Nearly a decade ago, as North Macedonia was preparing to join the European Union, its state-owned power utility, Elektrani na Makedonija (ELEM), proposed the construction of two massive hydropower plants with the intention of bringing the country’s share of clean energy up to par with the EU’s expectations.
But when Ana Colovic Lesoka got word of the proposal, she saw a flaw with the environmental benefits ELEM was claiming the plants would deliver. Yes, they would help Macedonia shift away from its reliance on coal and expensive energy imports. But hydropower, while a source of renewable energy, is often built out in ways that damage local water ecosystems. The project Colovic Lesoka learned of was one such example. ELEM wanted to build the hydropower facilities in the 280-square-mile Mavrovo National Park, which is one of Europe’s last truly natural environments, home to diverse species including wolves, bears, eagles, and the critically endangered Balkan lynx, of which there are only 40 left.
Colovic Lesoka, a biologist and the founder of the Eko-Svest Center for Environmental Research and Information, launched what would become the “Save Mavrovo” campaign in collaboration with other scientists and environmental activists. Through the campaign, she petitioned the North Macedonian government, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (which had agreed to fund the hydropower project), and the World Bank to shut down the project over concerns about habitat destruction. She also submitted a compliant to the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, which agreed with Colovic Lesoka’s assessment of the projects. The loans for the hydropower projects in Mavrovo were canceled in January 2017.
The destruction of natural habitats is one of the most pressing issues facing the planet today. Since 1970, human activity has resulted in the loss of 60% of the world’s species, and while concerns about biodiversity are often swallowed up in larger conversations around global stressors and climate change, researchers say that protecting the world’s diverse species and habitats is as important a task as limiting carbon emissions.
It’s encouraging, then, that Colovic Lesoka is one of six recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the leading award for grassroots environmental activists. “It’s validation that what I’ve been doing over the last eight years is moving in the right direction,” she says. And she’s not alone: All of her co-awardees also exerted considerable effort–often at great risk to themselves–to protect the natural environment.
Former teacher and activist Bayarjargal Agvaantseren identified a similar threat to the habitat of an endangered species in her home country of Mongolia. The South Gobi Desert, which spans southern Mongolia and northern China, is home to the second-largest wild population of snow leopards, of which only around 4,000 to 7,000 remain. But the desert is also a hotspot for growing coal, uranium, gas, copper, and gold mining interests. After learning of a plan to build out extensive mining operations in the Tost Mountains, along the western edge of the South Gobi province, Agvaantseren worked with advocates, the media, and local herding communities to launch a campaign to protect the leopards and the livelihoods of the herders, who work on the same land that the snow leopards inhabit as part of a balanced and diverse ecosystem. The leopards prey on herbivores that, unchecked, would overgraze the grass and flora that many small creatures call home, and that herders depend on for their work. Their presence is an indicator of the overall health of the environment. “Our biggest accomplishment was bringing so many different parties to this issue,” she says. In 2016, in response to her advocacy, the Mongolian parliament voted to designate the 1.8 million-acre span of the Tost Mountains as the country’s first and only protected snow leopard habitat. It’s difficult, Agvaantseren adds, when conservation efforts require combatting powerful economic interests, but she sees the work of protecting the long-term health of the environment as a matter of greater urgency than short-term economic gains.
Similar fights have played out across the world. In the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, marine conservationist Jacqueline Evans launched a five-year campaign to secure protected status for 125,000 square miles around the islands; the designation will protect the ocean ecosystems from overfishing and habitat destruction. Across the ocean in Vancouver, Washington, environmental advocate Linda Garcia worked to block the construction of a massive terminal that would facilitate the transport of 11 million gallons of crude oil each day from North Dakota’s Bakken shale throughout the Pacific Northwest. If it had been built, it would have been the largest oil terminal in North America, and would have transformed the region into a fossil-fuel corridor. In 2018, largely in response to Garcia’s activism, Washington’s governor denied the project’s permits.
In Liberia, environmental lawyer and human rights activist Alfred Brownell launched a campaign in 2012 to freeze the destruction of his home country’s rain forests–home to endangered species including pygmy hippopotamuses and tree pangolins–at the hands of palm oil companies. He successfully ensured a stop-work order against the main palm oil company. But the Ebola outbreak in 2014 threatened the country’s economy and the Liberian government began to agitate for the palm oil industry to expand to create jobs and investment. The controversy ultimately forced Brownell to flee the country, but the ban he instigated against the palm oil company still stands.
The Goldman Prize recognizes people who stand up against destructive interests to protect natural habitats. But every honoree is also working to protect human life on the planet. “Our natural ecosystems, whether we like it or not, are the source of all the resources we need to survive,” Colovic Lesoka says. Perhaps no honoree make that connection more overt than Alberto Curamil, a member of the indigenous Mapuche community in Chile’s Araucanía region. The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group, and their livelihood is linked with the health of the natural resources around them–especially water. They live off the land and naturally available resources, and when those are threatened or harmed, they feel the physical and cultural effects. “The way we see our struggle is it’s not just about biological systems or land rights, but it’s about all the elements that constitute the Mapuche people: the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees,” says Miguel Melin Pehuen, a member of the Mapuche people and a colleague of Curamil’s.
In 2015, during the height of a substantial drought, Chile’s minister of energy announced a new plan that included 40 hydroelectric projects in Araucanía’s rivers. The projects were designed without consulting the Mapuche, whose water supply and environment would be wrecked by the development, which would divert hundreds of million gallons of water from the rivers each day. Curamil and a broad coalition of supporters–from academics to NGO leaders to lawyers–that he organized launched a strategy to call attention to the impending destruction the project would create. Chilean law holds that indigenous communities must be consulted before projects that infringe on their lands are authorized, and on those grounds, Curamil succeeded in blocking the project, though his activism raised his profile in the country and he is currently in jail. He has been charged with armed robbery, but is fighting the charge, and sources say the imprisonment could have been orchestrated in response to his involvement with the opposition effort. (Pehuen and Curamil’s daughter received the prize on Curamil’s behalf).
All of the Goldman Prize winners took on enormous risks in carrying out the work that they are being honored for, and for many, the work is still ongoing, as threats to the habitats they’ve worked to protect are still pressing. It’s no simple feat to oppose projects advanced by powerful industries, often with the backing of the government. But what the winners also have in common is they were able to see past the enormity of the forces they were up against to a more fundamental issue: These project would harm natural resources and habitats that we, quite frankly, can’t afford to lose.
Especially for people living at a far remove from some of the world’s remaining natural ecosystems, the stakes for protecting them can seem low. And even for those who are witnessing the destruction of ecosystems around them, it can seem inevitable, or out of their hands. The Goldman Prize winners prove both wrong. They’d like to see people learn that their persistence can affect even seemingly untouchable powers like corporations and governments. And they’d like people, even those who live in cities or far from biologically diverse habitats, to gain a better understanding of just how dependent all of humankind is on these types of ecosystems, and how important it is to protect them. “If we mess with the balance of these ecosystems,” Colovic Lesoka says, “we risk losing everything.”