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Mark Simon | Photo: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize | May 2, 2019
Recognizing frontline grassroots activism, San Francisco’s homegrown Goldman Environmental Prize has a global impact.
In the 30 years since San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman founded the Goldman Environmental Prize (or simply, the Goldman Prize)—widely considered the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize—it has been awarded to 188 individuals in 87 countries for their wide-ranging, often dangerous, even life-threatening activism, from fighting to stop a dam, ending deforestation and protecting an ocean reef to confronting toxic dumping. The prize calls attention to the work of the grassroots activists battling large forces to solve small, local environmental issues that, in many ways, encapsulate irresolvable global crises—the people, in other words, embodying the environmental mantra “Think globally; act locally.”
Environmental issues facing the world are not small; they are as monumental as the massive void that recently appeared beneath Antarctic ice. In response, Goldman Prize winners say winning the prestigious award magnifies their work, expands their reach and leads to international networks of like-minded advocates. Winning also can force recalcitrant governments to pay attention and to respond. Several prizewinners—as well as the Goldmans’ progeny, who now carry on the legacy of their parents—say doing something is better than doing nothing. Or as one put it, one less plastic straw is still one less plastic straw.
Six new Goldman Prize winners will be announced at a ceremony at the War Memorial Opera House April 29, a week after Earth Day; a second ceremony in Washington, D.C., will follow May 1. The winners will be introduced in a video narrated by noted environmental advocate Robert Redford. Past winners, meanwhile, will welcome the new awardees into their fraternity—a fellowship of individuals who fully understand and support one another.
One such advocate is Hilton Kelley, who grew up in the West Side neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas, home to two oil refineries, four petrochemical plants, a toxic incinerator facility and the area’s sewer treatment plant. Home for a visit, Kelley saw a once-vibrant community dying. The air seemed worse. Cancer rates were among the highest in the state. He returned home for a brief vacation and stayed to fight for clean air and clean water. Through community outreach and advocacy, Kelley forced Motiva to alter its expansion plans to include state-of-the-art emissions-reduction equipment and negotiated a “good neighbor” agreement in which the company would provide health coverage for West Side residents and allocate $3.5 million to restore the community’s business environment. Then Kelley led a campaign to block Veolia from bringing more than 20,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, a type of chemical compound, from Mexico to a Port Arthur incineration plant. In 2011, he was awarded the Goldman Prize in the environmental justice category. “I like to think that I’m part of a global movement,” says Kelley. “By all of us working together to reduce emissions in our respective cities, states, countries, globally, we are uniting around this issue. … This fight is not for one man or one woman or one group or one nation. This fight is a global fight, and we all will benefit or we all will perish.”
On the Isle of Arran in Scotland, veteran divers Howard Wood and Don MacNeish founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust in 1995 and began a campaign to undo generations of damage done to the local bay due to industrial overfishing and the practice of plowing the seabed with scallop dredges. In 2008, the Scottish government established the country’s first No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay and, in 2014, announced 30 new marine protected areas, including the South Arran Sea. In 2015, Wood was awarded the Goldman Prize for Europe in the category of oceans and coasts. “A lot of time, it felt like we were bashing our heads against brick walls—against very long-established and very well-entrenched views, and the way management of the seas had been done for a long time,” says Wood. The Goldman Prize “brought a huge amount of publicity at an absolutely perfect time,” he adds. “It meant that the politicians and minister making the decision… were more ambitious than they thought they were going to be.”
Jean Wiener, also a 2015 Goldman Prize winner, saw the negative effects of unsustainable fishing practices and widespread harvesting of mangrove forests in Haiti and decided that “we really need to do something,” he says. Wiener started the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity and began educating local villagers on the economic promise of environmentally sound fishing and protection of the mangroves. Over the next 20-plus years, Haiti, despite a notoriously unstable government, established its first marine protected areas on the island’s southwestern and northeastern coasts. “It is extremely discouraging at times. The political, economic and social issues in Haiti are massive and are getting a lot worse,” says Wiener. “You just keep plodding through, knowing you are making a difference in people’s lives. … In the end, it’s all the little actions that are going to count, even if you undertake a global strategy.”
