Indigenous activists and lawyers who have opposed transnational corporations and their own governments to force climate action are among the 2022 winners of the world’s top environmental award.
Accepting powerful self-interest is a risky business, and this year’s Goldman Award recipients demonstrate the power of unified community action, determination, and the courts in the fight to save the planet from environmental collapse.
The winners include a former fossil fuel turned climate entrepreneur who took advantage of public participation and a pioneering legal strategy to successfully sue the Dutch government for failing to protect its citizens from the climate crisis. The historic victory led by 55-year-old Marjan Minnesma has forced the Netherlands to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions, triggering similar processes around the world.
The African winner, an environmental lawyer from Nigeria, also has a Dutch league. It took almost two decades for Chima Williams, 52, to secure a verdict in The Hague, which ultimately blames Royal Dutch Shell for its subsidiary’s oil pollution, which has caused extensive environmental, social and economic damage in the Nigerian Delta.
None of the winners succeeded alone. Rather, they have worked with those affected, neighbors and colleagues to defend their communities, and in doing so have created legal precedents and policies that go some way to shielding citizens from corporate greed and political failures.
In Latin America, the common winners are Alex Lucitante, 29, and Alexandra Narváez, 30, who led an indigenous movement to protect the ancestral territory of the Cofán people from gold mining. This popular campaign resulted in a legal victory in October 2018 when Ecuadorian courts overturned 52 gold mining concessions that were granted illegally without the consent of the community – saving 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) of untouched, biodiverse rainforest considered sacred by the Cofán.
The case relied on evidence gathered from forest patrols, camera traps, GIS tools and drones organized by the community and their allies. Narváez was the first woman to join La Guardia, the territorial forest patrol, a move that challenged traditional patriarchal beliefs and inspired other women to take an active role in the struggle.
“As women we must defend Mother Earth, talk about the future of our children and defend our way of life in spite of machismo and fear. It was great to be a part of this struggle with other women in my community, ”said Narvarez.
The victory set a precedent in Ecuador, where the constitutional court uses the case as an example of how to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples and to guarantee free, prior and informed consent.
Latin America is the most dangerous place in the world to defend land and environmental rights, as governments systematically violate the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted – a right enshrined in the legally binding Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
The 2015 Goldman Award winner Berta Cáceres, Honduran native Lenca leader, was assassinated less than a year later for leading a campaign to end an internationally funded hydroelectric dam illegally sanctioned without consultation.
The other Goldman winners include a retired teacher from Thailand, who empowered fishermen and farmers to stop a China-led canal project that threatened Asia’s most biodiverse river, and an American. student whose campaign to stop toxic urban drilling has led to Los Angeles banning all new oil projects and committing to the removal of existing sites by 2030.
Niwat Roykaew has helped turn Mekong River-dependent villagers for food, medicine, irrigation and spiritual food into citizen scientists and citizen journalists to alert the world to the threats posed by the canal blast project. It has forced the Thai government to cancel a major deal, a rare victory in a region where environmentally destructive megaprojects are difficult to stop.
“Mekong is like a mother to us, she gives us everything we need,” said Roykaew, who is in her early ’60s. “It is important to inform and empower the powerless so that they know as citizens that they have the right to question and oppose multimillion-dollar projects in large countries.”
As fossil fuel companies continue to do betting on climate action and brag about record profitsthe community-led victory in Los Angeles, one of the most oil-friendly polluted cities in the United States, shows what is possible.
Nalleli Cobo joined the community’s fight to close an oil well when she was just nine years old after she and other children became ill. With her mother, Cobo knocked on doors, filed complaints, attended rallies, and testified at city hall meetings about the chronic headaches, nosebleeds, and body spasms she suffered.
In 2015, she co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, which successfully sued the city for environmental racism – specifically to disproportionately allow oil drilling in Latin American and black communities. As a result, city officials voted last year to phase out existing oil projects. That was seen as a huge victory, as about 580,000 residents currently live within a quarter of a mile of an active well.
Cobo, who has undergone strenuous surgery and chemotherapy since he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19, said: “I continue to fight because no child should be denied the right to play outside or open windows as I was. an invisible community, has made this change. ”
Cobo, now 21st, is studying political science at university, and plans to run for US president in 2036.
The Goldman Award was founded in 1989, when 213 grassroots environmental activists from 93 nations were honored.