- This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors one grassroots activist from each of the six inhabited continents.
- The 2021 prize winners are Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez from Ecuador; Chima Williams from Nigeria; Julien Vincent from Australia; Marjan Minnesma from the Netherlands; Nalleli Cobo from the United States; and Niwat Roykaew from Thailand
Seven grassroots environmental activists will receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize today, on May 25. Known as the Green Nobel Prize, the Goldman Prize honors environmental activists from each of the six continental regions. The prize was founded in 1989 by U.S. philanthropists Rhoda and Richard Goldman.
This year’s winners include a duo of Indigenous forest defenders who protected their ancestral territory from mining; a lawyer who held a multinational oil company responsible for damages to communities; an organizer whose campaign effectively stopped coal financing in Australia; a woman who sued the Netherlands over climate change and won; a youth activist who led a movement that shut an oil drilling site; and a beloved teacher who halted catastrophic blasting to widen the Mekong River.
“While the many challenges before us can feel daunting, and at times make us lose faith, these seven leaders give us a reason for hope and remind us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity,” said Jennifer Goldman Wallis, vice president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
“They have not been silenced — despite great risks and personal hardship,” said Susie Gelman, also a vice president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, “and we must also not be silent, either. It takes all of us.”
The winners will be honored in a virtual ceremony that will be streamed live on YouTube and Facebook on May 25 at 5:00 pm PDT, featuring Jane Fonda as host, musical guests Angelique Kidjo and the Detroit Youth Choir, narration by Sigourney Weaver, and a special appearance from Dr. Jane Goodall.
Here are the winners of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize:
Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez, Ecuador
Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez led an Indigenous movement to safeguard the ancestral territory of their people from gold mining.
Alex Lucitante, 29, and Alexandra Narvaez, 30, led an Indigenous movement to protect their ancestral territory from gold mining. Located in northern Ecuador, the ancestral territory of the Cofán of Sinangoe contains rainforests, wetlands, mountains, the headwaters of the Aguarico River (a tributary of the Amazon River) and the Cayambe volcano.
The Cofán number just 1,200 and rely on the forests and rivers for their way of life. But despite them having a land title, the government has not completely recognized the ancestral lands of the Cofán, and has offered no protection from illegal logging, small-scall illegal mining, and poaching.
Alexandra Narvaez, 30, formed a forest patrol called La Guardia in 2017 to monitor and stop illegal activities in their territory. She is also the president of Shamec’co, an association of women that “seeks to safeguard Cofán territory for the next generations.” Alex Lucitante, 29, is from a family of traditional healers and a member of the Ceibo Alliance, a coalition that works for Indigenous rights.
La Guardia patrols began to see remote mining encampments along the riverbanks within their territory in 2017, and larger industrial mining equipment in 2018. They found out that the Ecuadoran government had issued 20 large-scale mining concessions, with a few dozen more pending in Cofán territory, without informing or consulting the community.
The duo sprang into action to unify the Cofán and develop a plan. Narvaez organized patrols while Lucitante moved forward with legal and media strategies. They also placed camera traps and used mapping technology and drones to document illegal activities.
In early 2018, the community filed a lawsuit against Ecuador’s government for illegally granting mining concessions in their Indigenous territory without free, prior and informed consent.
In October 2018, the court ruled in favor of the Cofán, canceling all mining concessions, halting current mining operations, and calling for remediation to areas damaged by mining in the Cofán territory. This decision is being used as an example case by the country’s Constitutional Court to set a precedent in Ecuador for the respect of the rights of Indigenous peoples and to guarantee free, prior and informed consent.
Chima Williams, Nigeria
Chima Williams organized two communities affected by oil spill damages in the Niger Delta to sue oil major Shell. After a 13- year legal battle, the company was held accountable for the first time in a Dutch court.
