Good Deeds, Unpunished

At the recent Goldman Awards, great work is rewarded


On April 14, I was fortunate enough to attend the 19th annual Goldman Environmental Awards ceremony. Loyal readers may recall a column from November 2007 that focused on San Francisco&–based philanthropist Richard Goldman, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the millions of dollars their foundation gives away annually to a plethora of environmental causes both local and world-wide. At the time, I was offered a ticket to attend this invitation-only award ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House. I giddily accepted, and then just as quickly assumed that they would forget all about me. The Goldman Fund, however, did not forget, and as I was ushered into a private box overlooking the stage, I felt like a prize recipient myself.

The 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize is the world’s largest award of its kind, giving $150,000 to each recipient, as well as a level of recognition that these grassroots heroes deeply deserve. The intention of the prize is to honor “fearless grassroots leaders” who are willing to be an oppositional force against corporate and government interests while working to improve the environment and living conditions for people in their communities. This annual honor is given to activists from each of the world’s inhabited continental regions.

Before each winner took the stage, a short film, narrated by Robert Redford, told the story of the winner, what the winner has accomplished and why he or she deserves this honor. The films were impressive, not just because of the sweeping landscape shots and moving commentary, but because the short documentaries allowed viewers to feel part of a global community.

The first winner to take the stage was Ignace Schops of Belgium. Schops raised more than $90 million by bringing together private industry, regional governments and local stakeholders in order to establish Belgium’s first and only national park. “Martin Luther King never inspired others with ‘I have a nightmare,'” Schops said. “He inspired us with ‘I have a dream.'” Thus begins a moving testimony to the power of grassroots activism and to the importance of refusing to give up on the belief that positive change is not only possible but an inalienable right, something to be insisted upon.

From North America, the winner was Jesús León Santos, of Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca has become one of the world’s most highly eroded regions in the world. Santos has organized a land-renewal program that employs ancient indigenous farming practices to transform depleted soil into arable land. Santos gave one of the most impassioned political speeches of all the recipients. He spoke out against NAFTA and U.S. corn subsidies, blaming them for the drop in corn prices and farmers’ inability to sustain new strains of corn that demand fertilizers and pesticides the farmers cannot afford. The result has been mass migration out of the area, migration that Santos sees as an incalculable loss to his heritage and to his people.

Rosa Hilda Ramos, of Puerto Rico, who arrived onstage dressed stunningly in all red, has led the movement to protect the largest wetland ecosystem in the region. After the premature deaths of her parents, she took on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, demanding that they clean up their act, not just to save the wetlands but to save the people. “We took over the legislature with children in butterfly and dragonfly costumes,” Ramos said. “And guess what, no one was arrested!”

From Russia, Marina Rikhvanova spoke of her work to protect Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake. She is now spearheading the fight to keep a uranium enrichment center from being constructed just 50 miles away from Lake Baikal. She told of her son’s imprisonment, making it clear that by fighting the government, she is doing more than working long hours; there is risk involved as well.

South and Central America’s winners, Pablo Fajardo Mendoza and Luiz Yanza, two attorneys from Ecuador who are leading the largest environmental legal battle in history against Chevron, can relate to the danger to which Rikhvanova alludes. The attorneys and their families have been targets of death threats, intimidation and harassment. Yet they fight on, in an attempt to force Chevron to clean up a decimated area where the region’s 30,000 inhabitants drink and bathe in contaminated water, children and adults die of cancer at unprecedented rates, and billions of gallons of oil have been dumped into virtually every existing waterway.

This is an event intended to spread hope, however, not fear and despair, and none encapsulated this better than Africa’s winner, Feliciano dos Santos of Mozambique. Dos Santos, who uses music, outreach and technology to bring sanitation to remote villages, led us all in song. Though all 3,000 of us stumbled on the African words, we tried our best, and when dos Santos translated for us and told us that we have been singing “Wash your hands,” everyone laughed.

I believe that we laughed not because the message was silly, but because it’s wonderful to know that sometimes the answer can be something so simple, and so easy to sing.

To learn more about the Goldman Environmental Award recipients, visit