While they may draw the biggest headlines, companies deciding on new emissions goals or governments voluntarily pursuing small changes to climate policies rarely tell the whole story. The most consequential environmental wins are often the work of grassroots activists who push for those changes. Each year, the Goldman Environmental Prize honors six such activists from the world’s six inhabited continental regions: Africa; Asia; Europe; Islands and Island Nations; North America; and South and Central America.
Awarded annually since 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize winners have seemingly no shortage of environmental atrocities to fight. This year, they fought the construction of coal plants, protected acres of rain forest with a new national park, and more. The 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winners are:
Sharon Lavigne, from the U.S., stopped the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana, that would have produced 1 million pounds of hazardous liquid waste each year. Lavigne, 68, testified at council meetings, led protests, hosted town halls, and wrote letters to newspapers to oppose the plant’s construction, and in September 2019, the company withdrew its land use application.
Kimiko Hirata, from Japan, prevented the construction of 13 new coal power plants, which would have emitted a combined 1.6 billion tons of CO2 over their lifetimes. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011 put a stop to its nuclear energy program, Japan turned to coal. Hirata, 50, set up a website to track proposed coal plants, conducted reports about their potential effects with Greenpeace and the Carbon Tracker, and launched national and international campaigns against the plants. In 2019, 13 planned plants were canceled.
Liz Chicaje Churay, from Peru, led Indigenous communities to protect more than 2 million acres of Amazon rain forest with a new national park. Chicaje Churay, 38, and her partners worked with government officials, conservationists, and scientists to advocate for and plan the park, and traveled to remote areas to get community support. In January 2018, Peru’s government announced the creation of Yaguas National Park, which is roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, from Malawi, pushed her government to ban thin plastics. In 2015, Malawi was set to enact a plastic ban, but the Malawi Plastics Manufacturing Association appealed and halted it. Majiga-Kamoto, 30, formed a coalition of activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to push for the ban, debated plastics industry representatives about their claims that the ban would cost jobs, and petitioned the courts. In July 2019, the court enforced the ban of plastics equal to or less than 60 microns in thickness, and in early 2020, shuttered three companies illegally producing thin plastics.
Thai Van Nguyen, from Vietnam, rescued 1,540 endangered pangolins from illegal wildlife trade between 2014 and 2020. Nguyen, 39, had seen a mother and baby pangolin killed as a child. As an adult, he founded Save Vietnam’s Wildlife to recover threatened species, established a pangolin rehabilitation center, and created Vietnam’s first-ever anti-poaching unit, comanaged by a local government and NGO. Illegal poaching is now down 80%.
Maida Bilal, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, led a 503-day blockade to protect one of Europe’s last free-flowing rivers from being dammed. In 2016, construction was approved for two hydropower plants on the the Kruščica river, the main water source for about 145,000 people. Bulldozers needed to cross a bridge to get to the dam site, so Bilal, 39, led a group of mostly women from her village to block it. The blockade lasted 503 days while Bilal also worked with NGOs and got a lawyer to challenge the permits. In December 2018, the regional court canceled all environmental and construction permits for the dam, and the bridge was renamed “Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica.”