The Six Winners of the 'Green Nobel' for Grassroots Activism

The six winners of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prizes threw monkey wrenches into a planned coal mine in India, a toxic waste dump in South Africa, and a large-scale dam in Peru, to name a few. The activists will receive $150,000 each, and an internationally recognized nod.

This is the 25th year for the Goldman Prizes, which are sometimes referred to as the Nobel for environmental activists, and the largest awards of their kind. The prizes divvy up around a million a year among six recipients, one for each inhabited continental region—Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The awards go to individual activists who go to great lengths to protect the environment, often at their own personal risk. 

By emphasizing grassroots leaders, the prizes reward people who work with local communities, organizing citizen participation to protect against environmental threats. Winners are often in remote or indigenous communities, so the prize is decidedly not meant for big NGO directors or political leaders, for example.

Here’s who won this year:

Desmond D’Sa organized the poor, industrial communities of south Durban in South Africa against a toxic waste plant that was planning expansion, instead prompting the plant to shut down completely. During the process, his home was firebombed, and he still lives under threat of violence. 

 

  • Ramesh Agrawal worked out of an Internet cafe to organize villagers against a new coal plant in India. Agrawal has done ongoing work as a watchdog for rural communities facing environmental threats from industry, and his latest campaign led a coal company’s permits to be revoked, stopping construction. Agrawal, 60, has been shot and jailed as a result of his activism.
  • Suren Gazaryan is a zoologist and bat expert who ran multiple campaigns to prevent illegal development off the Black Sea coast in Russia. He used social media and protests to expose government corruption, facing risk of imprisonment.
  • Rudi Putra is protecting the rain forests of Indonesia and the endangered Sumatran rhino, by targeting palm oil plantations that are rapidly wiping out acreage of the biodiverse habitats. His work helped dismantle more than 1,200 acres of illegal plantations.
  • Helen Slottje works with towns in New York State to pass local bans on fracking, offering pro bono legal aid as communities struggle to defend themselves against an overzealous oil and gas industry. More than 170 towns and cities in the state have passed bans based on Slottje’s legal framework. 
  • Ruth Buendia organized the Ashaninka communities in Peru to fight a massive dam that was planned without consulting the indigenous people in the region. Buendia worked with the group CARE to rally communities and draw attention among international leaders.

 

You can see that most of the prizes involve indigenous or minority communities that are typically lacking in political power or have been disenfranchised. Goldman also tends to fund activists living under governments that, at the higher level, have been negligent or corrupt when it comes to enforcing laws. 

Since the prizes have been awarded, a handful of issues have received attention. In descending order, based on the number of prizes given: oil and mining, forests, sustainable development, toxic and nuclear contamination, environmental policy, rivers and dams, wildlife, marine conservation and land conservation. 

The Prize is a project of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, a San Francisco-based funder that shut down in 2012 with the passing of its main donor. There are some legacy grants, but otherwise the couple’s three surviving children have taken over its philanthropy. The Prize doesn’t accept unsolicited nominations, but a list of nominators can be found here

Learn more about the Goldman Environmental Prize here.