The winners (left to right): Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, Yu Xiaogang, Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva, Anne Kajir, Olya Melen, and Craig Williams.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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Though the connection between people and their surroundings is undeniable — a serving of clean air, anyone? — defense of the environment is still sometimes considered antisocial behavior. But this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists, belie that pesky stereotype.

Whether they defend wide-open spaces or stick up for communities threatened by dams, these activists say they draw their strength and energy from other people. They credit their seemingly unshakable courage to their mentors and colleagues, to those they represent in court, and to those who depend on the places they fight for. “I just like seeing people happy, you know?” says Anne Kajir, an attorney in Papua New Guinea who defends indigenous landowners against the ravages of illegal logging. “So it basically gives me the kicks every time the landowners smile and say, ‘Thank you.'”

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Read about Goldman prizewinners from 2005, 2004, and 2003.

Kajir and her fellow honorees can now enjoy a more public brand of gratitude, thanks to the Goldman Prize. Established in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman — he founded Goldman Insurance Services in San Francisco, and she was a descendant of jeans maker Levi Strauss — the prize gives each winner $125,000 and a splash of international attention. Winners represent every major region of the world — Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South and Central America, and island nations — and are nominated each year by environmental organizations. This year’s six winners were honored in a ceremony in San Francisco on April 24.

This week, Grist talks to the 2006 Goldman winners:

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  • Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of Liberia collected and exposed evidence that President Charles Taylor used proceeds from illegal logging to further a brutal civil war.
  • Yu Xiaogang of China formed a watershed protection program along the Mekong River to help dam-ravaged communities improve their lives and publicize their experiences.
  • Olya Melen, a young attorney from Ukraine, faced down a battalion of government lawyers in her fight against a proposed canal project in the Danube Delta.
  • Anne Kajir, a lawyer from Papua New Guinea, defends indigenous landowners against widespread illegal logging.
  • Craig Williams, a cabinetmaker from the U.S., founded a coalition that successfully opposed the Pentagon’s plans to incinerate stockpiles of chemical weapons, and convinced the Army to adopt cleaner, safer disposal methods.
  • Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva of Brazil works in some of the most remote regions of the Amazon Basin, documenting and protesting illegal logging and other threats to the forest and its people.