Who Wins the "Nobel Prize of Environmentalism" and Why?

The San Francisco-based Goldman Fund may have closed its doors in 2012, but its signature program lives onthe Goldman Environmental Prize, and this year, it gave more than a million dollars in awards to environmentalists who shut down a polluting smelter in Kenya, blocked construction of dams in Myanmar and Honduras, established marine protected areas in Scotland and Haiti and even stopped the excavation of a gold mine.

Often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Environmentalism,” the Goldman Prizes have been awarded for 26 years. This year's cash awards for individuals were $175,000 each, a substantial increase from last year’s $150,000. That's big money for anyone slaving away in the nonprofit sector. But just how, exactly, does one win a Goldman Prize? 

Well, for one thing, this is a prize for grassroots activistsso you policy wonks can stop reading right here. For another, it's global in scope, so U.S. activists have competition worldwide. And that competition is stiff, because among other things, this prize "recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk." And, rest assured, being environmentalists in places like the Amazon is a lot scarier than in most parts of the United States.

Another thing: You can't apply for this prize. Winners are selected through a process that involves confidential nominations.

Let’s take a look at the 2015 winners for more insights as to who wins and why. 

A young, single mother, Phyllis Omido was hired to do community relations work for a smelter in Kenya. After putting together an environmental impact report, she learned that the plant was emitting lead fumes and emitting waste water that spilled into the streams that locals used to wash, cook and clean. Three months into her job, she learned that her breast milk was making her baby boy ill from lead poisoning. Her medical bills proved insurmountable, but rather than accept reimbursement as the price for her silence, she quit her job and began cleaning houses to make ends meet. After learning that she wasn’t the only mother with a sick child, she encouraged other locals to get their blood tested discovering that her boy wasn’t the only one so afflicted. The lead poisoning uncovered was so extreme that she founded the Center of Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA).

Armed with hard data showing that local lead levels jumped 10 fold from the time the plant was opened, she asked the government to shut down the plant. She led peaceful street protests that resulted in her arrest and a brutal beating one night by anonymous thugs. Undaunted, she ramped up the pressure through a letter writing campaign that eventually shut the smelter down. Her efforts continue, as she’s holding the Kenyan government responsible for cleanup.

Journalist Myint Zaw launched a national movement in Myanmar to forestall construction of the Myitsone Dam, a 6,000 megawatt hydro-electric project planned by a Chinese state-owned dam developer. The project would have uprooted 18,000 people from four dozen villages, flooding their traditional lands and devastating the area’s biodiversity, while most of the electricity generated by the dam would flow back to China. The dam’s ultimate fate will be decided by Myanmar’s incoming president, with the elections scheduled for November 2015.

In Scotland, Howard Wood launched a 12-year campaign to fight commercial overfishing. His activism led to Scotland’s first No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay, and the country’s first and only community-developed Marine Protected Area in South Arran giving citizens their first real voice in restoring their fishery.

In Haiti, a nation afflicted by poverty and political uncertainty, Jean Wiener managed to rouse his fellow citizens to establish that country’s first Marine Protected Area by using his skills as an educator to teach Haitians to see the long-term value in sustainably managing fisheries and mangrove forests.

A former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation in Canada, Marilyn Baptiste led her community in an effort to block the duplicitously named New Prosperity Mine that threatened to destroyed Fish Lake, a source of livelihood for her people.

Despite her arrest on trumped-up firearms charges in Honduras, Berta Cáceres managed to rally the indigenous Lenca people to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River by the Chinese state firm SYNOHIDRO.

As you may have noticed, there's not a single American in that mix. And, more to the point, these folks took on some huge fights in countries that don't yet have strong environmental regulations. In a way, it looks like the Goldman Environmental Prize is seeking out the Rachel Carsons of the developing world—those working on the frontier of new environmental movements.