Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Clockwise from top left: Destiny Watford (U.S./Maryland); Leng Ouch (Asia/Cambodia); Edward Loure (Africa/Tanzania); Máxima Acuña (Central and South America/Peru); Zuzana Caputova (Europe/Slovakia); Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera (Islands and Island Nations/Puerto Rico). (Photos: Courtesy Goldman Environmental Foundation)

These Six Environmental Heroes are Changing the World. Find Out How.

This year's Goldman Environmental Prize winners hail from Baltimore, Cambodia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Slovakia, and Tanzania

Deirdre Fulton

A young woman from inner city Baltimore; a Cambodian anti-logging activist; a subsistence farmer in Peru's northern highlands; a grassroots Indigenous organizer in Tanzania; a Slovakian public interest lawyer; and a conservationist advocating for the endangered leatherback sea turtle in Puerto Rico.

These are the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winners—honored as heroes for their work protecting and enhancing the natural environment, often at great personal risk.

Established in 1989 by the late San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman and his wife, Rhoda, the prize is awarded annually; this year's ceremony will be live-streamed here starting at 5:30pm PDT Monday.

Among the 2016 recipients is 20-year-old environmental justice warrior Destiny Watford, who inspired residents of her heavily industrialized Baltimore neighborhood to defeat plans to build the nation's largest incinerator less than a mile away from two public schools. 

Now a college student at Towson University, Watford was just a senior in high school when she learned about the proposed plant, which would have burned 4,000  tons of trash—brought in from outside the city—every day. Organizing with the student-led group Free Your Voice, Watford and fellow students hit the streets, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing protests, and circulating petitions.

According to the Goldman committee:

A huge breakthrough moment came when Watford and Free Your Voice students discovered that Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), along with other city government agencies and local nonprofits, had signed an agreement to purchase energy from the incinerator. In May 2014, Watford and her fellow students attended a school board meeting to urge them to divest from the project. Destiny gave a compelling presentation, students showcased art and music performances, and parents joined in with testimonies of support. They brought board members to tour Curtis Bay and the proposed incinerator site.

In February 2015, in response to concerns from students and their families, the BCPS board voted to terminate its contract with Energy Answers, the incinerator’s developer. By the fall of that year, all 22 customers canceled their contracts, leaving the incinerator with no market for its product. The victory marked a moment of rebirth for Curtis Bay residents who finally felt that their voices were heard and that their health and lives mattered.

Public interest lawyer and mother of two, Zuzana Caputova, of Slovakia, was also recognized for her work fighting a waste dump, this one in Pezinok, the vineyard town in western Slovakia where she was born and raised. 

Caputova's organizing, which the Goldman committee describes as "the largest mobilization of citizens since the 1989 Velvet Revolution," successfully galvanized peaceful protests and increased civic engagement, "inspiring citizens in the country to stand up for their rights to a clean and safe environment." In 2013, the Slovakian Supreme Court withdrew permission for a new dumpsite to begin operating in Pezinok, and ordered a decrepit dumpsite to shut down.

Also receiving the prize this year is Leng Ouch, 42, who went undercover in Cambodia to gather evidence of illegal logging activities, posing as a laborer, timber dealer, driver, tourist, and even as a cook. The resulting footage, which he publicly released, revealed the illegal logging practices of the country's biggest timber magnate, and exposed criminal collusion between timber companies and government officials at all levels of power.

As the Goldman committee points out, "Ouch's outspoken criticism of the government put him at enormous risk, in a country where environmental activism is dangerous—sometimes even deadly. Chut Wutty, an environmental activist and Ouch’s former colleague, was brutally murdered in 2012; last November, a park ranger and police officer were gunned down while patrolling forests for illegal logging and poaching. Ouch has had to go into hiding at various times, and his family has been intimidated by military police."

But Ouch has persevered—and his work goes on. While the government, in response to public outcry, has canceled 23 land concessions covering 220,000 acres of forest, Ouch's goal is to stop the issuance of any more forest clearing licenses and to return the land to its rightful owners. 

Common Dreams wrote about another of this year's prize recipients, Indigenous Peruvian farmworker Máxima Acuña, when she won a legal victory in 2014.

Acuña, 47, has for years fought legal and physical attempts by a mining company and its militarized security contractors to evict her from a plot of land she and her husband bought in 1994.

"I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure," Acuña told New Internationalist Magazine in 2012. "From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals!"

"Yet," she continued, "are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?"

In 2014, a Peruvian appeals court struck down a lawsuit levied by the Yanacocha mine—which is 51 percent owned by Colorado's Newmont Mining Corporation—that had sought to expel and imprison the family for "invading" their own land. It was, as Common Dreams wrote at the time, "an important win in a case that has become a rallying point for local resistance to multinational plunder."

However, the Goldman committee notes, Acuña "continues to face threats and harassment."

"The mining company has built a fence around Acuña's land, restricting her ability to move about freely," the committee reports. "They have destroyed her potato crops, and maintain a close watch on her property to prevent her from planting more."

Learn more about Goldman winner Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera in this video:

Meanwhile, the work of pioneering prizewinner Edward Loure is explored below: 

Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in March, was a Goldman Prize winner just last year.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·


'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo