Indigenous activists among Goldman environmental prize winners

·5 min read

Indigenous activists and lawyers who took on transnational corporations and their own governments to force climate action are among the 2022 winners of the world’s pre-eminent environmental award.

Taking on powerful vested interests is a risky business, and the recipients of this year’s Goldman prize demonstrate the power of unified community action, perseverance and the courts in the battle to save the planet from environmental collapse.

The winners include a former fossil fuel insider turned climate entrepreneur who harnessed public participation and a pioneering legal strategy to successfully sue the Dutch government for failing to protect its citizens from the climate crisis. The historic victory led by 55-year-old Marjan Minnesma obliged the Netherlands to start slashing greenhouse gas emissions, triggering similar lawsuits across the world.

The African winner, an environmental lawyer from Nigeria, also has a Dutch connection. It took almost two decades for Chima Williams, 52, to secure a ruling in The Hague that finally holds Royal Dutch Shell accountable for oil spills by its subsidiary that caused widespread ecological, social and economic damage in the Niger Delta.

None of the winners succeeded alone. Rather they worked with those affected, neighbours, and colleagues to defend their communities, and in doing so created legal precedents and policies that go some way to shielding citizens from corporate greed and political failures.

In Latin America, the joint winners are Alex Lucitante, 29 and Alexandra Narváez, 30, who spearheaded an Indigenous movement to protect the Cofán people’s ancestral territory from goldmining. This grassroots campaign resulted in a legal victory in October 2018 when Ecuador’s courts cancelled 52 goldmining concessions that had been granted illegally without the community’s consent – saving 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) of pristine, biodiverse rainforest considered sacred by the Cofán.

The case relied on evidence gathered by forest patrols, camera traps, GIS tools and drones organised by the community and their allies. Narváez was the first woman to join La Guardia, the territorial forest patrol, a move that challenged traditional patriarchal beliefs and inspired other women to take an active role in the struggle.

“As women we have to defend Mother Earth, to speak out for the future of our children and defend our way of life in spite of the machismo and being afraid. It’s been beautiful to be part of this struggle with other women from my community,” Narvarez said.

The victory set a precedent in Ecuador, where the constitutional court is using the case as an example of how to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples and guarantee free, prior and informed consent.

Latin America is the most dangerous place in the world for defending land and environmental rights, as governments systematically violate Indigenous people’s right to be consulted – a right laid out in the legally binding Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

The 2015 Goldman prize winner Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca leader from Honduras, was murdered less than a year later for leading a campaign to stop an internationally financed hydroelectric dam illegally sanctioned without consultation.

The other Goldman winners include a retired teacher from Thailand who empowered fishers and farmers to stop a Chinese-led canal project that threatened Asia’s most biodiverse river, and an American student whose campaign to shut down toxic urban drilling led to Los Angeles banning all new oil projects and committing to phasing out existing sites by 2030.

Niwat Roykaew helped turn villagers who depend on the Mekong river for food, medicine, irrigation and spiritual nourishment into citizen scientists and citizen journalists to alert the world to the threats posed by the canal blasting project. It forced the Thai government to cancel a major deal, a rare win in the region where environmentally destructive megaprojects are hard to stop.

“The Mekong is like a mother to us, she gives us everything we need,” said Roykaew, who is in his early 60s. “It’s important to inform and empower the powerless so they know as citizens they have the right to ask questions and oppose multimillion-dollar projects by big countries.”

As fossil fuel companies continue to bet against climate action and boast of record profits, the community-led victory in Los Angeles, one of America’s most oil-friendly polluted cities, shows what’s possible.

Nalleli Cobo joined the community’s fight to shut down an oilwell when she was just nine years old after she and other children started falling sick. With her mother, Cobo knocked on doors, filed complaints, attended rallies and testified at town hall meetings about the chronic headaches, nosebleeds, and body spasms she suffered.

In 2015 she co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, which successfully sued the city for environmental racism – specifically for disproportionately permitting oil drilling in Latino and Black communities. As a result, city officials last year voted to phase out existing oil projects. This was seen as a huge victory, as about 580,000 residents currently live within a quarter of a mile of an active well.

Cobo, who has survived gruelling surgery and chemotherapy since being diagnosed with cancer aged 19, said: “I kept fighting because no child should be denied the right to play outside or open windows like I was. It’s powerful to know that we, an invisible community, made this change.”

Cobo, now 21, is studying political science at university, and plans to run for US president in 2036.

The Goldman prize was founded in 1989, since when 213 grassroots environmental activists from 93 nations have been honoured.