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Lessons from the Goldman Prize Winners
Last night I attended my sixth Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, and I was once again refreshed and inspired. Inspired by the individual stories of sacrifice and determination. Inspired by the conviction that against the odds, change can happen. And inspired by knowing that there are so many of us in the Bay Area who are working for and celebrating grassroots environmental activism at the global scale.
One of the things that really stood out to me this year was how each of the winners placed their work in the context of their community. From the group of indigenous women led by Mama Aleta in West Timor who held a year-long weaving protest against mining, to the Marsh Arabs who first breached the levies in Iraq who inspired Azzam Alwash to restore their marshes, to the Italian townspeople who rallied behind a schoolteacher named Rossano Ercolini to end the burning of garbage, each recipient emphasized how this award was not theirs alone. While I know that it’s these personal stories that inspire me and countless others who were there last night, I take comfort in the knowledge that even though I may never be the one recognized for my achievements on that stage, true leaders know the importance of and appreciate the roles that each of us play to help make change happen on a massive scale.
Every one of the six winners last night endeared themselves to me. They each seem like the kind of person you want to be friends with – not because they’re now famous, but because they’re kind, ordinary people who’ve inspired others to help them do extraordinary things. I will admit, though, that one recipient stood out for me. I was lucky enough to meet Azzam Alwash when he stopped by our office last Friday to meet with our Executive Director Jason Rainey. I was even able to give him a copy of the December 2008 World Rivers Review with an article I wrote during my first year at International Rivers about Azzam and his work to restore the Iraqi Marshlands. His success in restoring so much of the Marshlands in a climate of war and uncertainty is truly inspiring. But after so much success, the Iraqi Marshlands are under new threat from the 23 proposed dams along the Turkey-Syria border that would cut off a vital flow of water. One of these dams – the Ilisu, proposed on the Tigris River in Turkey – is part of a short film to be released on Friday, called Damocracy. The film tells the story of the fight to stop the Ilisu Dam in Turkish Mesopotamia and the Belo Monte Dam – one of our biggest campaigns – in the Brazilian Amazon. You can watch the trailer for Damocracy here. This intrinsic linking of how a dam upstream in Turkey could threaten the restoration of these historic marshes downstream in Iraq, and how the environmentally, socially and culturally destructive practices of dam building in Turkey are the same practices used in dam building in Brazil – and in fact, in most of the world where big dams are still being built – is exactly why International Rivers has been building this global movement of people working to protect their rivers and ensure they have a voice in development decisions for 28 years.
I took away many lessons from the Goldman Award winners last night. First is that while change often requires leaders – people who stand out from a crowd and have some indefinable quality that inspires the rest of us to action – by definition, a leader needs followers, and that’s where we come in. And second, just like a dam in Turkey can affect marshlands in Iraq and the dam building practices in Brazil, that everything we do to counter these destructive development practices is also connected. Kim Wasserman’s success in shutting down two dirty coal plants in Chicago could help inspire the people trying to protect their children in Richmond, CA from the Chevron oil refinery pollution. Jonathon Deal’s campaign to stop fracking in South Africa could have repercussions for the thousands of people around the US and the world who are working to show the true environmental and social costs of this risky practice and pushing their governments to ban it. Nohra Padilla’s successful organizing of recyclers in Colombia could inspire the Walmart employees who have been waging organizing campaigns of their own. But my favorite quote of the night came from Rossano Ercolini, who ended his speech by saying "we need to link up the Zero Waste Movement (to reduce municipal waste) with the Zero Kilometers Movement (in support of eating locally-grown food) with the Zero Emissions Movement (for sustainable energy)". That’s the kind of future I’m working for.