The Power of Activism: how Goldman Prize winners have inspired change across the world

Author: Simone Walter

About the Author: Simone joined the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice after serving as an Agro-business Advisor in Madagascar with the United States Peace Corps. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Environmental Sciences and Policy at Johns Hopkins University.

I met Pablo Fajardo Mendoza in 2009 while we were both working with Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW). Pablo came to ELAW to obtain legal assistance for his case in the Ecuadorian Amazon against a large industrial oil company, which at the time was one of the largest environmental legal battles in history.

He was the first Goldman Environmental Prize recipient that I have had the honor of meeting.

Pablo Fajardo Mendoza, 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient for Central and South America (Ecuador) with Ouroboros statue.

Pablo Fajardo Mendoza, 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient for Central and South America (Ecuador) with Ouroboros statue.

Known as the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental activists, the Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded annually to grassroots change agents from each of the world’s six inhabited continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island nations, North America, and South & Central America.

Pablo’s English was improving; my Spanish was still pretty bad. But, as we worked alongside each other, I became fascinated by his story. How does a person have the resiliency, against all odds, to defend their community and their environment?

On the 18th of April 2016, another six individuals joined Pablo in being named Goldman Environmental Prize recipients.

Pablo, with his unwavering commitment to protecting the environment and defending communities devastated by inequitable development, is a beacon of environmental justice.

But so is Máxima Acuña – a subsistence farmer, who has withstood ongoing lawsuits, brutal assaults, and violent eviction attempts by peacefully protesting against the construction of a mine on her land in the northern Peruvian highlands. And Leng Ouch – an attorney who surmounted great personal risk by going undercover to expose the illegal logging practices of corrupt tycoons that were robbing rural Cambodian communities of their livelihoods.

(left to right; top to bottom) Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Destiny Watford, Edward Loure, Leng Ouch, Máxima Acuña, Zuzana Caputova [Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental] Foundation

[left to right; top to bottom] Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Destiny Watford, Edward Loure, Leng Ouch, Máxima Acuña, Zuzana Caputova

While some Prize recipients have faced direct, visible danger, all of them have had to fight against laws and systems that do not protect those who are most burdened by environmental harms and most vulnerable to those risks. Like Edward Loure who works to empower Tanzania’s indigenous pastoral and hunter-gatherer communities by securing their legal rights to land and environmental stewardship. Or Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera who led a 15-year campaign to gain federal protection for the Puerto Rican Northeast Ecological Corridor, which is a critical nesting ground for the endangered leatherback sea turtle. As well as Zuzana Caputova, an attorney for the only public interest environmental law organization in Slovakia, who established a legal precedent by successfully campaigning to shut down the landfills that were poisoning her community.

I once thought that these types of stories were confined to places outside of the United States in countries where political strife was commonplace and environmental protection was not legally codified. What I learned from the Goldman Reception, which is hosted annually by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is that these types of stories occur just a few miles away from where I live. Like in south Baltimore, where Destiny Watford, who began working in high school with her community to fight against plans to build the nation’s largest waste incinerator in their backyard.

I often think people would prefer to ignore the reality of these environmental injustices, but many do not have that privilege. Across the globe, communities are struggling to make their voices heard as decisions are being made that will directly impact their access to a clean and healthy environment.

Yet, frequently I wonder: but what can I do?

2016 Goldman Environmental Prize Reception, San Francisco CA

2016 Goldman Environmental Prize Reception [18 April 2016 – San Francisco, California]

What I have learned from Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and these amazing activists is that believing that you do not have the capacity to inspire change is the quickest way to give away your power. The Goldman Prize recipients have demonstrated that each of us has the power to enact positive change for our communities and for our shared environment. Their work and their stories point to the heart of why environmental justice – its inclusion of community voices, its focus on impacts to those most vulnerable, its consideration of local priorities and needs – has been and remains such a priority for us here at EPA.  And why it is incumbent upon all of us to hear these voices and remember their stories as we work to further environmental justice in all that we do.

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