The winners of the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize show you don’t have to be a celebrity or politician to make a change. The award, commonly called the Nobel Prize for the environment, recently recognized six inspiring individuals, ranging in age from 32 to 83, who have labored for environmental justice in their various communities. Read their stories after the jump.
Rodrigue Katembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the oldest national park in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it’s still been targeted by oil companies. Central sector warden Rodrigue Katembo, 41, faced down threats when London-based SOCO International pursued oil drilling in Block V of the park. He worked to expose their illegal activities, amassing evidence over a three-year period; in the process he was arrested and tortured in 2013, two days after he refused to allow SOCO officials to work inside the park as they lacked legal authorization. He appeared in the 2014 documentary Virunga, which Leonardo DiCaprio executive produced and helped turn public opinion against SOCO. They were accused of funding violence and bribery and withdrew in late 2015; Katembo now fights illegal coltan extraction in Upemba National Park.
Uroš Macerl, 48, has been fighting air pollution in his town of Trbovlje, Slovenia for over a decade. He took over his family’s farm in his twenties, but due to environmental degradation couldn’t grow fruit on the land and raised sheep instead. Then French company Lafarge Cement (now Switzerland-based LafargeHolcim after a 2015 merger) took over a cement kiln in Trbovlje in 2002. Macerl began filing legal complaints after Lafarge applied to incinerate petcoke and industrial waste at their facilities, and found out the government had fast tracked Lafarge’s permits without environmental assessments. So he went to the European Commission. Around five years later the European Commission Inspectorate finally shuttered Lafarge’s activities in Trbvolje, but the fight isn’t over – the company keeps applying for permits and according to Goldman Environmental Prize Slovenian government members are trying to change laws to overlook environmental standards. Macerl continues the battle as president of community organization Eko Krog, or Eco Circle.
Wendy Bowman, Australia
83-year-old Wendy Bowman is a sixth-generation farmer in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Bowman has watched coal mining sprawl across the region, with the support of the NSW government, for decades. She began Minewatch NSW in the early 1990’s to gather information and put the government’s technical statements into understandable language. In 2010 Chinese company Yancoal aimed to expand a mine to Bowman’s 650-acre farm, and she said no. With the Hunter Environment Lobby, she filed a lawsuit and the court said Yancoal could move forward only if they owned the land. Yancoal continues to try and appeal. According to Goldman Environmental Prize, 16.5 million tons of coal have not been mined thanks to Bowman’s determination, and she continues to speak out against coal mining in her community.
mark! Lopez, 32, earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz before returning to his hometown in East Los Angeles. There he fought against a neighborhood battery smelter which released arsenic and lead into the community. A 2016 analysis from California’s Department of Public Health found children living near the smelter, owned by Georgia-based Exide Technologies, had higher levels of lead in their blood than children who didn’t live nearby, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. And that’s after Exide finally closed the recycling plant in 2015. That small victory wasn’t enough for Lopez, who’d worked to mobilize the community with the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ). He wanted Exide to pay for cleanup. Last year California Governor Jerry Brown approved $176 million for cleanup and further lead testing – Lopez thinks contamination could have crept further than the 1.7 mile radius tested. Now Executive Director at EYCEJ, Lopez continues to push for safe cleanup and justice.
Rodrigo Tot, Guatemala
The Q’eqchi people dwell in the Guatemalan highlands, but the land of the Agua Caliente community and other Q’eqchi communities is under threat from corporations who wish to expand the Fenix Project, a nickel mine. First owned by the government, the mine was sold to Canadian company HudBay Minerals, who later sold it to Switzerland-based Solway Investment Group. Security forces for the mine have attempted to evict people, burned houses, and raped women. Agua Caliente community leader Rodrigo Tot, 57, who has labored since 1972 to obtain land titles for his people, worked with the Indian Law Resource Center and Defensoría Q’eqchi in a legal battle to secure official recognition of Q’eqchi ownership, and the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, ruled in their favor in 2011. But the government hasn’t enforced the ruling. In 2012 one of Tot’s sons was killed and another injured in what looked like a staged robbery. Tot continues to fight for the health of his community with a watch group that has held back security forces. Mining has contaminated Lake Izabal, a source of water and food for locals, with toxic metals like cadmium and chromium.
Prafulla Samantara, India
In India, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) and London-based Vedanta Resources reached an agreement on a $2 billion bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills. But they didn’t inform the indigenous Dongria Kondh people, who reside in the hills – along with many endangered species – and hold the land sacred. Odisha native and activist Prafulla Samantara, 65, found out about it. In the face of harassment from state police and Vedanta personnel, he organized the people in non-violent demonstrations and filed a petition with the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court. The legal battle went on for a dozen years, but in 2013 the Supreme Court determined Dongria Kondh village councils should make the decision about Niyamgiri Hills mining. Each of the 12 councils unanimously voted against the mine. OMC petitioned the outcome but the Supreme Court denied them in 2016. According to Goldman Environmental Prize, the case established a precedent in India that village councils should determine mining activities in their localities.
Images courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize