A Few Inspiring Facts About a Top Environmental Prize and the People It Honors

It’s a heartbreaking time in environmental activism, and not just because of the sharp right turn U.S. federal policy has taken. Within one year, two past winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize were murdered, among a rising number of killings of environmental activists worldwide. 

At the same time, there’s heightened attention on environmentalism as a battleground for human rights, and indigenous rights in particular. One of the most prominent programs for recognizing those on the ground in that battle is the Goldman Prize. Established in 1989, they’re awarded annually to one winner from each inhabited continental region, and back grassroots environmental activists.

People sometimes call the Goldman Prize the Nobel of environmentalism, but really, these awards stand on their own, given that they focus on types of work often overlooked in environmental philanthropy. Giving is too often top-heavy, flowing toward large NGOs and neglectful of underserved communities. By contrast, Goldman winners are frequently people from marginalized and oppressed communities, putting their livelihoods and even lives at risk to fight environmental degradation and health threats where they live. 

Related: The Goldman Winners Are Inspiring—Too Bad Such Bold and Diverse Work is Underfunded

This year, for example, winners include:

  • Wendy Bowman, an 83-year-old family farmer in Australia who went head to head with a mining company.
  • mark! Lopez, who fought for lead testing and cleanup in an East Los Angeles neighborhood near a battery smelter. 
  • Rodrigue Katembo went undercover to publicize corruption surrounding proposed oil drilling in Virunga National Park.

You can read more about all of the winners here

Here are a few reasons that the Goldman Prizes can identify such inspiring candidates, and why they’re so respected:

The nomination process is tailored to find inspiring individuals.

Every year, the Goldman Environmental Foundation takes nominations from about 20 approved organizations. The nominators are NGOs and networks working in a range of environmental arenas. That adds a layer of on-the-ground practitioners between the foundation and the nominees, which likely helps them avoid defaulting to the philanthropy and nonprofit in-crowd.

There are also rigorous criteria that direct eligibility, including prioritization of private citizens, grassroots activists and people who take on personal risk, rather than NGO executives and academics (no offense, folks). Philanthropic prizes sometimes pile appreciation on those who are already fairly prominent, while Goldman winners tend to be well respected, but less recognized. 

Winners receive support in addition to prize money.

Each Goldman winner takes home $175,000—not bad. There are also some other less concrete, but still vital ways that the foundation supports winners. For one, recipients who are under threat of violence or arrest can receive urgent grants for assistance, free legal aid, and public exposure to apply pressure. 

The publicity component also contributes to the recipient's success, as ongoing public outreach and media blitzes (case in point right here) draw attention to their work. There’s also a lot of interaction between winners and other activists, including a youth component that introduces young activists to the awardees. 

There’s opportunity for follow-up grants. 

One thing about awarding under-resourced grassroots activists—a single shot of support can be very helpful, but doesn't quite get the job done. Fortunately, starting in 2015, in collaboration with the SF Jewish Federation, Goldman has been giving program grants to past winners, toward capacity building or environmental campaigns.

As tragic as the deaths of Isidro Baldenegro López and Berta Cáceres are, the latest round of Goldman winners are inspiring in difficult times, and a reminder of the people around the world fighting hard for these issues. Environmentalists and green funders alike can learn a lot from them, and from the program that honors them.