The poor rural communities of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia had become a dumping ground for industrial toxins produced during the Soviet era. The multigenerational threat of these deadly chemicals prompted Olga Speranskaya, a researcher at the Institute of Oceanology in Moscow, to redirect her career in 1997. The 2009 Goldman Prize winner for pollution and waste formed a citizen-based network that transformed the nongovernmental organizations of the region into effective and persistent advocates for international standards governing and directing cleanup. “This is not easy, and it is not safe,” says Speranskaya. “Our concern is that, at any time, our particular organization can be named foreign agents—people who work against the government, which is not true.”
The 2010 winner of the Goldman Prize for South and Central America in the category of wildlife protection, Randall Arauz, works to protect sea turtles and sharks from fin poaching in Costa Rica. “Working in the oceans is not a turtle problem; it’s not a shark problem; it’s not a seabird problem—it’s a global problem,” he says. “The issues are so vast; you have to choose your battles. You can’t do everything… so do something.”
Nat Quansah, who reintroduced the use of native medicinal plants to the denuded forests of Madagascar, received his Goldman Prize in 2000 for forests. “It wasn’t until I was in the thick of it that it dawned on me I was taking on a huge challenge. There is no turning back,” he wrote in an email. “The micro leads to the macro. The local leads to the global. We shouldn’t belittle, disrespect or disregard the individual. Each one’s role is important.”
The individual missions of Goldman Prize winners may differ, but that of the prize itself is largely unchanged since Richard and Rhoda Goldman first mulled the idea of a grassroots award for environmental activists in December 1988 when they discovered none existed. The murder of Chico Mendes (also in December 1988), who had been fighting to stop the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989 crystallized its intent. The first awards ceremony was on Earth Day 1990, and the prize quickly grew in stature.
In electing to focus not on famous names, but on the unsung efforts of environmental activists with the hope of gaining publicity and credibility, says Duane Silverstein, former Goldman Environmental Foundation executive director, the organization generated publicity and credibility beyond all expectations. The awards ceremony now draws more than 4,000 attendees, and prizewinners have formed their own network.
The only significant unanticipated change is that the Goldman Environmental Foundation’s platform of support has grown to include grant drafting, networking, legal assistance and any security that comes from publicity. It doesn’t always work. In 2016, Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres, who, for years, was threatened for her work to block a dam project, was assassinated in her Honduras home. In 2017, Isidro Baldenegro López, a prizewinner in 2005 for his work opposing deforestation in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, was murdered. “We used to think awarding the prize and giving public recognition would inoculate our prizewinners from challenges in their home countries, but we are finding more and more, it’s often very dangerous work,” says Susan Gelman, president of the board of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, serving with her brothers, John and Doug Goldman.
The three Goldmans also serve on the jury that selects the prizewinners, but the fact that the jurors with extensive backgrounds and expertise in environmental sciences and advocacy outnumber them is by design. “We didn’t want to be in an echo chamber talking only to ourselves,” says John, who shares a sense of pragmatism with his brother. “Those who announce they’re going to wipe out hunger or some other issue—there is just hubris involved in that,” echoes Doug. “We never said that we’re going to fix the world environmentally. We’re just trying to make a dent”—making a dent by focusing on prizewinners. “We’re not solving these intractable problems,” John further explains. “We raise awareness; we put a light on what an individual can do. … These truly are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
What the next 30 years will bring largely hinges on what issues are pressing, and, observes Gelman, we don’t know if the urgency of the current environmental problems will be resolved.
“The solution to climate change is not something philanthropy can adequately address,” she says. “It’s really only a challenge that can be addressed on an international, governmental level, which is why the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord is so problematic. … What we at the Goldman Environmental Prize are doing is continuing to raise awareness and trying to convince the public this is the 11 ½-hour, if we haven’t lost the opportunity to stop the clock.”
Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley