Six courageous female eco-activists were recognised as “grassroots environmental heroes” at this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize.
The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world’s most prestigious award for eco-activists – and this year, there were more women winners than ever before.
The results of the 2018 Goldman prize were announced in San Francisco on Sunday (22 April), otherwise known as Earth Day. Five of the six winning slots were taken by women, including a US activist who spearheaded opposition to the Flint water crisis, a French marine environmentalist and an Afro-Colombian community leader who led women on a 350-mile march to protest illegal mining. One man, Filipino anti-lead activist Manny Calonzo, was also recognised.
Established in 1989 by the San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Goldman prize is bestowed annually upon “grassroots environmental heroes”.
Read more about the inspiring activists recognised in this year’s awards below.
LeeAnne Walters, US
LeeAnne Walters is one of the activists who helped expose the water contamination scandal in Flint, Michigan, prompting widespread conversations about how environmental issues intersect with racism and poverty.
In 2014, the mother-of-four noticed that the tap water in her home was turning brown. Soon after, her three-year-old twins developed rashes on their bodies, and their hair began to fall out in clumps. After spending months researching Flint’s water system, Walters joined forces with environmental engineer Dr Marc Edwards to conduct water testing across the city.
They discovered dangerously high levels of lead in the city’s water, contamination that was traced to the fact that the city had begun to draw its water supply from the Flint River. This move was intended to save money, but had devastating environmental and health consequences for the predominantly black population of the city.
As a result of Walters’ activism, the local, state and federal government were forced to take action to ensure that Flint residents had access to clean water, but the effects of the water crisis are still felt today.
The Goldman prize jurors praised her “inquisitive, persistent and logical mind”, adding: “Her communal spirit and powerful moral compass proved equally critical to her ability to reach and organise Flint residents and experts alike.”
Claire Nouvian, France
A former investigative journalist, Claire Nouvian’s journey into marine activism began in 2001 while researching deep-sea life for a story. She was horrified to discover the devastating effect industrial fishing was having on marine life, and was particularly concerned about the impact of deep-sea fishing trawlers, which drag heavy nets across the ocean floor and crush sea life in the process.
“Deep-sea bottom trawling applies the most destructive fishing to the most fragile ecosystem,” Nouvian told The Guardian ahead of the Goldman award ceremony. “The seafloor has intricate features that form over years, like cities. Bottom trawling wipes it out.”
In 2005, Nouvian founded the non-profit organisation Bloom Association, which works to preserve the marine environment and species from unnecessary destruction and to improve the social benefits of the fishing sector. The organisation’s first big victory came in 2012, when it won a legal battle and public awareness campaign against a French supermarket chain that claimed its fishing practices posed no harm to the marine environment, despite relying on deep-sea bottom trawling.
Francia Márquez, Colombia
Like LeeAnne Walters, Francia Márquez also spearheaded a campaign centred on the issue of water contamination. In 2014, illegal gold miners began operating in her home region of La Toma in Colombia’s southwest Cauca Mountains, home to 250,000 Afro-Colombians. The miners’ actions had a devastating effect on the local environment: forests were cleared, and mercury and cyanide – used to extract gold from dirt – were dumped into the Ovejas River, killing fish and contaminating the community’s only fresh water source.
Márquez was already an established activist within the Afro-Colombian community when the miners arrived in La Toma. At 13, she had campaigned against the construction of a dam; as an adult, she incorporated traditional music and dance into her political resistance, educated farmers on sustainable agricultural techniques, and fought for the environmental and ancestral rights of Afro-Colombians.
When she heard about the havoc that illegal gold mining was wreaking in La Toma, Márquez returned to the area from university in Santiago – where she is currently studying law – and began organising the women in the community. In November 2014, she led 80 women on a 10-day, 350-mile march from the Cauca Mountains to the Colombian capital of Bogota. Once there, they spent 22 days protesting on the street.
As a result of their actions, the government agreed to eradicate illegal mining in La Toma. By the end of 2016, all illegal miners and equipment had been removed from the region.
The Goldman prize organisers praised Márquez for overcoming “sexism, racism and corruption to lead La Toma’s struggle”, adding that “[her] success in La Toma has been a powerful example for others in the region, inspiring residents to resist illegal mining in their communities”.
Khanh Nguy Thi, Vietnam
Vietnam’s electricity needs have been growing by around 12% per year for the last 10 years. In 2011, the Vietnamese government began relying on coal and nuclear power to meet its future energy needs, and announced it would need to produce 75,000 megawatts of coal-fired power by 2030. A Harvard University study published in 2015 said that around 20,000 citizens per year would die as a result of air pollution if all of the government’s proposed coal plants were built.
That’s where Khanh Nguy Thi stepped in. The founder of Vietnam’s Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID), she grew up near a coal plant and had seen first-hand how pollution affected the health of people in her community. Disturbed by the government’s plans to rely heavily on coal, she set out to produce an alternative, more sustainable energy plan based on sustainable sources.
As a consequence of Khanh’s work, the government announced in 2016 that it would be reducing its number of planned coal plants. It also said it would be incorporating her recommendations for increasing renewable energy – including wind, solar and biomass – into its energy plan for 2030.
Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, South Africa
In April 2017, the South African high court outlawed a deal that would allow the country to buy 10 nuclear power stations from Russia at a cost of almost £59billion (1tn rand). The court’s decision was the result of a five-year legal battle led by Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, who successfully argued that then-President Jacob Zuma had arranged the deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin without properly consulting parliament.
The two women began working together in 2009 when they joined Earthlife, a group that aims to get more women involved in energy and climate policy-making. Both had previously been active in the anti-apartheid struggles of the Eighties – McDaid in Cape Town and Lekalakala in Soweto – before turning their attention to environmental activism.
Both also see environmentalism as going hand-in-hand with issues of racial fairness and equality. Since the Eighties, nuclear waste from South Africa’s one power station has been buried in the Namaqualand desert, without consultation with the indigenous Nama people who live there.
“It is poor black women who are most affected but it is rich white men making all the decisions,” Lekalakala told The Guardian. She added that she and McDaid had been harassed and intimidated thanks to their campaign against the government’s nuclear plans, but their background in the anti-apartheid movement meant they were used to standing firm.
“It is important that this campaign is led by women. We are getting this [Goldman] prize because we really sacrificed ourselves by putting our names on the line,” she said. “Others were s**t-scared. But we’ve been through so much that we were willing to take the risk.”
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Images: Getty Images / Goldman Environmental Prize