more sophisticated, more united, more powerful,” Susie Gelman, vice president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said in a press release.

“These Prize winners have so much to teach us about the path forward and how to maintain the balance with nature that is key to our survival,” Gelman said. “They have not been silenced — despite great risks and personal hardship — and we must also not be silent, either. It takes all of us.”

This year’s ceremony will take place virtually today, June 15, at 4 p.m. PDT and will be hosted by Jane Fonda with musical guests Lenny Kravitz, Baaba Maal, and the Ndlovu Youth Choir. Sigourney Weaver and Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate will make special appearances.

Here are the winners of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize:
Sharon Lavigne, United States
Sharon Lavigne’s activism stopped the construction of a billion-dollar plastics manufacturing plant alongside the Mississippi River in Lousiana’s notorious “cancer alley.” Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

A 130-kilometer (80-mile) stretch along the Mississippi River, not far from New Orleans, has earned a grim nickname: “cancer alley.” Here, where 200 petrochemical plants operate, cancer rates are 50 times higher than the national average in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Despite these statistics, plans are in place for the construction of more than 100 additional petrochemical facilities, concentrated around St. James parish.

In 2018, Wanhua, a Chinese company, proposed the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant between the Mississippi River and a mostly Black community in St. James. The plant was set to release many environmental toxins such as formaldehyde and benzene, and make hundreds of tons of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). MDI, a chemical used in foam production, is also known to affect human respiratory health and cause tumors in rats.

The parish council granted permits to Wanhua, altered zoning so the plant could be close to homes, and granted the company a decade-long exemption from property taxes. Even in a Black and low-income community entrenched in environmental racism, this was a slap in the face.

Sharon Lavigne, the 69-year-old daughter of civil rights activists who has lived her whole life in St. James parish, was not going to let this happen. A former special education teacher, Lavigne turned her efforts full-time to environmental activism in 2018 and founded RISE St. James, a grassroots, faith-based, environmental organization. The first meeting was in her living room.

Lavigne took what she had learned from her parents’ work in the civil rights movement to lead her own movement. She went to parish council meetings and other hearings and became a strong voice there. She mobilized volunteers to go door to door, focusing on communities that would be most at risk from the plant. 

Lavigne brought experts into town hall meetings to educate community members, wrote letters and ads for local media, and organized marches. She forged coalitions between church groups, civic organizations, and local and national NGOs.

Her intense campaigning paid off in 2019, when Wanhua withdrew its land use application. She and the coalition she built had prevented millions of pounds of toxic waste from entering the environment and defended St. James parish from another toxic plant.

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, Malawi
Gloria Majiga-Kamoto’s activism resulted in a ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics in Malawi. Here, she stands in front of plastic pollution at the Mudi River bridge. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Around the world, plastic pollution has become a huge problem. In Malawi, 75,000 tons of plastic are produced each year, most of it thin plastics (less than 60 microns in thickness, typically used in plastic bags). Plastic clogs drains, leading to breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry malaria; one study found plastic in the guts of 40% of slaughtered cows in a Malawian community.

Environmental activists pressured the government to ban the production, distribution, and importation of thin plastic in 2015, but before the ban was enacted the Malawi Plastics Manufacturing Association appealed, and the ban was halted.

That’s when Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, a 30-year-old program officer for the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, stepped in. Although she already worked full-time on environmental issues, she began to direct her own time toward campaigning for a ban on thin plastics. In 2017, Majiga-Kamoto formed a coalition of NGOs and activists to get the story of plastics out to the people.

The Malawi Plastics Manufacturing Association argued that the ban would cost jobs, but Majiga-Kamoto debated the industry, countering with the effects of plastics on rivers, lakes, agriculture, animals, and public health.

After two more years of organizing, on July 31, 2019, the High Court of Malawi ruled in favor of enforcing a ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics, as well as authorization to fine offending companies. Since then, three companies illegally making plastics have been closed.

Liz Chicaje Churay, Peru
Liz Chicaje Churay is an Indigenous leader whose activism helped to create the Yaguas National Park, protecting an area the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Image courtesy of the Goldman Prize.

The megadiverse northeast corner of the Peruvian Amazon is scattered with peatlands. Peatlands are wetlands that are critical for safe drinking water, flood control and biodiversity, and also keep a lot of carbon locked away, mitigating climate change.

For decades, illegal mining and logging have threatened the health of the forest and the people who live around the newly created Yaguas National Park, where some 29 Indigenous communities live just outside its borders.

Liz Chicaje Churay, now 38, is a leader in one of these communities, the Indigenous Bora community of Loreto, Peru. She is also president of an agricultural cooperative and former president of the Federation of Indigenous Communities of the Ampiyacu River. Chicaje became an activist at the age of 16.

Her community decided that establishing a formal national park in the region would offer some protection against increased invasion from illegal loggers and would protect the forests, peatlands and waterways, so they launched a campaign.

Working with researchers, conservationists and government officials, Chicaje and her community began mapping the region with satellite imagery and educating Peruvians across society. In 2017, Chicaje and another Indigenous community leader, Benjamin Rodriguez, attended the COP23 climate summit in Bonn, Germany, as part of Peru’s official delegation.

Chicaje and her team traveled into remote regions of the forest to strategize with other Indigenous groups, ultimately convincing 23 of the 29 local Indigenous communities to endorse the park.

In January 2018, Peru’s government declared the creation of Yaguas National Park to protect the Amazon rainforest and the peatlands within the forest. The park covers 868,900 hectares (2.15 million acres), an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

Chicaje was nominated for the Goldman Prize with Benjamin Rodriguez, who also worked for the protection of the Yaguas region. Rodriguez died in July 2020 due to complications from COVID-19 (see a remembrance of him at Mongabay here).

Thai Van Nguyen, Vietnam
Thai Van Nguyen has dedicated his life to protecting critically endangered pangolins in Vietnam. Here, he holds a Sunda pangolin at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program. Photo by Suzi Eszterhas.

Pangolins are poached and trafficked more than any mammal in the world, despite the fact that three out of the four species of Asian pangolins are critically endangered. An estimated 1 million pangolins were poached over the past decade, mostly to feed the market for pangolin scales, falsely believed to cure diseases.

Many poached pangolins come from Vietnam, which is part of the reason 39-year-old Thai Van Nguyen established Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) in 2014. Nguyen is the founder and executive director of SVW, whose mission is “to prevent the extinction and champion the recovery of threatened species in Vietnam. “

As a child, Nguyen watched as a mother and baby pangolin were caught and killed near his home. Afterward, he resolved to dedicate his life to pangolin conservation.

Nguyen set up an education and outreach campaign for the public, published research, wrote materials on pangolin care and rescue, and developed the first reintroduction and tracking protocol for Vietnam’s pangolins. He opened the Carnivore and Pangolin Education Center, which provided wildlife conservation courses and educated customs officials, border guards and rangers on wildlife laws and pangolin care. Nguyen also opened the Asian Pangolin Rehabilitation Center, equipped with two advanced veterinary clinics.

To address the poaching problem, Nguyen has followed poachers in the forest to understand their methods. In 2018, he created Vietnam’s first-ever anti-poaching unit. Rangers in the unit learn wildlife tracking, animal identification, navigation, and survival skills for their multiday trips through primary forest in Pu Mat National Park, where they destroy poaching camps and arrest poachers.

Since Nguyen started SVW, 1,540 pangolins have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam, and SVW staff report that illegal poaching activities have decreased by 80%.

Maida Bilal, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Maida Bilal took part in a 500-day blockade and organized the community to stop dam construction on one of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

The Western Balkans contain some of the last free-flowing, undammed rivers in Europe. This biodiversity hotspot contains nearly 70 endemic fish species and 40% of the world’s endangered freshwater mollusk species.

The Kruščica River, in the Western Balkans, is the main water source for nearly 150,000 people, but in 2016 the local municipality allowed permits for the construction of two small hydropower plants along the river without informing or consulting with local communities.

That’s when Maida Bilal got involved. The now 39-year-old is the co-founder and president of the Eko Bistro citizens’ association, formed in late 2017 to protect the Kruščica River.

Bilal was raised in Kruščica, a small village in the mountains west of Sarajevo. Prior to her work to protect the river, she had no experience with environmental activism and worked part-time in finance.

When dam construction began in July of 2017, Bilal, along with 300 others, went to block the bulldozers’ access. The protesters made sure the group was half women, knowing that an all-men group was more likely to be violently targeted.

What was planned as a brief, symbolic protest turned into a key strategy to block the dam. For 503 days, the protesters, mostly women, occupied the bridge around the clock, taking eight-hour shifts through all weather conditions, including the harsh Bosnian winters.

On Aug. 24, 2017, police attacked the protestors, including Bilal, who was struck on the head, and her 70-year-old father, who was arrested. Video of the attack garnered international attention.

While still taking her shifts at the bridge, Bilal went on to launch a grassroots campaign. She started the Eko Bistro citizens’ association, organized protests in the capital, kept media engaged, and sought legal help to challenge the legality of the dams.

In 2018, the local court began annulling permits for the dam, a decision later upheld in regional courts. All permits were canceled in December 218, and the women, finally, left the bridge.

Bilal’s efforts have been called the “first legal and community environmental victory of its kind” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The women’s impromptu effort to protect a free-flowing river became a movement of peaceful resistance in a region of the world still recovering from the pains of war.

Kimiko Hirata, Japan
Kimiko Hirata’s activism resulted in the cancellation of 13 planned coal plants. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

A magnitude 9.1 earthquake and resulting tsunami struck Japan in 2011, causing an environmental catastrophe: the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Afterward, Japan shut the doors on most of its remaining nuclear power plants, leaving a vacuum in the power sector. By 2015, plans for 50 new coal plants were in the works.

Japan is already the fifth-largest global carbon emitter, and coal is among the dirtiest forms of energy, emitting nearly twice the CO2 of natural gas.

Kimiko Hirata, now 50, is the director and founding member of the Kiko Network, a Japanese NGO dedicated to stopping climate change. Hirata participated in the 1997 Kyoto Climate Summit and has dedicated her life to the fight against climate change.

With the threat of more coal power coming down the pipeline, Hirata launched a national anti-coal campaign. Her team at the Kiko Network developed a website to track coal, created a citizens’ network, and collaborated with people across academia, media, law, and the community to raise awareness about the hazards coal presents.

Hirata rallied the public to attend hearings and, along with Greenpeace, released a report asserting that the proposed coal plants would cause more than 1,000 premature deaths each year in Japan.

Her advocacy put pressure on the largest coal financers: commercial banks. She launched a first-of-its-kind resolution in Japan against Mizuho Financial Group and gained the support of more than a third of its shareholders to encourage the group to move away from coal. More than 10 major developers made commitments to no longer finance coal.

As a result of Hirata’s efforts, 13 planned coal plants were canceled, or nearly 40% of planned coal projects, averting an estimated 1.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere — a mammoth feat for an NGO in a country where NGOs are little respected by government and industry.

Hirata is the first female Goldman Prize recipient from Japan.

Banner image photos of the 2021 winners courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

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