The winners: (clockwise from left) López, Ewango, Roth, Tamayo, Goldman (cofounder of the prize), Atakhanova, Jean-Baptiste.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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You know it’s been a tough year when you’ve spent half of it wondering if you’re dead. Since the October debut of “The Death of Environmentalism,” many environmentalists in the U.S. have indulged in spells of gloomy self-questioning. Do environmentalists need to rethink their priorities? Talk more about human beings than critters? Get religion? Give themselves a new name? The strategic questions have been endless, and often frustratingly abstract.

Of course, it’s helpful for a movement to take a critical look at itself. But it’s important to remember that some problems don’t require long discussions of priorities or strategy. They’re so obvious, and so serious, that they simply demand action, commitment, and a lot of courage. Throughout the world, passionate people — whether they call themselves environmentalists or not — are tackling concrete threats to humans and the world they live in. And the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize are among the most inspiring.

These six grassroots activists come from all over the world — Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South and Central America, and island nations. They’ve braved assassination attempts, civil war, and exile. They’ve confronted parliaments, presidents, corrupt government agencies, and the World Bank, and they’ve managed to change some minds in the process. Though their work is far from done, each reports substantial victories: forests protected, destructive projects derailed, protests acknowledged, trees planted.

The annual Goldman Prize is one of the field’s highest honors, established in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman (he founded Goldman Insurance Services in San Francisco; she was a descendant of jeans-maker Levi Strauss). Winners are nominated by environmental organizations and chosen by a panel of activists, including past recipients. Each receives an award of $125,000. This year’s winners will be honored in a ceremony in San Francisco on April 18.

In this special series, Grist speaks with the honorees, sharing their tales of triumph and defeat, of agony and ecstasy — and providing just a smidgen of hope.

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  • Kaisha Atakhanova, a biologist from the Republic of Kazakhstan, is leading a bold grassroots campaign to keep nuclear waste from being imported into her country.
  • Corneille E.N. Ewango, a botanist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, risked his life to protect the Okapi Faunal Reserve from nearly a decade of civil war.
  • Rev. José Andrés Tamayo Cortez, a Catholic priest from Tegucigalpa, organized thousands of Hondurans to protest uncontrolled commercial logging in their country’s diverse forests.
  • Stephanie Danielle Roth, a French and Swiss citizen, is leading a global campaign to stop a vast proposed gold mine in Romania, organizing large-scale protests and taking on the World Bank.
  • Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of Haiti has spent more than three decades promoting sustainable agriculture in his country, despite several assassination attempts and a series of death threats.
  • Isidro Baldenegro López of Chihuahua, Mexico, has brought international attention to the ravages of logging and drug trafficking in the Sierra Madre of Mexico.

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