The 2014 Goldman Prize, which at $175,000 the biggest environmental award for grassroots activism, was given on Earth Day to six leaders for their inspirational efforts, often at great personal risk.
Clockwise from the upper left, the winners are Desmond D’Sa (Africa), Helen Slottje (North America), Ramesh Agrawal (Asia), Rudi Putra (Islands & Island Nations), Ruth Buendia (South & Central America), Suren Gazaryan (Europe).
•Helen Slottje: A pro bono attorney, she discovered a clause in the New York state constitution that gives towns the right and power to make local land-use decisions, and then helped more than 170 municipalities to pass local bans on fracking despite great pressure from oil companies and threats from their backers.
As she says, “Fracking is great for Wall Street but it doesn’t create real wealth. We all pay for fracking by letting industry foul our clean air, our clean water and our food-producing soils in the name of profit-mongering.”
•Suren Gazaryan: This expert on bats and caves led many campaigns against illegal use by Russian leaders of protected forests along the Black Sea coast near the Olympic city of Sochi, activities which forced him to leave his native land.
He is in favor of social networks as opposed to Russia’s controlled media as a way to get reliable information. “That is how people started to talk about the land issue and their outrage that their leaders were violating environmental laws.”
•Ramesh Agrawal: He organized local villagers and they persevered to shut down one of the largest coal mines proposed in central India.
Why? Because “air pollution is so thick it’s visible to the naked eye. As a result, asthma, skin disease, heart disease and stomach disorders run rampant, and premature death is common,” he says.
•Desmond D’Sa: He rallied disenfranchised residents of Durban’s notorious “cancer valley”--named for the high incidence of leukemia—to shut a large toxic waste site that exposed them to dangerous chemicals.
He adds, “At times the school would close because of the high level of toxic fumes that would blow into the schoolyard.”
•Ruth Buendia: She united the Ashaninka people in their fight, yet again, against large dams that would provide water to Brazil but give nothing to indigenous people in Peru--an illegal pact because the government must consult with local natives on development projects in
She was only 12 when Shining Path guerrillas invaded, killing her father and thousands of her tribespeople. This time, following her return home, Buendía went to international courts to stop the dam. She says, “There was no conflict. We just used their laws that they were not applying.”
•Rudi Putra: This biologist protected the habitat of the endangered Sumatra rhino by dismantling the illegal palm oil plantations that caused massive deforestation.
“The Sumatran rhino is the symbol of our struggle to conserve the (Aceh) ecosystem...Without the forest, we will lose not only the rhino, we will lose the Aceh people,” he notes.