Nigeria is the 13th-largest producer of oil in the world. Most of the nation’s oil fields are found in Africa’s largest wetland, the Niger Delta, which is also home to millions of people closely tied to the land. An average of 240,000 barrels of crude oil spill into the Niger Delta environment each year from pipelines and oil wells, contaminating the water, crops, mangrove forests, and fisheries that people depend on for their livelihoods.
Chima Williams has been in the fight for a long time. He founded the Students Environmental Assembly Nigeria in 1998, the country’s first-ever student-run environmental justice group, and is now the executive director of ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. He currently serves as an environmental lawyer who prosecutes corporations over environmental pollution cases in Nigeria.
In 2004 and 2005, oil spills caused by a subsidiary of Shell, Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria (SPDC), polluted farmland, drinking water and wetlands in and around Goi and Oruma. SPDC operates more than 6,000 km (3,700 mi) of pipelines in the Niger Delta.
When Williams found out, he organized community meetings and surveys of the pipelines and oil spill damage and brought together the communities of Goi and Oruma to take legal action against SPDC and Shell (still Royal Dutch Shell at the time, before its rebranding this year) in the Netherlands.
In 2008, Williams helped the victims of oil spill damage sue both entities for lost income due to contaminated land and waterways, on behalf of Goi and Oruma farmers and fishermen. When the court ruled in favor of the oil companies in 2013, Williams organized an appeal. While waiting for the hearing, the legal team gained access to documents revealing that Shell was aware of the poor management of the Goi pipeline and that it needed replacing — meaning that Shell had lied in court.
Finally, in January 2021, the Court of Appeal of the Hague ruled that Shell has control over SPDC’s operations and a duty to prevent oil spills, meaning that the Goi and Oruma farmers were owed compensation. This landmark decision marks the first time Shell has been held accountable in a Dutch court and lays the path for other communities affected by oil spills to sue for environmental damages.
Julien Vincent, Australia
Julien Vincent goes after the fossil fuel industry where it hurts: their finances. His NGO has since 2013 targeted the industry’s financial enablers — no small task in Australia, where coal is a lifeblood of the economy.
Australia is the second-biggest exporter of coal by volume in the world. New coal projects largely depend on loans from the country’s four major banks: Commonwealth, Westpac, ANZ and NAB. The coal industry is supported by the current government, despite its known contributions to climate change.
Julien Vincent, 41, founded Market Forces in 2013, an NGO that fights climate change by targeting the financial enablers of coal and fossil fuel extraction, refining and export. Vincent determined that coal was a major climate culprit in Australia and launched a multilayered strategy.
He presented the leaders of financial institutions with meticulous data on the risks and costs of coal investment, combining financial arguments with personal appeals; empowered employees to speak out; ran ads; partnered with a coalition of other advocacy groups; and engaged shareholders to call for an end to coal financing.
After continued pressure, protests and direct engagement with executives, QBE Insurance Group announced that it would stop insuring new coal projects and end its exposure to coal by 2030. Suncorp pledged that it will no longer insure new coal projects and would exit any existing projects by 2025. Now, there are no Australian insurers willing to underwrite new coal projects.
In 2019, Commonwealth Bank committed to end its coal investments by 2030, followed by the other major banks, effectively drying up capital for new coal projects in Australia.
Marjan Minnesma, Netherlands
Marjan Minnesma led a campaign to sue the government of the Netherlands for breaching its duty of care by failing to enact measures to protect citizens from climate change — and won.
In contrast to its environmentally progressive image, the Netherlands is a major polluter. Nearly 90% of its energy is generated by coal and natural gas, despite the nation’s vulnerability to climate change and sea level rise (a third of the country lies below sea level).
Marjan Minnesma, 55, who has worked in fields ranging from physics to philosophy, founded Urgenda in 2001 to work full-time on climate solutions. Urgenda filed a lawsuit against the Dutch government in November 2013, arguing that the government was endangering Dutch citizens due to its inaction on climate change, and that it has a legal obligation to protect them. It demanded a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.
Minnesma rallied the public, and in 2015 the Hague’s district court ruled that the Dutch government had breached its duty of care by failing to enact measures to protect citizens from climate change.
In December 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the decision and forced the government to cut emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020.
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, called the ruling “the strongest decision ever issued by any court in the world on climate change, and the only one that has actually ordered reductions in greenhouse gas emissions based on constitutional grounds.”
Activists in Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand are following taking similar actions, inspired by Minnesma’s work.
Nalleli Cobo, United States
Nalleli Cobo, now 20, began her activism at age 9, spurred by physical symptoms from an oil well close to her home in Los Angeles. A cancer survivor, she led a citizens’ movement that shut down an oil drilling site and initiated the process to phase out the largest urban oil field in the U.S.
Los Angeles, California is one of the largest urban oil fields in the U.S. Thousands of active oil wells are hidden throughout this city of more than 4 million people, often in low-income, Black and Latino neighborhoods. Urban oil wells have been clearly linked to asthma and other health problems, and some 580,000 Angelenos live less than a quarter mile (600 meters) from an active well.
One drilling site, operated by AllenCo Energy, was located behind a building 10 m (30 feet) from Nalleli Cobo’s childhood home. The site emitted pollution and she and others suffered from nosebleeds, headaches, and other serious health impacts.
Cobo, now 20 years old, began her activism at age 9, spurred by the terrible smells and physical symptoms from the well. She co-founded People not Pozos, which aims to secure safe and healthy neighborhoods, and the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, which focuses on environmental racism in the community.
Cobo and her mother began walking door to door in 2011 to distribute information about the dangers of oil extraction. As the community began to organize, she became a central voice, speaking skillfully at events and testifying at government meetings, which garnered press coverage and support from elected officials.
Cobo filed complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA hired a toxicologist who confirmed that the air near the oil site was polluted. In response, AllenCo voluntarily suspended operations at the site in 2013, a move that was made permanent in 2020.
AllenCo executives now face 24 criminal charges for environmental health and safety violations. In September 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban new oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county and examine the status of existing ones.
Cobo was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19. After surgeries and treatment, she was declared cancer-free but cannot have children as a result of her illness. Despite these hardships, she led a citizens’ movement that shut an oil drilling site and initiated the process to phase out the largest urban oil field in the U.S.
Niwat Roykaew (Kru Thi), Thailand
When a Chinese development company proposed blasting the Mekong River to accommodate massive cargo ships, Niwat Roykaew organized communities and scientists to petition the government and sustained action that eventually halted the development plan.
The Mekong River flows through China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, providing food and water and irrigation for more than 65 million people and boasting an immense diversity of aquatic life. In the early 2000s, China announced plans to blast rocky sections of the Mekong near the Thai-Laotian border to accommodate 500-ton Chinese cargo ships.
Niwat Roykaew, known as “Kru Thi” (“teacher” in Thai), now in his 60s, was born and raised on the banks of the Mekong River in Chiang Kong district. A retired schoolteacher, Kru Thi founded the Chiang Kong Conservation Group, a network of 30 Thai villages united to address environmental and social issues.
When he learned about the blasting project, he began organizing communities, and drawing media attention toward the threats to the ecosystem. Kru Thi led boat demonstrations on the Mekong and brought a petition to the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok. He employed citizen science to identify 100 species of fish and worked with researchers to further document the biodiversity in the upper Mekong.
Kru Thi prompted the Thai government ministries and parliamentary committees to travel to Chiang Kong to meet with him and his colleagues. Following continued opposition, the Chinese developers also met with Kru Thi and locals.
In December 2017, Thailand’s foreign minister announced that China had suspended the project. However, construction began on an upstream section of the river, and 200 kilometers (124 miles) were blasted.
But Kru Thi, along with civil society, scientists, and academics, continued to resist. Finally, in 2020, the Thai government announced that it was canceling the project due to potentially devastating environmental and social impacts — a rare, formal win in a region under substantial development pressure.
Kru Thi is continuing his work as an advocate of the river and is teaching youth how to be the next generation of river caretakers.
Banner image photos of the 2022 winners courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
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