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Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitante

Alexandra Narvaez and Holger Quenamá conduct a patrol on the Aguarico River in Ecuador. Narvaez, along with Alex Lucitante, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize on May 25, 2022 for their work protecting their people's ancestral territory from gold mining (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Goldman Prize Awarded to Activists Who Showed Nature's 'Amazing Capability to Regenerate'

"While the many challenges before us can feel daunting, and at times make us lose faith, these seven leaders give us a reason for hope and remind us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity."

Julia Conley

Campaigners who have stopped illegal gold mining in Ecuador, shut down a toxic oil drilling site in Los Angeles, pushed Australia's largest banks to stop funding coal projects, and held a powerful fossil fuel company to account for disastrous oil spills in Nigeria are among the recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2022, which is being awarded Wednesday.

The award ceremony is being held virtually in light of the pandemic and will honor seven grassroots campaigners representing each of the world's six inhabited continents, with each winner awarded $200,000.

"While the many challenges before us can feel daunting, and at times make us lose faith, these seven leaders give us a reason for hope and remind us what can be accomplished in the face of adversity," said Jennifer Goldman Wallis, vice president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez will receive an award for their work in Ecuador, where they began leading a forest patrol in 2017 to protect the ancestral land of the Cofán people from illegal activities.

The campaigners found that the Ecuadorian government had issued dozens of mining concessions to gold mining interests in Cofán territory without the consent of the Indigenous people. They led their community in filing a lawsuit which resulted in a landmark legal victory, with the provincial court canceling the concessions.

"All Indigenous people and nationalities won," Narvaez told the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which began honoring grassroots leaders in 1989. "So this represents a historic moment for all."

Chima Williams of Nigeria was awarded the prize for Africa this year for his work representing two communities to hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for numerous oil spills and environmental damage.

"This is the first time a Dutch transnational corporation has been held accountable for the violations of its subsidiary in another country, opening Shell to legal action from communities across Nigeria devastated by the company’s disregard for environmental safety," according to the foundation.

"When AllenCo was permanently shut down I remember feeling at peace in a way, that I knew that nobody in my community was gonna be breathing those toxic emissions anymore."

Niwat Roykaew of Thailand is being honored for his advocacy pushing for the termination of a China-led rapids blasting project in the Upper Mekong River, which would have destroyed 248 miles of the river in the interest of transforming it into a "giant highway" for Chinese cargo ships, harming its ecosystem.

Roykaew, also known as Kru Thi, is a former teacher who boat demonstrations and petition drives against the project, engaging with local fishermen and villagers and eventually delivering a petition to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.

"By February 2020, their sustained advocacy generated so much resistance from civil society, scientists, and academics that the government was compelled to formally abandon the Mekong rapids blasting project," said the foundation. "The official cancellation of the Mekong rapids blasting project marks a rare, formal win in a region facing substantial pressure from development projects and is a testament to the collective power of Kru Thi's campaign."

In North America, Nalleli Cobo of Los Angeles is being honored for her "tireless organizing" over a decade, which led to the permanent closure of a drilling site run by AllenCo Energy as well as criminal charges against two dozen executives for environmental health and safety violations.

Cobo, who is now 20, began going door-to-door in her neighborhood in 2011 to warn the community about the dangers of oil extraction and document health issues among her neighbors. Cobo herself endured headaches, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations while growing up across the street from AllenCo's site and was diagnosed with cancer at age 19, a diagnosis which left her unable to have biological children.

In addition to getting the site shut down in 2020, Cobo co-founded a group which successfully sued the city of Los Angeles over environmental racism, paving the way for city- and countywide policy changes regarding oil extraction.

"When AllenCo was permanently shut down I remember feeling at peace in a way, that I knew that nobody in my community was gonna be breathing those toxic emissions anymore. That's historic," Cobo told the foundation.

In Australia, Julien Vincent is being awarded the Goldman Prize for his grassroots campaign which forced the country's four largest banks to commit to end funding for coal projects by 2030 and its major insurance companies to stop underwriting such projects.

Vincent founded Market Forces in 2013 "to combat climate change by targeting the financial levers that enable the extraction, refining, and export of coal and other fossil fuels."

The group organized "divestment days" across the country, with bank customers closing their accounts at pro-coal banks en masse.

"Julien and his colleagues have transformed the landscape of coal investment in Australia—with four major banks and three insurers ending new investment in coal—creating a drought of capital for new projects," the foundation said. "By cutting off funding for coal from major banks and coverage from insurers, his activism has Australia's coal industry reeling."

Marjan Minnesma of the Netherlands will also receive the prize for pioneering an innovative legal strategy to force the Dutch government to enact measures to mitigate the climate crisis.

With her organization, Urgenda, Minnesma argued in a lawsuit the government had a "duty of care" to protect the people of the Netherlands and that it was abdicating its legal responsibility by failing to commit to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Urgenda achieved a major victory in 2015 when the Hague's district court ruled that the government had breached its duty of care. The ruling was appealed but in 2019, the country's Supreme Court upheld the earlier decision and ordered officials to cut emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

The ruling was “the strongest decision ever issued by any court in the world on climate change, and the only one that has actually ordered reductions in greenhouse gas emissions based on constitutional grounds," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

"The prize winners show us that nature has the amazing capability to regenerate if given the opportunity," said Wallis. "Let us all feel inspired to channel their victories into regenerating our own spirit and act to protect our planet for future generations."


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