These are dark times for grassroots activists. Just weeks ago, President Bush dismissed millions of anti-war protesters as little more than a “focus group” — a group whose opinions he was determined to ignore, and did. But the indifference of the world’s sole superpower is only one of the obstacles facing activists. Today’s problems are often international in scale and staggeringly complex in their origins and effects. How, then, to begin tackling them?
The winners of the 2003 Goldman Environmental Prizes — interviewed here in this special edition of Grist — have earned one of environmentalism’s highest honors because they found ways to answer that question. These seven extraordinary women and men took on overwhelming environmental and social problems — from mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia to nuclear waste dumping in Australia — and made a difference, sometimes in the face of life-threatening opposition. “You really haven’t been intimidated,” says mining activist Julia Bonds, “until you see a 60-ton coal truck swerve at you on a narrow road.”
The Goldman Prize was established in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Each year, the prize is awarded to one grassroots activist or team of activists from each major section of the globe: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South and Central America, and islands or island nations. Winners receive $125,000 each, no strings attached. Past honorees include Lois Gibbs, the former homemaker who fought chemical waste dumping in New York’s Love Canal; Emma Must, an English librarian who began a national direct-action campaign against road-building by chaining herself to a bulldozer; and Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni environmental activist who fought oil exploitation by Royal Dutch/Shell in his Nigerian homeland until he was executed by the nation’s corrupt government in 1995. This year’s prizewinners are to be honored in a ceremony held at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco on April 14.
Environmental organizations around the world nominate individuals for the prize, and the winners are chosen by a panel of activists, policy-makers, and former prizewinners. Most winners use the money from the award to further their work — and all of them say the recognition boosts their confidence, builds international support for their cause, and sometimes even gains them the grudging admiration of their foes.
In this special edition of Grist, we interview this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize winners, who share with us their struggles, motivations, and triumphs. Their extraordinary courage and commitment are a source of inspiration for hardworking environmental activists everywhere.
- Odigha Odigha of Nigeria has spent years fighting to protect his nation’s last remaining rainforests — a fight that has taken place both in public and underground, as he hid from a hostile and corrupt regime.
- Julia Bonds, a seventh-generation West Virginian, has dedicated her life to battling the mountaintop-removal mining that is devastating Appalachia.
- Von Hernandez has spent almost a decade battling waste incineration in his native Philippines, an effort that led to his country becoming the first in the world to adopt a nationwide ban on incineration.
- Eileen Wani Wingfield, a septuagenarian Aborigine from southern Australia, has organized women to fight the construction of a radioactive-waste dump on her people’s land.
- Pedro Arrojo-Agudo leads a mass movement opposing the construction of 120 dams along Spain’s second-longest river, a project that would displace tens of thousands of people and submerge entire towns.
- Maria Elena Foronda Farro has campaigned to clean up the devastating pollution from Peru’s fishmeal producers and make the industry more sustainable.